Malice against Alice in cyber-land attack


Today Heretic TOC features a guest blog from Eric Tazelaar, a name that will be familiar to many here as a contributor of articles to NAMBLA’s website – which as many will also be aware by now has been under attack in the last couple of days from “hacktivists” along with numerous other sites engaging with attraction to minors. NAMBLA’s website now appears to be fully back in action and Eric has reacted very promptly with a piece on the theme of cyber-vigilantism. So well done, both NAMBLA and Eric! However, there is a danger that the site, or some of its functionality, may temporarily disappear again under further attack. Accordingly, Heretic TOC has accepted Eric’s invitation to run his article, which is also announced on the NAMBLA Homepage.

What prompted this spate of vigilantism was initially not NAMBLA, though, but the celebration of Alice Day on 25 April. As the Daily Dot preannounced on 24 April:

It’s Alice Day, a public “pedophile pride” day inspired by the relationship between the author Lewis Carroll and his young muse, Alice Liddell, for whom Alice in Wonderland was written. April 25 is supposedly the day in 1856 that Carroll met 4-year-old Alice, sparking a lifelong infatuation. In one pedophile’s own words, republished on a predator watchdog site, April 25 is a day to “rejoice in the gift of girllove and affirm the ideal so aptly typified by this special relationship.” In 2013, it’s also the day the hacker group Anonymous plans to bombard a long list of online targets with DDoS attacks, leaking suspects’ personal information and defacing their websites.

As it happens, yours truly personally had reason to be aware of the upcoming Alice Day this year, as Alicelovers magazine had scheduled the release of its second issue for that date and I had an article in press with it. The cyber-vigilantes, or rather cyber-vandals, have managed to screw up the release of the magazine, which should be available through a free PDF download via The Homepage looks OK but the download is not working at the moment, as I write. Anyway, let me take this opportunity to let you know, if you don’t already, that this is a beautifully produced magazine with good articles – and of course I hope you will feel this accolade can be applied to my own modest contribution (actually titled “A Modest Proposal”) when you are eventually able to download the mag.

But enough. With no further ado, here is Eric’s article, under the author’s own title:

Hipster Vigilantism and the New Populist Attack On Free Speech in the Internet Age

“Anonymous” the self-styled cyber-vigilante group, widely recognized by its use of Guy Fawkes masks to conceal members’ identities, has launched another flurry of DDOS (Distributed Denial Of Service) attacks to overload and thereby silence the websites of organizations which it identifies as “promoting paedophilia”. Several of those organisations targeted were NAMBLA and Boychat which suffered temporary website outages.

We were, once again, reminded of the self-righteous – if inchoate – rage which periodically bubbles to the surface in an effort to deny the rights of others to speak freely.

In the past, this atavistic fury would have taken the form of book burnings or, even earlier, the burning of people.

Today, it is expressed through the sabotage of complex computer networks and requires a modest level of technical expertise that is itself worn as a badge of honor by those who imagine themselves serving a societal good in their concerted efforts to silence others. A very public – and heroic – identification with that which is good and virtuous, as in every moral crusade of the past, is very much a driving force behind these contemporary mob rallies.

As the targets of these actions, we know, from years of experience, that those “hipster vigilantes” responsible for these “actions” are, invariably, almost studiously ignorant of our message and our mission as well as the actual danger our ideas pose to their mythological preconceptions. Their representation of our views and our motives are as scurrilous and distorted as any claims made by tabloid journalists or government agencies. But, of course, they would be.

Considering that most of them are young and grew up in the age of hysteria –  in other words, since the 1970’s – then we understand all too well why this is so.

As children and adolescents, they were spoon-fed a continuous diet of stranger danger, warnings of “bad touches”, alerts of missing children, and continuous surveillance by qualified adults while their permitted range-of-movement within which to explore life, love and humanity, shrank.

Theirs was a childhood informed by a continuous stream of missing children on milk cartons, indoctrination sessions led by alarmist teachers and earnest visiting policemen, hysterical t.v. news and the obsessive demands of parents that they remain within the ever-narrower boundaries which had come to define the limits of childhood and adolescence.

That all of these messages about strange men, in particular, were continuously delivered to them throughout their earliest years with an existential level of urgency makes it trivially easy to understand the levels of vehemence and intolerance our organizations – and our websites – now face.

Angry, destructive bands of crusaders, along with ever more oppressive laws are the result of a more than thirty-five year campaign to systematically suppress dissenting voices and contradicting evidence in order to fundamentally re-engineer society along strictly partisan – and paranoid – lines.

In this way morality, the perception of risk and reality itself have all been gradually, but dramatically, shifted over several generations while society feverishly wrung its hands, seemingly oblivious to the ongoing experiment in which it plays a starring role.

So, when we asked ourselves, many years ago, what the long-term effects would be of the sudden and astounding efflorescence of paranoia we were then witnessing, we now – finally – have our answer.

Back to TOC again. Some might be wondering whether Heretic TOC itself will come under cyber attack. Anything is possible, I suppose, but I imagine WordPress has defences to rival those of the Pentagon. Anyway, so far so good. Also, so far so good in terms of this current state of attacks remaining quite low key. Anonymous were probably hoping for a boost from huge coverage of their Alice Day campaign in the media, as happened following their spectacular (and much more pro-social) contribution to the Occupy Wall Street protest. It simply hasn’t happened. There have been a couple of articles, and that’s about it.  

