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For the last week, Right-wing Twitter has waged civil war, with opposing conservative factions battling over whether the federal government can and should ban pornography on the internet, and if not, to what degree pornography may be regulated.

Every schism between conservatives ultimately boils down to the age-old intellectual battle between traditionalism vs. fusionism. If you went to college, traditional conservatism is probably what you most closely associate with conservatism: a strong social order founded in traditional morals, devotion to institutions, and aversion to rapid political change. This was the conservatism promoted by Russell Kirk in the mid-20th Century, and many traditional conservatives claim that it represents true conservatism today.

On the other side, we find fusionist conservatism, championed by Kirk’s contemporaries William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative publication National Review, alongside Frank Meyer and then-Senator Barry Goldwater. Fusionist conservatism “fuses” social conservatism’s devotion to traditional morals with libertarianism’s elevation of individual liberty, adopting the latter in public policy while limiting the former to personal advocacy. As such, fusionist conservatives called for even smaller government than their traditionalist counterparts without abandoning the public cries for a more moral society.

Though the rival camps clashed in the 1950s, fusionist conservatism emerged the dominant and accepted philosophical definition of conservatism in the latter half of the 20th Century, cemented by Ronald Reagan when he noted, “Libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism.”

Apparently, no one told the traditionalists — or the academics and media, for that matter. Despite the conservative rebranding, universities and journalists continued to frame conservatism as essentially a slow liberalism, progressively and begrudgingly growing the size of government. Over time, the traditionalist conservatives proved them right through an unwearying campaign to grow government in the name of conservative causes aimed at increasing public virtue, claiming the mantle of conservatism. Fusionism’s victory soon proved to be merely intellectual, while the practical ground consistently went to traditionalist advocates like Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and the Bushes, many of whom were merely progressives appealing to a marketable traditionalist base to grow government and enshrine a moral good — win-win.

All of this is to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While traditionalists and fusionists have engaged in civil war for the heart of conservatism this year, represented broadly by avatars Sohrab Amari and David French, respectively, shots fired again this week over the specific issue of whether the government has any role in promoting the common good through enforced virtue, specifically in the form of a ban of online pornography. In this micro-conflict, traditionalists have rallied behind Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, opposed primarily by Brad Polumbo of Washington Examiner. Polumbo is a libertarian, but recall that fusionists align with libertarians in most political issues, especially at the federal level (you may find some deviation the more local the government gets). Moreover, Polumbo agrees that children’s growing access to and use of porn is “concerning and disturbing.

On Monday, after a weekend of intense debate, Walsh published a rebuttal to what he dubbed “probably the strongest” arguments against his call for a ban on porn. Here, I will respond to some of the biggest leaps in logic and political follies Walsh brings up — a rebuttal to a rebuttal, if you will. To clarify my position from the outset, as a highly religious fusionist conservative, I believe that pornography is both pervasive and destructive, but unlike Walsh, I can care about two things at once. It is not the proper role of government to protect consenting adults from their own destructive behaviors. Where the behaviors involve subjects who are either not adults or not consenting, the government has the duty to protect such victims. As such, some regulation that will curb children’s access to pornography, for instance, may be entirely reasonable, as long as we do not unduly sacrifice the freedom of consenting adults.

Walsh begins his response with a zing that the backlash he has received was “entirely predictable,” presumably because Walsh apparently believes anyone who disagrees with him must be a porn addict. Lest anti-banners get high and mighty, Brad Polumbo has suggested the same for the other side. This line of ad hominem attack is vile and ugly no matter where you stand on this issue. Believe it or not, some people want you to be free to do things they disagree with, and others aren’t asking the government to nanny them. Reasonable people can disagree on this issue, and bad faith smears have no place in this dialogue. Moreover, people struggling with pornography (and sadly, there are many) can fall on other side of this issue.

Walsh so continuously conflates defense of the right to make porn with defense of porn itself that I have to wonder whether he remembers there is a difference between ministry and mandate. It’s also worth noting that the same government Walsh calls on to save us from pornography still hasn’t managed to define it. While I don’t begrudge many traditionalist conservatives their concern over a complicated issue, I can easily condemn Walsh’s adoption of the exact progressive arguments he mocks for a living.

For example, in response to a claim that much of children’s access to porn is a failure in parenting, Walsh tweeted, “Parents can’t possibly protect their children from porn at this point. All it takes is one friend with a phone or a laptop. The situation is too out of hand and porn is too ubiquitous. Either the state gets involved or we accept that kids will access this stuff. I don’t accept it.” If you replace “porn” with “gun violence” and “phone” or “laptop” with “AR-15” or “handgun,” and you have a classic Leftist argument to ban guns. And before you tell me that guns aren’t inherently bad or harmful, neither is sex. “But we have a right to keep arms, not a right to make porn.” Says who? Walsh assumes with no explanation that “there is no inherent human right to make porn,” but sex between consenting adults falls squarely within the liberty protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Is he seriously suggesting the government — federal or state — could impose an outright ban on sex? That’s absurd and clearly outside the scope of government. We are also free to point a camera at ourselves or others who consent. 

Or is it the money that concerns you? Outside of porn and prostitution, name one activity that only becomes illegal when you add money to the mix. IF any comes to mind, I guarantee it’s another sin crime. Stop using the government to implement the religious virtues you can’t convince people to follow voluntarily. But if you’re Matt Walsh, I guess we either stop griping about natural rights nonsense, or our children and society itself will be destroyed. That doesn’t sound like Left-speak at all, buddy. The more Walsh tweets that conservatism means legislating for the common good, the more I mourn the day Leftists wield the levers of power again and institute their own version of the common good with no recourse to stop them because the Matt Walshes of conservatism traded checks and balances for an iron fist they couldn’t contain.

