Now we are truly ‘all in it together’

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At least they aren’t calling it the gay plague, the way they did with AIDS, or God forbid the paedo plague – they blame us kind folk for everything else, though, so why not the corona virus disease (Covid-19) first identified last December in China?

But stigmatisation of some sort follows closely on the heels of every pathogen, as was observed recently in the authoritative New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). At first the finger was pointed, quite rightly, at Chinese “wet markets”, but this quickly morphed online into generalised anti-Asian racism. Within the last week, though, the demonization has moved closer to home: escaping into the open countryside to enjoy the fresh Spring air and sunshine is suddenly seen as selfish and anti-social. How weird is that?

Not so weird as to be completely irrational, apparently. The logic of ordering us all to stay at home is questionable but this is not a time for mutiny. That is because in this crisis we really are “all in it together”: we are affected not just as kinds, or MAPs, but simply as people. This thing is menacing everyone. It is time remind ourselves that although we at Heretic TOC are an awkward bunch of political heretics and sexual “deviants”, we are first and foremost humans; we need to make common cause with our fellows and acquit ourselves well.

Just to keep things in perspective: latest official statistics (ONS) weekly deaths data (to w/e 13 March) shows death numbers remain a bit lower than usual so far this year. In the year to date there have been 4% fewer deaths than the five-year average, as was pointed out in a recent tweet by a certain Stuart McDonald. It is presumably more than coincidental that there is a leading actuary of this name at Lloyds Banking Group.

So I will be doing my best to stick to the tough new rules for at least as long as I can be persuaded they are roughly in line with the best medical and scientific advice available to government. For Heretic TOC readers in the US, of course, that emphatically will not mean taking President Trump’s word for anything. In the UK, too, the prime minister may be blown off course by political winds. For the moment, though, to be blunt about it, this a time for obeying orders.

As the PM’s broadcast to the nation in the UK this week made clear, that means staying at home for everything except shopping for food and other basic needs, taking very limited exercise close to home, and working away from home only for those in “essential” occupations. These tough restrictions appear to have been imposed reluctantly by Boris Johnson who, we are told, is by instinct a social liberal rather than an authoritarian. All the more reassuring, then, that if even he feels draconian measures are required then there is good reason to believe they are necessary.

That said, this blog does not carry the responsibility that governments must take for their emergency laws and guidance advice. It is no part of the new rules nor of HTOC’s stated mission that this blog must stay “on message”. On the contrary, in common with the media at large, it could almost be said we have a duty to keep our critical faculties alert and challenge government policy if it doesn’t seem to make sense. A couple of commentators at HTOC have already begun to express unease over the opportunity the crisis presents for the illegitimate extension of state control in our lives. I am not going to focus on this danger but neither will I make light of it. Instead I will just urge everyone here, even if you visit none of my other links today, to read Anne Appelbaum’s chillingly informative article in The Atlantic on how a number of governments in Europe and elsewhere are already abusing the situation big-time.

While sexual ethics and behaviour might seem less important right now than hand-washing and social distancing, they do point to a serious shortcoming in any public health strategy that relies on stopping people doing what they really, really want to do, for months on end, or longer. As the NEJM article linked above notes, “Syphilis, one of the great scourges of the early 20th century, could have been ended, in theory, had everyone adhered to a strict regimen of abstinence or monogamy. But as one U.S. Army medical officer complained in 1943, ‘The sex act cannot be made unpopular.’” Likewise, even AIDS failed to eliminate risky unprotected sexual behaviour; it took the advent of antiretroviral therapy to stop that pandemic in its tracks. Getting out and chatting in bars and restaurants, taking part in sport or gathering in huge stadiums to watch it, going to clubs and concerts and a myriad other social activities are all acts which, just like sex “cannot be made unpopular”. Socialising, and simply getting outdoors, are human needs that cannot be suppressed for long.