News just received from our Irony Correspondent : Anonymous UK founder accused of rape at Occupy London camp.

A rearguard battle for evidence-based justice


Sentencing Council consults the public: that means YOU! Ring any bells? The topic did not make for the most memorable of blogs but it was on an important matter. This was back in December, just after an announcement from the Sentencing Council in the UK that under new draft guidelines sentences for rapists and other sex offenders in England and Wales “could become tougher”, in order “to recognise the long-term psychological harm they cause”.

A three-month public consultation period was announced on the proposals and Heretic TOC suggested that heretics here might like to respond. I don’t know if anyone else bothered but I certainly did, with a 7,000-word submission. That may sound quite lengthy but there were so many issues crying out for critical comment that 70,000 would not have done the task justice. An exercise in futility then? Possibly, although the Sunday Express was scandalized that I had been in a position to influence the Sentencing Council’s predecessor body in a similar exercise ten years ago.

My response this time was both general and specific. So far as the specifics go, I unsurprisingly focused on cases involving children, including indecent images. But I began with a general principle: that the starting point for sentencing should be based on the amount of harm caused, and that the assessment of any such harm should be grounded in scientific evidence, not in mere supposition or public sentiment. By contrast, the Sentencing Council claimed to take harm as their starting point, but instead of taking an objective view of the evidence their consultation document privileges the view of a wholly unrepresentative group of victims. I wrote:

It is stated that “The perspective of victims is central to the Council’s considerations” (p.5). So it should be, but unfortunately this is by no means entirely the case. There are indications that the Council’s guideline recommendations are being driven by an unrepresentative sample of victims. In particular, there is no visible representation at all, absolutely none, for the perspective of adults who, as children, experienced non-coerced sexual encounters with adults and continue to feel positive about such contacts. Is there a compelling reason why such people should even regard themselves as victims? Perhaps not, but in order to obtain a representative sample of whether and to what extent people are harmed by particular categories of offence, it is necessary to consider the whole range of possible responses from great harm through to great benefit. Harm and benefit (if any) need to be identified across this range and specified objectively; measurement of the nature and extent of these outcomes is necessary for a clear view of the issues. This is how a scientific approach to developing evidence-based policy would proceed.

As an example of good practice in this regard a retrospective study of the childhood sexual experiences of 501 women may be cited (Kilpatrick, 1986). The women were asked about their experiences when they were children with another person at least five years older than they were at the time. Questions were asked about their reactions of pleasure, participation, guilt, and conditions such as pressure or force. Response categories contained a full range of possibilities. For the pleasure variable, for instance, the possible response range was very unpleasant, unpleasant, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, pleasant, and very pleasant. At the end of the 13 major questions asked, an opportunity was given for respondents to write open-ended answers that more accurately explained the nature of their experiences (Kilpatrick 1992, pp.48-9).

Kilpatrick’s findings are open to question on the basis that the women were recruited from a series of convenience samples designed to exclude respondents from social agencies such as clinical or offender populations. The important point here, though, is not so much the results as the method i.e. the “full range” approach to assessing the long-term effects of the encounter as perceived by the younger party in adulthood. Nevertheless, one might note that Kilpatrick did indeed report significant positive as well as negative effects. Of the 448 women who had experiences, 28% retrospectively perceived the experiences as having both positive and negative effects on their lives, 27% perceived them as having primarily positive effects and 6% perceived them as having primarily negative effects (Kilpatrick, 1992, p.93).

I focused initially on Kilpatrick because her work is concisely relevant in terms both of its methods and results. Other names perhaps more well known to many heretics were then also brought into play, and I emphasized the well established (but little known outside academia) fact that in cases where coercion was not a factor, the greatest source of harm to children come not from the sexual incident or relationship but from society’s disastrous overreaction to its discovery. This iatrogenic harm, I was at pains to add, includes judicial harshness: children can be traumatized by being forced into giving evidence that betrays an adult partner and sends him to jail. And those who grow up refusing to regard themselves as victims can be victimized by being made to feel corrupted, or even callous. I used a recent example from the media to illustrate this:

Where there is willing involvement, as in the case of children’s willing engagement in …illegal sexual activities, psychological harm should not simply be assumed. Merely by being willing participants, the young people involved clearly demonstrate that they are not disturbed or distressed. What may cause them problems, though, is the aggressive expression of well meaning but misplaced “protective” sentiments: when public discourse, including judicial response, conveys to children the feeling that they really ought to feel disturbed and distressed, and that they must be damaged and corrupted if this is not the case, then harm may well begin to occur. A classic example of the pressure that may be exerted was to be seen recently when a national newspaper columnist chastised those “victims” who say they were not harmed by “abuse”. Deborah Orr wrote in The Guardian, “One still comes across the occasional person who will claim to have been sexually abused as a child without it doing them ‘any harm’. If you are able to dismiss the suffering of others so cavalierly, then I’m afraid that indeed you were harmed.” (Deborah Orr, Jimmy Savile played on our unwillingness to address sexual crime, The Guardian, 12 January 2013). Orr does not explain why simply reporting one’s own feelings necessarily entails dismissing those of other people, whether “cavalierly” or otherwise. Harm resulting from bombastic moralising of this kind will be maximised by fierce judicial treatment of the perpetrators and minimised by a calm, low key, approach that maintains a sense of proportion.

