The NYT reports on a disgusting new phenomenon: people watching porn in public places. More:

An antipornography group, Morality in Media, has in recent months launched a “no porn on the plane” campaign, and has contacted most major airlines to argue that they should commit to policing what people watch.

The group took up the cause after its executive director, Dawn Hawkins, was on a flight in January and noticed a man in the row in front of her looking at images on his iPad of naked women whipping each other.

She complained to the flight attendant, who told her he was powerless to force the man to stop, she recalled. The man eventually turned off the images, but Ms. Hawkins continued to press him on why he was looking at those images in public.

She said a woman then came up to her and said, “Be quiet, nobody cares.”

“The fact of the matter is nobody did care,” Ms. Hawkins said. “I couldn’t believe people didn’t care that someone was watching pornography in public. I couldn’t believe society has come to this.”

For its part, Delta Air Lines says that it does not allow people to view “offensive content of any kind,” but also said that flight attendants are trained to make case-by-case assessments depending on circumstances and concerns of other passengers.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants said the issue is a bit of a “gray area,” handled case by case, adding that its members want to avoid offending passengers or playing the role of censors.

Oh, God forbid anybody be a censor!

The article sensibly points out that one difficulty here is that it’s hard to draw bright lines on this stuff. Hawkins of Morality in Media sees violent content in the same light as porn, but the group’s president says that violence has to be contextualized.

I like this man’s approach:

Some people choose to act as their own censor. Lewis Goldberg, 42, a partner in an investor relations firm in New York, occasionally watches shows like “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” on his iPad when he works out at the gym. But he fast-forwards through sexual or particularly violent scenes.

“There’s a woman jogging behind me on the treadmill and I don’t want her to fall off,” he said. “I’m bringing my media into a public space, and it’s part of my responsibility in a civil society.”

Even so, I don’t understand what is wrong with this culture. Do we now lack the moral sense and the moral confidence to say that it’s wrong to watch pornography in libraries, and in places where children and others may have no choice but to see those images? I mean, hell, we consider it intolerable that anybody might have to breathe secondhand smoke in public against their will, but we can’t bring ourselves to say that people have a right not to be exposed to hardcore porn in the public square.

The day my library allows this to happen is the day we cease using it. This is a particular challenge for many libraries. It was at the Dallas Central Library when we lived there — the porn, but also the habits of homeless people who hung out there all day. The Dallas alt-weekly wrote in 2003:

At libraries of all sizes, the Internet has opened up new avenues for street people, in some cases providing their only identity and stable place in the world, homeless advocates say. But it isn’t uncommon for “marginalized” patrons also to view graphic pornography, something that leads to the occasional confrontation with a librarian or report of a patron’s open fly and exposed penis. Some of those close to the issue say that all of the bad images and real-world street person encounters are calling the public library’s very mission into question in Dallas and elsewhere.

“The new user population, the new patrons as it were, is displacing the serious, the established, the kinds of patrons that the library is actually there to serve in the first place,” says Blaise Cronin, dean of the school of library and information science at Indiana University. “What seems to be happening in some institutions is that the library’s role or mission has been transmuted into that of a social welfare agency by default and that there is little those who are the public face of librarianship can do about it.”

You want to know why people withdraw from the public square? This is one reason. I remember back in the 1990s, when Universal’s CityWalk opened in Los Angeles, some cultural critics complained that the privatization of public space was a backwards move. (CityWalk was a wholly private space that mimics a public street. It’s open to anyone, but as a private space, the owners can exercise a lot more control over who has access to it.) I completely understand the concern here, but consider why a place like CityWalk would be created in the first place: the increasing uninhabitability of public spaces. Mind you, CityWalk emerged in LA in the days before Giuliani in NYC showed that the public spaces could be reclaimed.

Still, the point remains, and it also explains why in many cases, parents abandon public schools. I have mentioned in this space several times before my liberal Dallas public schoolteacher friend who ruefully concluded that he and his wife should put their daughter in private or parochial school, simply because the culture within the middle school where he taught was too toxic. His complaint was the open and aggressively sexual atmosphere among the kids at the school.

One of the most extraordinary essays I ever read was a piece from seven or eight years ago by the liberal writer and critic Jim Sleeper, about what he calls the pornification of the public square.  (That’s a PDF version; click the link, then scroll down a little bit and you’ll see it). Sleeper’s view is that both liberals and conservatives (the latter through their insufficiently critical stance on free markets) have brought about the contamination of the public square with pornographic themes and images. One of the effects is to destroy Eros and its life-giving powers, while at the same time opening the doors to its destructive powers. It’s a really intelligent essay from a smart liberal, and I hope you’ll read it.