And you know what, despite Donald Trump being wrong most of the time, he actually had a point this week when he said the cure could be worse than the disease when it comes to shutting down the economy to enforce social isolation. Sure, he only made that claim out of naked self-interest based on “it’s the economy, stupid”. He had been pinning his re-election hopes on a roaring stock market bull run, strong economic growth and full employment, all of which are now well down the toilet, especially on the vital jobs front, with over three million laid off in the US in a single week.

Trump was talking out of his ass and lying through his teeth, as usual, but his “thinking” is in line with the findings of a new study by Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at Bristol University.

If the coronavirus lockdown leads to a fall in GDP of more than 6.4% more years of life will be lost due to recession than will be gained through beating the virus, the study suggests. As reported in The Times, Thomas tells us that keeping the economy going in the next year will be crucial, otherwise the measures would “do more harm than good”. His own full report is all equations, graphs and figures, but the nature of the connection between recession and mortality was spelt out elsewhere in an IMF research paper, The Human Cost of Recessions, that appeared in 2010, after the Great Recession of 2007–09. This showed that in the short run layoffs are associated with higher risk of heart attacks and other stress-related illnesses. Anxiety, depression and an elevated suicide rate form the psychological background to this bleak picture. Even in the long term, the mortality rate of laid-off workers stays at a raised level and can persist for decades. What’s worse, the suffering is passed down to the next generation: children are hurt:

… children of laid-off parents also suffer: in the short-run, parental job loss tends to reduce the schooling achievement of their children….parental job loss increases the probability that a child repeats a grade in school by nearly 15 percent… In the long-run, a father’s income loss also reduces the earnings prospects of his sons… children whose fathers were displaced have annual earnings about 9% lower than similar children whose fathers did not experience an employment shock.

What we do not yet have figures for is the human cost of cooping people up in their homes. But we know what is bound to happen. We know that modern family life typically lacks the social support available to the extended families of old. The less well off, especially, confined to cramped houses and flats without even a decent garden for the kids to run about in, are at high risk of getting on each other’s nerves. Violent domestic abuse is rife even in the best of times and is bound to be a sharply ramped up danger when parents can no longer go out to work and their offspring cannot go to school either. This is a nuclear family under immense pressure, primed for explosion.

Bearing in mind the immense social costs of bringing the economy and ordinary life to a juddering halt  – to say nothing of the trillions of dollars needed to support all those who have been suddenly deprived of a livelihood in the lockdown countries – we really do need to question whether the whole strategy is truly necessary. The Netherlands doesn’t think so. Neither does Sweden. The UK, too, initially appeared to favour – on scientific advice – a policy of keeping ordinary life going for as long as possible consistent with keeping hospital cases down to a level that would not overwhelm health services and incur excessive danger to medical staffs. Making the call as to how long a lockdown could be reasonably avoided was always going to be a very sophisticated and difficult one, drawing on epidemiological models that inevitably include dubious assumptions – it could hardly be otherwise given the unknown properties of  the novel virus causing Covid-19, known as SARS-CoV-2.

But it was arguably an increasingly well established property of SARS-CoV-2 that must have been giving policy makers the biggest headache – a property with a moral dimension and huge political ramifications. I mean, of course, the fact that fatalities are almost entirely confined to those who already have very serious health problems, especially those who are very old and who even in normal times would not be expected to live much longer.

Statistics guru David Spiegelhalter tells us COVID-19 very roughly contributes a year’s worth of risk of dying. Every year around 600,000 people die in the UK. It has been estimated that if the virus went completely unchallenged, around 80% of people would be infected and there would be around 510,000 deaths. So getting COVID-19 is like packing a year’s worth of risk into a week or two. Which is why it is important to spread out the infections to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed. The graph compares Covid-19 mortality and ‘normal’ annual mortality. It shows the dramatic increase with age, and the small excess risk from Covid-19 for people in their 60s and 70s.