No doubt there will be many submissions calling for higher sentences, and as that is also the clearly expressed preliminary view of the Sentencing Council it is clear which side will win. However, my submission will not, I trust, be the only one recommending a strictly evidence-based approach; and in the UK, fortunately, the judiciary and its advisory bodies are not entirely deaf to reason. We can only hope that the inevitable rise in sentences will not be at the top end of the possibilities so far mooted.


Kilpatrick, Allie C.; Some Correlates of Women’s Childhood Sexual Experiences: A Retrospective Study, Journal of Sex Research 22:2, 221-242 (1986)

Kilpatrick, Allie C. ; Long-Range Effects of Child and Adolescent Sexual Experiences, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992

When the moderator becomes immoderate


Am I a fascist? I fear I might be when it comes to the crunch. Even bigger shock horror, I suspect I could be about to rationalize some deeply suspect, callous, ruthless thinking of mine, right here and now. I’m not sure how this is going to pan out. By the end of the blog I may be appalled by what I have said, and so may you. No doubt you will let me know if that is the case, and I might find it painful.

It is just that, as the moderator of Heretic TOC over the period of nearly six months since its inception, I have found it necessary to be rather immoderate in slapping down some contributors to the comments, at times to the point of brutal bluntness – not in public, but behind the scenes in private exchanges. Several departed, never to return; a couple exasperated me so much I banished them permanently. Admittedly, when we consider the history of fascism, my culpability may seem slight: I have not organised bands of thugs in uniforms to beat up my enemies in the street and trash their business premises. I have not disposed of even one “awkward customer” by having him hanged with piano wire, though the thought has crossed my mind a few times.

And that’s it really, I suppose: the thought, the attitude. There are many definitions of fascism, but if we are thinking about an attitude rather than a particular political programme, we can perhaps sum it up in a couple of words: illiberal authoritarianism. In ancient Rome the fasces was a bundle of rods tied around an axe, which symbolised the authority and power of a magistrate. Carried by bodyguards, the fasces suggested strength through unity: a single rod is easily broken, but the bundle is not. And they could be used to beat a man to death on the magistrate’s command.

But why would I wish to be illiberal, when the very name of the blog evokes the valorisation of dissent, as does the tag “Not the dominant narrative”? Also, on the About page, I say “…satire can be savage. I prefer a gentler tone, in line with the kind of society I’d like to see.” Hardly a fascist sentiment, is it?

And yet, believe it or not, over the last six months I have been accused, sometimes in the bitterest terms, of being a near-fascist control freak – and not just by one accuser. They say I am hypocritical; my much vaunted interest in a diversity of views is a sham; not only do I want to showcase my own opinions, I want all the responses in the comments section to echo them as well. Could there be something in it? After all, even Meirion Jones, of the BBC, remarked to me that the commentators here seem to comprise only “like-minded” people – fellow heretics, as it were.

In truth, though, non-heretics show up only very rarely as commentators, and when they do their comments tend to go straight into the trash not because of the views expressed but because they are just outright flamers. Their attacks, devoid of any reasoned argument or relevant information, are designed purely to insult and intimidate. But fire-fighting this inflammatory stuff surely does not make me a fascist: on the contrary, it feels more like fighting fascism.

No, what I have found much harder to deal with is a handful of heretics who have turned up here and revealed themselves to be, well, not to put too fine a point on it, unpleasant crackpots of one sort or another. One man’s crackpot can be another man’s misunderstood genius, though; and with that in mind I have been very careful not to suppress anyone’s views just because I don’t like them. As for the “unpleasant” bit, I believe I have gone out of my way to put up with outright cantankerousness and even extreme personal abuse directed towards me in personal emails by some individuals. I have reasoned that minor-attracted people invariably have a tough life these days; some of them are bound to react badly by lashing out at others; I should make allowances and try to be understanding.

This abuse has not been at all like the “you disgusting sickos” style favoured by outsiders. It is much more personal than that, the aim being to hurt me as an individual by implying I am a poor writer, selfishly motivated, know nothing about kids, etc. There is seldom any real sting in these poison pen letters, though, because they are so obviously illogical: if they really thought, for instance, that Heretic TOC is a crap blog, why would they be desperate – as some clearly are – to continue as commentators on it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go to a better blog elsewhere, or start their own?

How, you might ask, has such unpleasantness arisen? The answer, very simply, is from my moderation of the comments column. In the About section, I say comments must comply with the law and should aim to be Concise, Courteous, Coherent and Content-rich. Legality is obviously an absolute requirement and it has presented no problems. But I have been kept far busier than I would have wished on the “Four Cs”, especially as regards keeping it sweet in terms of showing respect for other contributors. It is when I exert control in this area, especially, but also in terms of trying to deter sheer waffle, often poorly written, grossly repetitious and irrelevant, that the brickbats start to fly. The result of this control-freakery, I suggest, has been a far more interesting comments column than the average to be found across the internet in general and it also gives the site a touch of class that I find pleasing, not least because it shows a civilized side to us heretics that visiting members of the wider public will rarely if ever have seen before. But is it too polite? Too intellectual? Too sanitized?