Walsh claims parents are powerless, but the truth is that they’re careless. Back in My Day™, the computer was in a public area of the house, and our internet access was password protected, operated off the buddy system, and required ethernet cables hidden in my parents’ room. Most importantly, I didn’t get a smartphone until I was an adult. If we wanted porn, we couldn’t get it at home. Here, I think Walsh and I agree. But he seems to believe that parenting ends at the physical walls of your home. He bemoans that it only takes one friend with a phone or one minute on the computer at a friend’s house, and all is lost. Believe it or not, parents have a say over who their kids hang out with. Stop sending your kids to homes with little to no moral standards in place. Just like you wouldn’t send your child into a drug-infested neighborhood, you don’t have to let your kids hang out with morally bankrupt people.

Will that stop everything? Far from it. But this is nothing new. You will never be able to keep your kids completely insulated from evil, and if they are determined to satisfy their curiosity, they will. As a former librarian, I can testify that there is a ton of porn scattered throughout your city library. The best you can do is train your children with essential tools and wisdom and don’t exacerbate the problem by handing them an all-access porn machine to carry around in their pocket. To some, this might sound like common sense parenting. But to the all-knowing Matt Walsh, it means you secretly “don’t care about the corruption of children and the psychological and emotional damage this filth is doing to them.” Doesn’t sound like Left-speak at all.

Next, Walsh’s discussion of consent is as silly as it is uninformed. It’s true that many participants in porn are actually trafficked and do not consent to the sex acts depicted on screen; others are minors who cannot legally consent to any sexual acts. Maybe someday we can criminalize human trafficking and statutory rape. Oh wait.

As for not consenting to pornography being thrust upon you through ads and mailers, I think we can agree that that’s a serious problem. But first of all, it’s already illegal. Second, whereas I say, “Let’s punish obscene solicitations,” Wlash sees another opportunity to burn down the entire forest because a leaf blew into his yard. Pornographers also get around filters by not tagging their content appropriately. Not only could you make a case here for misrepresentation, but enforcing proper labelling would be better for everyone — unwitting browsers would be less likely to come across smut, and pornographers would increase their search engine optimization and get more clicks from willing patrons.

Further, we may be able to strengthen protections through requiring verification of age the same way we do for other adult activities online. The only two options I’m aware of are 1) to give porn sites identification via drivers license or social security number; or 2) to grant government ownership over every porn domain in order to redirect to a secure third-party verification window. I’ll readily dismiss the government-owned porn option, so that leaves us with giving private porn sites official documentation. This may frighten you, but consider how many times you have input your credit card number, and on how many websites. Usually, there’s no issue, and when there is, there’s legal recourse available. As I understand it, gambling sites already have similar systems in place. Can we agree on a point, or are we just gonna call each other names? I still disagree with Walsh about criminalizing consenting adults, but if those involved are neither adults nor consenting, the government needs to step in.

Walsh continues by demonstrating that he doesn’t understand what speech means in a legal context. While actions can be and often are speech (e.g. nodding your head, donating to a campaign, or burning a flag), sex generally is not speech and has no message attached to it. Thus, Walsh’s public masturbation example is totally inapplicable. As I have already shown (at least far more than Walsh has shown to the contrary), you have the liberty to engage in consensual sex. It has nothing to do with speech. But others also have the right not to have obscene images thrust upon them against their wishes, so while you have a right to consensual sex, you don’t have a right to public sex. If pornography is kept within the bounds already legally present, it’s not public because you have to opt into it. A porn site is not a sidewalk.

Although sex is not generally speech, pornography is. If you recoil at that thought, let’s take a step back. Pictures are undoubtedly speech. Films are undoubtedly speech. Even silent films are speech. Speech need not be verbal. Walsh, likely in good faith, both misrepresents the issue and demonstrates a fundamental failure to grasp its nuance when claims he “can think of no other form of speech that only becomes speech when a camera is there to record it.” Sex is not speech, and sex does not become speech when you record it. But the recording of sex is speech. I could easily provide dozens of similar examples. Football is not speech, but ESPN’s NFL broadcast — even without commentary — is speech. Standing in a room is not speech, but a picture of a person standing in a room is speech. It’s a pretty easy concept; I’m not encouraged by Walsh’s inability to understand.

Walsh’s final point about legislating morality is largely correct, if somewhat nitpicky over semantics. True, all laws are morally based. But when most people say you can’t legislate morality, I have found that they mean you can’t force people to behave morally. You can’t enforce virtue. You can keep people from harming others, and I’ve outlined several ways to accomplish that while respecting others’ individual liberty in this article. You can also be a force for good in your personal advocacy. I’ve discussed that as well. It’s possible to care about both individual liberty and a corrosive culture.

At the end of the day, that’s the truest form of conservatism to me — small government with a strong, voluntary social fabric. This isn’t a No True Scotsman thing — traditionalist conservatives are conservatives too. Matt Walsh is still a conservative, as are many who agree with his position. But I think there’s a better way and that Walsh’s camp treads dangerously when it adopts Leftist language and tactics in its conservative crusade. As Daily Wire founder Jeremy Boreing noted on Tuesday, “Conservatives like to quote Andrew Breitbart — politics is downstream of culture. But they seem to actually believe the opposite — that we can use government to force the culture back into conformity with our preferences. We cannot and we should not.”

None of us can wield the One Ring. If there’s anything conservatives lose better than a culture war, it’s the levers of power. If we don’t want the Left implementing its vision of the common good by fiat, we shouldn’t do it either.