The unspeakable elephant in the room here is whether wrecking the economy at astronomic financial and devastating social cost is a good idea just to secure a bit of extra time on earth for clapped out old codgers, many of whom are bound to be rotting away miserably in old folks homes wishing they were dead anyway. Admittedly this is a sentiment a callous young neo-Nazi might heartily endorse but I speak as an old codger myself – no “underlying conditions” as yet, but I am in my mid-seventies, hence in the officially “vulnerable” age range. I value my own life, but I also feel it is reasonable to balance my hopes and expectations for my (probably quite short) future against the disasters that lockdown could bring, as we have seen.

This balancing act is no different, really, from the kind of utilitarian calculation being made every day by health service agencies such as Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). NICE routinely provides evidence-based evaluations of cost effectiveness in relation to drugs being considered for use by the NHS. Often it has to take the not-at-all-nice but very necessary view that a life-saving drug is simply too expensive. Some patients will die as a result of the NHS not buying and providing it. But the judgement is that the money could be better spent elsewhere in the NHS, with the potential to save more lives than would be lost by refusing to approve a very expensive drug.

If you are still in doubt about the need for brutal utilitarian calculations of this sort, and if you cleave to the view that all lives are equally valuable, just try the following thought experiment. What if, instead of killing only old or sick people, SARS-CoV-2 was instead killing only children? Would you seriously insist that this was not a more serious problem? If such a disease had a high rate of mortality, it could even threaten the survival of our species, making the actual SARS-CoV-2 look quite a benign little beast by comparison. Short of that apocalypse, though, the main point surely is that any disease that kills children is one that deprives them of many years – decades even – of expected life ahead of them. So the “brutal” calculation is not a matter of disrespect for the elderly and infirm. If we think in terms of saving not “lives” but “expected years of life”, then saving children would still be heavily favoured over saving the elderly – if harsh reality forces us to choose – while according equal value to everyone’s future life.

And for ourselves, let’s be honest. Much as we might love our grandparents or (in my case) old pals of my own age, our delight in children is such that their loss would be devastating far beyond that of any other medical calamity. Nor are we alone in that feeling: “our” delight is not a feeling confined those of us who find kids especially exciting: it extends to ordinary parents and many other adults who are lucky enough to appreciate their charms.

I’d better leave it there, I think. There is so much more to discuss on what has rapidly become a news story with a thousand angles – I would love, for instance, to get into why the UK and other European governments were so ill-prepared compared to many of those in Asia, why experts were talking about “herd immunity”, and what Boris Johnson was trying to get across with his colourful “squashing the sombrero” metaphor. Basically, the latter was about delaying infections as much as possible so that cases occur over a long period and health systems aren’t suddenly inundated: slowly building herd immunity without killing a shielded vulnerable minority has been seen as a useful by-product of that strategy. It is complicated though. Anyway, there will be time to thrash things out in comments if y’all are up for it. In lieu of getting deeply into these angles at the moment myself, I would just recommend an article by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet medical journal, in The Guardian on all the practical delay and policy confusion.

 

DO AS WE SAY, NOT AS WE DO

Rumours that a cart has been trundled along Downing Street by a refuse disposal officer crying “Bring out your dead!” may be apocryphal, but the news yesterday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty had all gone down with corona virus at the same time is a powerful indication that the plague has struck hard at the heart and (cough, cough!) lungs of government.

Even more than the rest of us, the governing elite are showing themselves to be all in it together, united in their evident unwillingness or inability to follow the precautions they have urged upon the rest of us. Scenes from parliament quite recently, for instance, showed MPs crowding around the Speaker’s chair, blithely ignoring the two-metre social distancing rule. Hardly surprising, then, that Westminster as well as Whitehall has emerged as the UK’s outbreak epicentre, our very own wet market, teeming with slimy, slippery specimens. Among those who have been stricken, along with his girlfriend, Spectator writer Isabel Hardman, is my treacherous former (Labour) MP John Woodcock. One of his lesser crimes was to get me kicked out of the Labour Party. His most heinous offence, though, was at the last election, when he advised his former constituents to vote Tory. In all honestly, I am not exactly shedding tears over his affliction. Like the pestilential visitations of old, it is obviously in his case a sign of God’s displeasure!