I am beginning to be worried, I must admit, not about sanitization as such but about the need to sanitize a site such as Heretic TOC. I had hoped that civilized blog pieces would attract civilized commentators. By and large, mercifully, that has been the case, and I am proud of the very high overall standard of contributions published so far. However, the small minority of exceptions has been deeply troubling. These are people who see themselves as ethical and do manage to post some thought-provoking and worthwhile contributions; but they spoil the effect completely when bitterness gets the better of them, as it often does. That is when the dark side takes over:  repetitively angry, empty, self-indulgent dross is on display in the public posts, and the private ones to me are far worse. That is where the real ranting and raving gets into full swing, with everyone, everywhere damned to perdition – including fellow heretics – except of course their own utterly blameless selves.

Ineffective as it is in terms of wounding me personally, such abuse is nonetheless depressing in its wider implications. I find myself wondering, “If I were a parent, would I trust my own kids with these people?” I do not think they are outright psychopaths but they are clearly very troubled guys who have been so hurt and damaged themselves that hitting out at others has become an automatic reflex. That, to my mind, constitutes a dangerous personality, even if it does not meet the accepted psychiatric conditions for any particular disorder, such as narcissism or BPD (borderline personality disorder), which are in any case highly controversial diagnoses.

So am I being a bit of a fascist when I insist on courteous postings and (as a courtesy to all Heretic TOC’s readers) severely edit, or even totally trash, the less well considered offerings? Is permanently banning anyone a step too far? Returning to my characterization of fascism as “illiberal authoritarianism”, I think, after giving the matter due thought, I will plead not guilty. That is because my approach here may be authoritarian but the aim – if perhaps not always the effect – is liberal. Does that make sense? Am I getting this whole moderation thing right, or not? Do let me know what you think.

Midwest garage stories


David Kennerly, in this guest blog, vividly recalls childhood freedoms we have lost. As Heretic TOC was unfortunately unable to use the piece at the time first proposed, it was offered by mutual agreement for first publication at the excellent website You Are Your Story. Now it is reproduced here with the approval of webmaster Jay Edson, who has posted here as “Jedson”.

It’s very strange for me to hear today’s parents, and other oddly obsessive adults, nattering on about sexual “acting out” in children, convinced that an external, malign, influence must be responsible. They insist, without any evidence to support their view, that children must necessarily receive some form of social contamination necessary to infect them with an urge to play with each others genitals whether from pornography or possibly the suspicious bachelor down the street.

In their view, kids simply do not possess, on their own, the wherewithal to discover sexuality independently of some corrupt, exogenous and – invariably – adult male force.

I would like to ask them: Have you NO memories of your own childhood? Is it that you NEVER fooled around as a kid? How could you NOT have explored your, and your friends’, bodies?

If one is to believe them (and it’s hard for me to do so) then theirs was a radically different childhood from my own.

The following is a brief excerpt from my own exploratory childhood and my reflections upon it, today. And yes, it is absolutely true.

I performed fellatio, for the first time, on another boy when we were both seven years old one afternoon in my family’s garage, having never heard of it, nor seen it demonstrated, before.

It just seemed like the right thing to do (nearly fifty years ago). And, so it was.

It had been my idea, and Jonathan was game.

At first, my technique left much to be desired and consisted largely of simply “holding” my friend’s penis in my mouth, for a bit. I was, after all, starting from scratch. Like playing “chopsticks” on the piano during ones first lesson.

Soon, however, I would learn of the advantages to be conferred to us both if liberal, and vigorous, application of my tongue were employed.

We suffered a brief impasse when Jonathan suddenly stated, out of the blue, that what he really wanted to do was to “pee” in my mouth.

I quickly removed it from my mouth and, looking up at him, told him emphatically “No!”

That was a deal-breaker for me. At least, in that first encounter.

We did eventually come to an agreement which was mutually satisfying and would, in most cases, save me from the unwelcome taste of urine.

Later, I became aware of other boys also performing oral sex on one another (“what a coincidence!”, I had thought) their having arrived at the practice quite independently of my own brilliant inventiveness.

Most memorably, one such occurrence had been said to have occurred on a neighbor’s front lawn in the middle of the afternoon!

I hadn’t witnessed this with my own eyes but, I knew the boys said to have given this performance and, knowing them to be “wild” – by anyone’s standards – found the account completely credible.

That they would have given the neighborhood such a public performance I thought dangerously stupid. But, apart from it taking place on an elderly couple’s front lawn, it seemed perfectly reasonable – and to be expected – to my seven-year-old self.

Sucking, and other contact with penises not-ones-own were, instinctively, an extension of play, friendship and boy’s adventuring, to our developing minds. And it really was fun, after all!

Sometime during that or the next year, a parental alert went up in the neighborhood with mothers asking their kids if they had encountered a suspicious young man in a Volkswagen offering to “give rides”.

Apparently, one of my more attractive friends (a handsome blonde-haired boy) had taken him up on his offer and was told by the young Volkswagen-driving stranger that he was a student at the local university. Those were the only details provided to me by my mother and, if she knew any more, she wasn’t telling.

I was, of course, properly concerned, not knowing what it was he was up to other than a twisted desire to “kidnap”; the ostensible, and stated, basis for our mothers’ alarm.

This specter of a dangerous male adult, at the time, existed quite separately from my penchant for oral sex which, in any case, continued uninterrupted.

One major difference, of course, between now and then is that my parents, as with many parents of the time, did not articulate the sexual nature of such concerns with strangers to their kids.

So we had the advantage, as children, of not associating the danger of specifically designated “strangers” with our own, emerging, sexuality.

A sexuality, I might add, which we continued to explore in secret, even so and – crucially – away from what would surely have been the disapproving gaze of our parents.

I now realize that our parents gave us both the extraordinary freedom of movement and the hours of unstructured time necessary to conduct our many- and varied – explorations, whether they knew it or not.

All quite different from what kids are given today.
But it’s also true that sex, as a whole, was stigmatized back then and we learned that our parents seemed terribly concerned, in particular, with pre-marital sex (I had a sister who was six years older than me).

But even POST-marital sex was stigmatized, back then. ALL sex was nothing but stigma and something you just didn’t discuss with other people. Perhaps not even between adults having sex with each other, for all we knew.

Oh, about that: I was already aware of the “facts-of-life”, as it were, having received this arcane and simply astounding tidbit of information – not from my parents, of course – but from my older sister.

After I quickly disseminated this improbable, but credible (coming from my teenaged sister) revealed truth to my classmates, it propagated outward like wildfire.

I believe our school’s kindergartners, alone, (perhaps) remained unsophisticated in the ways of human sexual reproduction from that day forward (ah, the scale of lost innocence!).

My mother, having thus been spared the onerous task of any thoroughgoing birds-and-bees discussion in the future (although who knows if she or my father would ever have attempted it?) instead faced the prospect of reprimanding me for my jaw-dropping indiscretions after having been called by another, very irate, mother naming me (in a portent of the future?) as the source of the salacious revelation.

From that day forward, my relationships with other boy’s mothers would never again be comfortable or easy.

That her admonishments to me were as muted and tentative as they were was the only surprise. But then, again, maybe not; it was SEX, after all. If my father knew, he said nothing; also out of character.

Besides sex, it was also true that overly friendly strangers could themselves be stigmatized back then, but they had to actually cruise the streets in cars, in neighborhoods where they were completely unknown, offering rides to boys whom everyone recognized as particularly adorable, to qualify as the kind of “strangers” warranting especial wariness.

So, in my child’s mind, the dual stigmas of sex and preternaturally solicitous strangers existed as entirely separate phenomena; any connection between the two remained blissfully unformed.

I’m sure that this was true for many other kids at that time, as well, and in a way which differs vastly from today’s vigorously regulated, and tightly filtered, childhoods.

Sex was “dirty” – but so was playing in the mud. That didn’t keep boys like me from enjoying either.

But sex, on the other hand, was MUCH easier to hide.

And we knew, instinctively and logically, that what our parents didn’t know of our explorations in the garage, in the woods, in the creek, in the basement, in the YMCA changing room (although probably not on the front lawn) could hurt neither them nor us. They just weren’t to know anything about it. And it was our job to keep it from them.

You see, secrets were an essential part of our childhoods. And that’s the way we wanted it.

And, on some level, I believe that’s the way our parents wanted it, too.

To some extent, we kids lived separate lives from our parents. And that was just fine with us.



And now my pitch for NAMBLA which I’m working on to try to drum up some support:
“I want to remind everyone in our circle that the organization, radioactive though it may appear and clumsy though it may have been in the past, does perform several essential and vital roles in the world. Without it, many boylovers and – yes – boys who have looked to it for what little hope they possess will be that much more isolated.

NAMBLA publicly asserts our humanity and insists upon the existence of an ethical framework for man/boy love which we urge others to understand and to embrace.

Lastly, there are lots of people, curious about Man/Boy Love as well as our organization, who visit our website to learn about this issue and to make some sense of it, including academics and scholars, civil libertarians, attorneys, students, civil administrators and possibly even future policy makers.

It is essential that our voice – of all voices – be heard in the unfolding and evolving debates which effect our future.

So yes, NAMBLA exists as more than just a recurring trope on Comedy Central, even if it is also that.”

Is truth, beauty? Is beauty truth?


“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

From Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Do we agree with Keats? Can we even say what he means? I am inspired at least to attempt it by Jedson’s thoughts on how we should judge art, an issue we are moved to ponder now that artist Graham Ovenden‘s work is being condemned and censored.

Jedson said,

 “I question the idea that aesthetics is the only criterion by which we should judge art (which I suspect is your position [i.e. Heretic TOC’s].) That makes art harmless. Which I think it’s not. We can, let me suggest, evaluate art by three criteria: 1. aesthetic interest, 2. truthfulness and 3. moral vision. Ovenden scores very high on all three counts…”

I don’t know Ovenden’s work well enough to offer a deep evaluation of his truthfulness and moral vision, but I have no reason to challenge Jedson’s well articulated thinking on this. Art is only art if it affects people, whether emotionally or intellectually, and these effects can be benign or, as Jedson says, harmful. Indeed, I do remember Ovenden himself talking very convincingly about these aspects of his work on a TV documentary many years ago, when BBC presenter Robert Robinson was a guest at his country cottage, Barley Splatt. His drawings and paintings of little girls – some of them well before “the cusp of adolescence” by the way – were very much on display, and he discussed them with every appearance of high purpose and sincerity.

Be that as it may. Turning to Jedson’s criteria for evaluating art, let’s consider them, starting with aesthetic interest. Googling “aesthetic”, the first definition I encountered helpfully said, “concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty”. Quite! That’ll do for now. Essentially, like Keats, we are talking beauty here. Moving on briskly to truthfulness, what do we notice? Keats again! What about number three, moral vision?