One final recommendation, if you have a moment: Tom Peck, political sketch writer for The Independent, takes a butcher’s at “what happens when you ignore your own advice”. It’s a satirical gem on the current hand-washing-with-soap opera. Come to think of it, how about a new TV soap: Corona-nation Street, perhaps, or Westminster Deadenders? Nah, the real political scene is much more entertaining!

Now I’m a believer in Patek of Geneva!

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Patek Philippe, the super-luxury, Geneva-based Swiss watch brand that makes Rolex look about as exclusive as my Casio, has been running a series of award-winning ad campaigns on its Generations theme for nearly a quarter of a century now. Perhaps because I am not in the market for these products and have little exposure to the lifestyle magazines etc. where I imagine they are promoted, I have only just noticed.

The latest theme in the Generations campaign: Modern Fatherhood

Now that I have, I am bowled over by these fabulous productions – the ads, that is, not the watches, which come at crazy prices with far too many noughts on the end for me to consider buying one. Thank goodness, I don’t want to: my modest plastic thing tells the time just as well as PP’s haute horology and that is all I need. In common, I would think, with most heretics here, I have a hearty disdain for brand-addicted consumerism. The life of the mind is our snooty emphasis here – call it the elitism of the have-nots! I speak for myself, of course: doubtless some Heretic TOC readers are millionaires and perhaps even billionaires but they are not so vulgar as to brag about it!

A glance at the photos on this page will suffice to explain my enthusiasm for the ads, which have been unusual for featuring men and drop-dead gorgeous boys (these days also women and attractive girls) together in contexts of an implied bond between them. As the Generations tag flags up, the bond is of course meant to be a family one, hence totally safe and proper for PP’s ads, which have an heirloom theme. The unchanging (for the males at least) slogan is “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”

To us kind folk, of course, there is “romantic” appeal, for want of a better word: these couples could be lovers rather than parent and child. Not that parenthood lacks a certain below-the-radar erotic frisson: not even the incest taboo can prevent mums and dads from feeling a rewarding physical buzz from hugging, smelling, kissing their kids. But for most parents, especially fathers, the pleasure they take in their kids’ bodies are difficult to acknowledge without fear and embarrassment: the feelings are kept on a tight leash and in most cases probably do not rise to a conscious level – not as regards genital sexuality at least.

Let’s not go any further down that road today, though. Let’s just take the ad on its own terms for a while, enjoying the pictures, of which some samples are shown from the latest campaign and others; let’s also take a look at the company, the products, and what is going on in brand terms. In order to understand the power of the brand we need to learn something about the pedigree. In PP’s own website words:

Patek Philippe has been pursuing traditional Genevan watchmaking artistry without interruption since 1839. The manufacture benefits from full creative freedom, which allows it to design, develop, and craft watches that connoisseurs consider to be the world’s finest – as pledged by its founders Antoine Norbert de Patek and Adrien Philippe. In addition to exceptional skills, Patek Philippe also nurtures a tradition of innovation that has meanwhile been crowned by over one hundred patents.

These basics probably sound a bit bland and underwhelming. Few companies can boast such a long tradition as this one, for sure, but practically every enterprise bigs itself up with glowing prose. It is only when we get to the prices and the customers that things get really impressive. US Chief Justice John Roberts was spotted wearing a Patek Philippe costing $49,780 recently, while he was presiding at the impeachment trial of President Trump. But that’s nothing. Rapper and business mogul Jay-Z rocked up to an NFL game at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium recently sporting a platinum Patek Philippe “Sky Moon Celestial Ref. 6102P”, whatever that is (don’t worry, you can find out here). This timepiece retails for an awesome $311,860. At auction, what’s more, the crème de la crème of these small objects of desire fetch £ millions.