Now it gets really interesting. Not only does Keats not mention moral vision, he in effect militantly asserts we do not need to. His poem is essentially a reflection on the meaning and value of art, just as are Jedson’s three criteria. But Keats has only two criteria, and he even manages to boil those down to just one, saying truth and beauty are the same.

So what is going on here? Isn’t this “reductionism” gone mad? Can Keats really be indifferent as to whether art is beneficial or harmful, an indifference that would seem implicit in saying only truth and beauty are important, leaving moral vision out of his account?

The key to Keats’ intriguing abstractions, I suggest, and their value to us here at Heretic TOC, lies in the poem as a whole, not in these two lines, with which it concludes. Far from being abstract, Ode on a Grecian Urn is packed with vividly concrete imagery, drawn from the poet’s contemplation of the scenes depicted (or so we are invited to believe) on a particular work of art, an ancient urn that lay buried and unseen for millennia, and which had been unearthed to reveal its marvellous story.

Amazingly, part of that story can now speak to us, right here at Heretic TOC, more powerfully than to generations of critics who have pondered and debated every line – some of them bizarrely dismissing the “truth is beauty” trope as merely vacuous semantics. Not so!

Do I seem to speak in riddles? So did Keats. Let me explain!

The key is in the context. Keats lived in London at a time when an immensity of ancient artistic riches were pouring into the city, such as the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, exciting huge public interest. He had been educated in history and the classics, and is known to have taken an interest in the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a founding figure of archaeology and the history of art. Winckelmann’s work, in the 18th century, included excavation of the buried city of Pompeii, near Naples, where great treasures of erotic ancient art were discovered, including the homoerotic variety. Sir William Hamilton, around the same time, was also based in Naples, where he amassed immense collections of artistically decorated ancient Greek ceramics and had them transported to England, including homoerotic “sympotic” ware i.e. vessels used at the symposium, the all-male dinner parties where high-minded intellectual discussion was happily conjoined with more sensual pleasures, including the man-boy kind.

Keats was not gay (though Winckelmann was a BL), but his poetic enthusiasm for a piece of ancient “pagan” art would have marked him out as too sophisticated by half in the conservatively Christian England of 1820, when Ode on a Grecian Urn was published. Pagan art meant pagan values, and those included shocking sexual behaviours. No wonder the critics of the day trashed the poem: for them, one suspects, it lacked “moral vision”.

But did it? Moral vision is not necessarily conservative, and although Christianity is hard to beat when it comes to moralising, it holds no monopoly on morals, which were of course discussed in the ancient symposia – most famously as described in Plato’s Symposium. One of the many things Keats gives us in Ode on a Grecian Urn, I suggest, is a sense of excitement about the past, a fresh and lively sense that a very different sort of life was once both possible and real, rich and “true”: the aesthetic beauty of the urn, and of the scenes from long-past lives it evoked, spoke of the value in which the ancients held those lives; they revealed a truth about the past, and that revelation was not without moral significance in a good way.

But Keats could not be too explicit. It would have ruined the poem (as I am probably doing!) and might have ruined him too, had he scandalously committed himself to pagan values. So he opts for the faux innocence of aesthetic immediacy, and the sensual intensity for which his work is renowned.

What I am suggesting, in all this, is that there is sometimes a role for artfully disguised moral vision, or subversive art. That, perhaps, is what Jedson discerned in Graham Ovenden’s work: not the absence of morality, but its subtle deployment. Finally, to return to Jedson’s suspicion that aesthetics is the only criterion by which I judge art, I say yes, and no.

In the Keatsian sense, yes: beauty, and truth are aspects of the same thing, and insofar as they engage humanity (which a beautiful photograph of an iceberg, say, may not), they imply a good and inspiring moral element.

In a less poetic and more philosophical sense, though, no. Keats was no philosopher, you see. He was only 25 when he died, in the year after Ode on a Grecian Urn appeared. His schooling had been good, but by his own admission he had not read all that much. He was an enthusiast for Greek art but had simply not lived long enough to become a connoisseur, and in any case his unreserved rapture in the face of art was boyish; it was not entirely innocent but neither was it the sober assessment of the seasoned expert.

Was he even aware, I wonder, how ancient is the concept of beauty he brings to his evocation of ancient times? Or is the effect deliberate? The pre-Socratic Greeks, going back to Homer, conceived of beauty in a rough and naïve way: to be beautiful (kalos) was also to be good and noble; external beauty spoke of a matching inner beauty; a beautiful face betokened a beautiful soul. Now clearly Socrates, being decidedly ill-favoured by the gods in the facial appearance department, was not going to put up with that! He might have been ugly, but at least he was virtuous!  Which is why (if you’ll forgive a certain “How the tiger got its tail” simplicity) the classical Athenians, thanks to Socrates, Plato and the rest began to get a whole lot more thoughtful about this beauty business, and invented the much more refined idea of kalos kagathos to describe a person who was not just physically beautiful but beautiful in a sense which separately specified virtue (agathos = virtuous).The new expression really came to mean something like “fine and upstanding”, rather than good-looking.

The classical thinkers also, crucially, obliged the Greeks and every subsequent generation exposed to their wisdom, to consider precisely what is meant by high-sounding terms such as beauty and truth: these words can indeed be vacuously used, notwithstanding my earlier disavowal. What it comes to, I think, is that the judgment of art must engage, in addition to niceties of taste, also very specific definitions and arguments as they concern the moral element. Democratic societies place a high value on freedom of expression, which means that even “bad” art deserves respect for its contribution to the richness of our diversity – and we are constantly changing our minds, are we not, over what passes muster aesthetically, and even morally? Thus we are entitled to criticize, in my view, but not to censor, except when harm of a criminal nature is imminently threatened; but that is another debate.

Police are the only art critics who count


News that the Tate gallery was removing the work of a leading artist from public view following his conviction for child sex offences made headlines globally a week ago. The sense of shock in the art world was palpable following the downfall of renowned painter and photographer Graham Ovenden, whose sensuous images of prepubescent girls have been critically acclaimed but also the subject of suspicious police attention for decades.

No wonder the arty types are stunned: suddenly, they find themselves rudely demoted by the Tate’s implicit acknowledgment that when push comes to shove the police and the courts are the only important art critics in the business. They thought Ovenden’s work was high art, but suddenly they find to their embarrassment and confusion that, no, it is low pornography.

There has been, to be sure, a great deal of agonised resistance to this stark revisionism in recent days. The cultural commentariat have pondered parallels: is the music of Wagner less great because the man himself was a notorious racist and hero of the Nazis? Dig deep enough and you might well find a bit of a scumbag behind most of the world’s significant cultural output: being troubled, unbalanced, difficult, even downright immoral and wicked frequently goes hand in hand with seeing the world in new and significant ways, and rendering those perceptions artistically.

Well, anyway, that’s what I think. And if the plods can have a view worth listening to, why shouldn’t Heretic TOC? So, in the time honoured manner of the opinionated philistine, I hereby announce that I don’t know much about art but I know what I like: porn!

Yes, I know, we’re not supposed to say that, but I rather suspect some of Ovenden’s work really is porn, and none the worse for that, despite all the subtle arty farty stuff said in its defence, including by the artist himself. Take this for instance, which was Ovenden writing about his book States of Grace many years ago after it had been seized by US Customs:

“Symbolically speaking, we are dealing with feelings of the heart and the human yearning for Edenic simplicity – a state of grace, as it were, where there is neither sin nor corruption. The apple has yet to be eaten. The subject, of course, symbolizes this state in the photograph. At the same time, we see that the attainment of Eden is no easy task: the vulnerability of the child suggests, or rather confirms, the fragility of Eden, as well as its fleeting nature in the face of the concerns of the adult world and the demands of modernity.”

Yeah, right. Or, as Ovenden might have said to a fellow Loli-lover, “Gorgeous, isn’t she? I do have some naughtier ones, if you’re interested.”

If my speculation here is correct (and it is only speculation so sorry, Graham, if all your art is actually “pure”), then the question arises as to whether his porn is good porn. The public debate in the newspaper columns and the blogs appears to have ignored this possibility entirely, or have defined it out of existence. In other words, they have been saying if it is porn it cannot be art.

What nonsense! Look no further than the Wikipedia entry on Erotic art and you will find entries that are highly accomplished by any standards (not just mine) and also downright pornographic rather than just subtly erotic. Paedophilic porn can also be excellent art, as the Japanese, especially, have shown with their amazing manga – alas now no longer legally accessible in the UK following section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

For another view, by Heretic TOC commentator Peter Hooper, see Children in art, have they become one of today’s problems?

Footnote: Today’s big news is the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Heretic TOC will not be shedding tears over her departure but she did at least have the great merit of visionary leadership, unlike today’s focus group politicians, who don’t know what to think until a largely ignorant, irrational and bigoted electorate tells them.

Masters of our fate, captains of our soul


Power. That’s what it’s all about, insist the bad-mouthers these days. The abuse of power. At one time they would bang on about the “innocence” of childhood, but that doesn’t play too well when talking about kids into a double-figure age or their early teens.

Bullshit. It’s not about power, it’s about the physical dimension of love, which inspires benevolent and nurturant feelings. That’s always been my response, based mainly on my own introspection and knowledge of really nice guys who are attracted to children, and a few women too.

But a few inconvenient realities have been insinuating themselves into my consciousness lately which have obliged me to concede there is an issue for serious discussion. The clincher for this as a blog topic right now is an article in The New Yorker this week called “The Master”. It is one of those enormous feature-length (nay, novella-length) pieces of prestigious reportage in which this journal specializes: around 13,000 words on the fresh and previously unexplored (hardly!) issue of child sexual abuse.

I groaned inwardly, I must admit, at the thought of having to tackle this “must read” saga, but I’m glad I gritted my teeth and got on with it. And to save you the trouble of doing the same (unless you are particularly masochistic!), here’s the gist. The strap-line is as good a start as any: “A charismatic teacher enthralled his students. Was he abusing them?” The teacher in question, now an old man who (sensibly enough) has declined to talk The New Yorker, wasn’t even mentioned last June when the New York Times Magazine published extensive allegations of sexual abuse at the private, expensive, and very highly rated Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York, by several teachers decades ago, leading to a police investigation. Under state law the offences fell afoul of the time limit for prosecutions, so no charges have been laid. As with the Savile case in Britain, though, publicity resulted in many more “victims” coming forward, armed with lawyers and seeking compensation (what a surprise!) from around a dozen teachers who allegedly perpetrated abuse. The school is said to have agreed terms recently and is ready to offer an apology.