Booking gorgeous! An image from an earlier Generations campaign

By now, I guess, you’re really beginning to get the measure of PP’s prestige. What seals the deal for me, though, is that the brand’s fans have long since gone way beyond your run-of-the-mill celebs. The Great and the Good whose esteemed personages have been adorned by PP watches include: Pablo Picasso, Peter Tchaikovsky, Richard Wagner, Charlotte Brontë, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Rudyard Kipling, 14th Dalai Lama, Leo Tolstoy, Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII , Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, King Farouk of Egypt, Emperor Haile Selassie, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, Queen Elizabeth II and her heir apparent, Charles, Prince of Wales.What might seem odd, though, if you have been as knocked out as I was by the toppest list of Top People you have ever seen, is an astute commentator’s claim that the advertising is not aimed at Top People. Not the fabled top 1% at least. Apparently they never need to be told that PP is the watch for them: they just know, either from being brought up in that world or later immersion in it once they are well on their way to their first $ billion.

No, according to an influential anonymous blog called The Last Psychiatrist (reputedly written by an actual shrink), the ads are aimed not at the 1% but at the demographic immediately below, dubbed “the Aspirational 14%” by TLP. At first glance the 14 looks spuriously exact but what is meant, I guess, is the chunky lower portion of the top 15% once we discount the very top. Anyway, in a 2011 article titled “Luxury Branding the Future Leaders of the World”, TLP tells us about this target demographic:

They know they are supposed to like quality and goodness and etiquette and discretion, but no one ever taught them what those things look like, so when someone does point it out to them they will go all in.

Goodness? Did I see “goodness” in the mix there? My goodness, that’s a big concept to wind a watch up with! “Quality”, another sizeable abstract noun (as anyone who read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will remember) would seem to speak of the product’s attributes, referencing the expert, painstaking quality of workmanship involved, the exquisite design, the jewels and precious metals that go into it, etc.  But “goodness”? Would that be goodness as in moral virtue, speaking to the nurturing side of parenthood, or something of that sort?

Modern Fatherhood, 2019: the father model with his two real-life sons

TLP provides a very witty, insightful, in-depth reading of the ad campaign’s covert semiotics. I cannot improve on his piece, especially as regards his daringly non-PC take on the extension of the campaign beyond its original focus on fathers and sons to include mothers and daughters.

However, TLP was writing nearly a decade ago. So what’s new in 2020? Late last year the company brought out its latest version of the Generations campaign. This time, as the company’s website notes inform us, the theme is “Modern Fatherhood”, which is characterised, we are told, by men who are “likely to spend more time with their children and be more open with their emotions than previous generations may have been comfortable with”. For this campaign, “Instead of portraying scenarios as in prior motifs (travel, learning, shared discoveries, etc.), the new motif … focuses on the father-son relationship within a more private, intimate and relaxed context.” For the first time, this Generations campaign features two children, “making it possible to place a stronger emphasis on the coming generation”. Both of the boys are the adult model’s own sons.

Sepia for the ladies, not monochrome. A different slogan, too: Something truly precious holds its beauty forever.

I am not going to attempt a deep “what are they really saying and selling” study along the lines of TLP’s brilliant insights. I will just offer a personal response that might have more resonance with heretics here. The first image I ever set eyes on in a PP campaign was a still photo for Modern Fatherhood. It was shot in an outdoor setting featuring just one boy and man. The pair are hugging, with the much smaller figure caught under a protective fold of the bigger one’s overcoat. Seen like this they might be lovers, not least because the guy hardly seems old enough for the father role: could he in real life even have been a teenage dad?

The thrillingly transgressive illusion that we are being presented with a public and prestigious celebration of paedophilic love is shattered, alas, when encountering the full campaign. This includes a video that unambiguously reveals the improbably wealthy young dude – with the scene set in his beautiful home and gardens – as a father of two sons, the younger one hardly more than a toddler. Oh, well, I guess we can enjoy the nice pictures anyway!

 

SPAFFED UP THE WALL

Terrified as I am as to where Boris Johnson’s bright new Brexit dawn will be taking us, credit should be given where it is due. When Britain’s present prime minister was foreign secretary last year his tenure of the office was widely considered disastrous, but he did get at least one thing right at that time.