So far, so ordinary. But the career of the “charismatic” teacher on which Marc Fisher’s story for The New Yorker focuses is anything but. Fisher is himself a former student at the school, having been in the Class of 1976, which is when he encountered a teacher of English called Robert Berman, an “odd, secretive man who frightened away many students, yet retired to a house that former students bought for him”. Fisher says, “I talked to more than a hundred alumni, to many teachers who worked with him in the sixties and seventies, and to administrators who dealt with complaints about teachers. Berman stood out for his extraordinary control over boys’ lives…”

What this “extraordinary control” amounted to, as we hear in immense and very convincing detail, is that Berman was a demanding and psychologically domineering teacher. Some boys at what was then an all-boys school, steered clear of the guy: they were allowed to opt out of his class, and Fisher was one of those. But others, the so-called “Bermanites”, were mesmerized by his inspirational teaching: he inspired fear, but also immense respect and loyalty. Berman was unconventional: think Dead Poets Society, a film in which teacher John Keating dangerously urged his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Berman, like Mr Keating in the film, played so memorably by Robin Williams, was looked upon by the boys as a genius and a hero: “O Captain! My Captain!” they called Keating, and Berman inspired just that sort of sentiment.

Fisher’s allegation, of course, is that Berman became sexually involved with some of his boys. No great ethical problem in itself for us heretics, I would have thought: who better to be a boy’s lover, after all, than an inspirational teacher? Isn’t this the very ideal of mentorship in the “Greek love” model of pederasty? Except that Berman allegedly seized not only the day but the boys as well, often quite forcefully and without waiting for any sign of consent. He would make their compliance with his advances a test of loyalty: those who would not submit were deemed unworthy, fit only for disgrace, humiliation and rejection.

The really interesting point here, though, is that many of these boys did choose to submit, and kept going back for more. They might have had misgivings about the sex, but their worship of Berman outweighed any moral reservations or physical distaste. So did these teenagers (not little boys) become consenting participants, or were they truly victims of Berman’s power abuse? They could have chosen to leave Berman’s class, as many did. But many others stayed, including boys who got love and attention from Berman they did not necessarily get from their parents or anyone else, at a time when they needed it. So shouldn’t their choice to “go for it” be respected?

Even those who now, in middle-age, claim they were Berman’s victims seem ambivalent. Berman gave a boy called Gene a small bronze sculpture. Despite everything, Gene holds onto it to this day. “This meant that somebody loved me, and nobody had ever shown me that before,” Gene says. “It’s a conundrum. Why don’t I just drop it in the garbage right now? It’s part of me, part of my life. I guess I’ll be done with it when I don’t need somebody’s love.” Significantly, it is said that Gene only came to “realize” he had been abused after a therapist “helped him understand that he had never had a real relationship with Berman.”

Berman, not surprisingly, has denied that any of this happened. He may be telling the truth, but that not the issue here. The issue for us is what we think is right and good in such a situation. To my mind, by the way, this is not like Penn State, with which the Horace Mann School revelations have been compared. The “charismatic” figure in that case, football coach Jerry Sandusky, turns out not at all to have been the brutal abuser the prosecution sought to portray: he got a long sentence on the back of public outrage, but there was no evidence of rape in a shower room, as originally alleged, and even the “victims” had many good things to say about him.

Berman, by contrast, was plausibly a bit of a bastard; an inspired bastard but a bastard nonetheless. His cult-leader style had arguably produced the sort of fear-based loyalty we associate with Stockholm syndrome. But consider this: Berman and his ilk would be just as sinister even if there had been nothing sexual going on at all! We probably all remember nasty teachers of that sort: bullies, simply. Such people are not considered candidates for jail at all, so let’s keep a sense of proportion.
I do think there is a serious issue here, though, for those who cleave to the elitist Greek love model of the mentor, and the mentor’s unquestioned power: elitist pursuit of pedagogical excellence can be a marvellous thing, and one we have to some extent lost in the more egalitarian atmosphere of modern education, especially in the UK. But perhaps it needs to be blended with another concept borrowed, along with that of the mentor, from the Ancient Greeks: the philosophy of moderation in all things.

An element of leadership, and hero worship, can be tremendously positive, and none the worse for being sexually realized. But no one should monopolize a child’s life; there should be light and air in the classroom, both metaphorically and actually: it is more than coincidental that Berman papered over the windows of his classroom door so that no one could peek through into his exclusive sphere of influence.

Another intense, dark, forcing-house of young minds is relevant here, another example from cinema: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, from the novel by Muriel Spark. The eponymous Miss Brodie, played by Maggie Smith, is an inspirational teacher (motto: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life”) in the 1930s, who romanticizes fascist leaders such as Mussolini and Franco, with ultimately disastrous consequences for one of her girls. Miss Brodie is hugely manipulative, and there is lots of sexual intrigue, but not in terms of Miss Brodie’s interest in the girls: she has adult lovers. The point here is that the really dangerous thing is not sex but the excessive influence (the word power misses the mark) of an essentially reckless woman over her young charges. This is a danger for all adults who have close relationships with children, but perhaps it is a particular issue for advocates of intense personal mentorship, whether erotically charged and realized or not.

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