Last March, he told LBC radio: “I think an awful lot of money, an awful lot of police time, now goes into these historic offences and all this malarkey, and you know £60m I saw has been spaffed up the wall on some investigation into historic child abuse? What on earth is that going to do to protect the public now?”

Quite! We must hope he will insist on a change of direction now that he has the power to make it happen. He could start by closing down the ruinously expensive and farcically inept Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), although he will not be in time to stop its current West End run, which sees a new report coming out on Tuesday. This is what was supposed to have been the big one, the report on all those mega-sensational “V.I.P. paedophilia” scandals at the heart of government. Except it wasn’t. There was no giant conspiracy as alleged. All the most sensational claims turned out to be the work of fantasists who were given too much credibility by the police.

Heretics here may recall that I was contacted by the official solicitor to this strand of the inquiry and asked to give evidence. After doing so, letting them have a piece of my mind in the process, I received a letter from IILSA giving me formal notification that I might be criticised in the eventual inquiry report. We’ll soon see! They may not have liked my opinions (which were redacted out of the official record as irrelevant) but Brian Altman QC, counsel to IICSA, could not fault my factual contribution and appears to have drawn the right conclusions from it. Again, though, we’ll soon see.

Licence expires for French men of letters

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What do you call a guy who can openly celebrate his sexual relations with children in books and on TV without being prosecuted?

A giant of French literature.

Things are different in France, or have been until recently for elite figures in the cultural establishment. One of those figures, Gabriel Matzneff, is a feted novelist, a winner of numerous literary prizes who appeared many times on France’s top cultural TV show of the 1970s and 80s, Apostrophes. Back in the day, he wrote: “Once you have held, kissed, caressed, possessed a 13-year-old boy, a girl of 15, everything else seems bland, heavy, insipid.” One of those minors was a girl who met him at 13 and was his lover at 14; now, at 47, she has given France a #MeToo moment, denouncing the man she once fell for in a sensational book, Le Consentement (Consent). It is flying off the shelves, quickly selling out at Amazon and needing seven re-prints in only three weeks.

That girl, that woman, is Vanessa Springora, these days head of the prestigious Paris publishing house Éditions Julliard, a position giving her the ear of the media and hence immense personal power to pursue a vendetta: Le Consentement has been all over the press and Springora has done the rounds of the TV shows.

Not content with consent: Springora’s book is flying off the shelves

What, then, is her complaint? We see no bad behaviour along the lines of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual coercion. She has admitted she wanted sex and consented to it with Matzneff. The Washington Post’s  version says that “for the teenage Springora, Matzneff was the 50-year-old for whom she developed a schoolgirl crush after her mother, who worked in publishing, dragged her to a dinner party. There, she met and was bowled over by the writer who seemed to have eyes only for her.” After that, we hear, “he then set about grooming her”.

But it has to be asked, who was grooming whom? Vanessa’s mother had been a press officer for her firm. She would certainly have been alert to the potential for giving her daughter excellent prospects in the business by “dragging” her to glamorous parties where she could meet famous writers, making contacts that could be hugely advantageous later on. And so it turned out. After an elite private education at the lycée Fénelon and the Sorbonne, Vanessa went on to enjoy a glittering career, to which her early association with the great Matzneff would certainly have added lustre, making her a person of note and allure. It is not as though the relationship was ever hidden: he shared with her his Parisian life in the literary world; she joined him for dinners, visits and interviews, presumably without needing to be “dragged” along.

Not that the relationship lasted. Springora broke away from Matzneff  when she was 15. “Are you sure?” her mother reportedly asked her, “He adores you.”

The problem, for young Vanessa, was that he apparently adored lots of other girls her age as well. And boys. Reportedly, it was Matzneff’s own writings that did it. While he was away on a trip, she read his torrid accounts of sex with other youngsters, works he had told her not to look at. They killed her illusions that their relationship was an exclusive and special romance.“His books were populated by other 15-year-old Lolitas,” Springora writes. “This man was no good. He was, in fact, what we are taught to fear from childhood: an ogre.”

If he deceived her, that would have been caddish indeed. Very reprehensible. But he had not been not such an ogre, it seems, that she ever felt it necessary to go to the police, even later in life, over a relationship of a kind now being rebranded by victim feminists around the world  as “rape”.  She claims that what pushed her into writing her account of their relationship was her disgust over his reception speech upon winning  the Renaudot literary prize in 2013. The prize is awarded for new novels, but Matzneff claimed it was for all his work over the years, which included his early celebration of sex with minors, in works such as his essay Les moins de seize ans (The Under Sixteens) – published in 1974 by, ironically, the company she now directs, Éditions Julliard! He wrote:

What captivates me is less a particular sex than extreme youth, that which extends from the tenth to the sixteenth year and which seems to me to be – much more than what is usually meant by this expression – the true third sex … In my view extreme youth alone forms a particular, unique sex.

He described sex with children as “a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure”, and deplored the fact that the “erotic charm of the young boy” is denied by modern Western society, adding that “the two most sensual beings I have known in my life are a boy of twelve and a girl of fifteen”. In 1990, he published Mes amours décomposés, his diary for the years 1983-1984, in which he admitted engaging in sex tourism in the Philippines, picking up “little boys of eleven or twelve years”.

One can well imagine that being obliged to compete with enterprising street urchins would be an intolerable humiliation for many women. Even so, I am sceptical over her explanation. She claims her indignation and ire were provoked in 2013. Why then, did it take until 2020 to write her slim book of only 216 pages and get it published? She is a publisher after all: how hard could it have been?

My guess is that a stronger motivation for her to go public came much later, starting with the Me Too movement, with its explosion of public discourse not only on sexual harassment and rape but also on the meaning of sexual consent. Victim feminists have been increasingly insistent on the need for “affirmative consent”; “rape” has been re-defined much more broadly in the UK and elsewhere to include a range of physical acts that were never traditionally considered rape; consensual sex with minors is now called rape.

It is no accident that Springora’s book is called Consent.  She claims to have been manipulated, reportedly speaking of “the frightening ambiguity in which the consenting, loving victim is placed”. It seems, in other words, that her aim is to seize the moment, cashing in on a Paris court case that she must have known, with her sophistication and publishing experience, put her in prime position to surf the victim culture zeitgeist by exploiting the very concept of consent itself – a concept under unprecedented scrutiny and pressure, especially in the Anglophone world but also beginning to stir in France. The Paris case gripped the public’s attention in the autumn of 2017, coinciding almost exactly with the start of #MeToo in America.

What shocked the French public, we are told, was a story about an incident in the Paris suburb of Montmagny. A girl aged 11 willingly had oral and vaginal sex with a man of 28 and told her mother about it later the same day. The mother immediately called the police, expecting that the guy would be charged with rape. But no. The public prosecutor said there had been “no violence, no coercion, no threat, no surprise”. The girl had consented.

From outraged media coverage around the world, it might have been supposed that France had suddenly woken up to find that instead of having an age of consent set at 15, as it thought, it actually had no AOC at all. It was presented as though a perpetrator was going to get away with his “predatory” deeds entirely.

Propagandist crap! Sure, the villain of the piece could not be charged with rape, which was the only charge that would satisfy the victim feminists. But because the girl was under 15 the man was still in the frame for a charge of “sexual infraction”, punishable at that time by a prison sentence of up to five years. This was played down to the point of invisibility, as though the worst he could get would be hardly more severe than a typical parking fine.

Nonsense it may have been, but this media pressure had the desired effect, leading to a tough new law in 2018. Not that you would know it from the impression given by the media in the UK and US. Britain’s Independent ran two headlines, “France votes against setting minimum age of sexual consent amid backlash” and “President Macron accused of missing opportunity to protect minors”. Further into the story we hear “there is still no law establishing a legal age of sexual consent in France”.

Fake news! While it is true that the legislators declined to say minors under 15 could never consent, if the threshold for rape was not met judges could now classify the incident as “sexual assault” and offenders would face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Also, if “the victim lacks the ability to consent” the offence would be classified as rape, with a sentence of up to 20 years.

A day after Springora’s book hit stores, French prosecutors announced that they were opening an investigation into “rape committed on a minor under 15” related to the allegations in Le Consentement. The publishing house Gallimard, which released Matzneff’s latest book in November, has halted sales of his work. The Kindle version of Les moins de seize ans is no longer available on Amazon, and we are told Matzneff could lose a state pension for writers that he has received since 2002.

It must all be getting a bit traumatic for the literary superstar, now aged 83 and perhaps utterly bewildered by what must be an unexpected fall from grace after getting away with so much for so long – in terms of candid revelations at least, rather than serious crimes, of which he appears to be entirely innocent. We might expect him, as an old man, to be rather stuck in the culture of the past, which in France has long meant that the concept of “literary licence” has been extended not just to what writers write but also to an exceptional degree of freedom in their lifestyle.

So where was this French exceptionalism coming from? How did they ever come to be given such a free pass to be “immoral”, as many would have thought, or “perverted”?

Well, the moralists could start by blaming the French Revolution, which swept away the old criminal laws and in 1791 a new code was introduced that deliberately focused on “real crimes”, excluding moralistic old offences such as incest, bestiality and homosexuality, which were decriminalised. And there was no AOC. Not that the revolutionaries were entirely easy-going: if you destroyed evidence of someone’s marital status you could be clapped in irons for 12 years! Napoleon’s much longer-lasting penal code of 1810 did not include an AOC  either. It specified rape or any other indecent assault committed with violence as criminal offences but said nothing about non-violent sexual acts with children, so these were legal. Very sensible!

The spoilsports eventually got their act together though. In 1832 a new law specified that indecent assault on a child of either sex, under the age of 11, without violence, was an offence. So this was at last an AOC; the age was raised to 13 in 1863 and 15 in 1945. Interestingly, though, the courts have at times resisted applying the law.  For instance, Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu cites the case of Nicolas B., accused of indecent assault on his 5-year-old niece, who in 1865 benefited from extenuating circumstances on the grounds that his victim had not been deflowered. However, as the man was charged with a non-violent attack and not with rape, the question of defloration should not have arisen. As recently as 2015 (following a recasting of the entire penal code in 1994), the Constitutional Council reasserted that French law “does not set an age of discernment in regards to sexual relations: It is for the courts to determine whether the minor was capable of consenting to the sexual relationship in question.”

At all events, the low AOC in the early part of the 20th century gave plenty of scope for writers such as Henry de Montherlant and André Gide to indulge and write about their sexual tastes for young boys without fear, thereby setting the tone for post-war writers – a permissive tone that found more general expression in the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, supported by such immense figures as Sartre and Foucault.

By the 1970s, backing for children’s sexual freedom had become fashionable, at least in the intellectual world, and the middle of that decade saw books by no less than four major authors cheer-leading for paedophilia – including their own. One of them was Metzneff, as already noted. Another was the philosopher René Schérer, whose 1974 essay Émile perverti  supported pederastic relations between teachers and pupils. A third was Tony Duvert, who won the Medici prize in 1973 and the following year his first openly paedophilic essay appeared, Le Bon Sex Illustré.

Finally, we have the most internationally famous of them all, the Franco-German firebrand Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who shot to prominence in the great student protests of 1968 as a leftist revolutionary dubbed “Danny the Red”. In later years re-invented himself as an elected politician, leading both the German and French Green parties and becoming a leading member of the European Parliament. This successful track record was amazingly achieved despite his extraordinary chapter in a 1975 book called Le Grand Bazar, devoted to “the sexuality of children”, in which he spoke of his interactions with little children when he had been a kindergarten assistant in Frankfurt the previous year. It included incidents in which, as he put it, they would open his flies and tickle him, and he would caress them. He also appeared on Apostrophes in 1982, saying: “You know that the sexuality of a kid is absolutely fantastic…. When a little girl, five years old, starts to undress you, it’s fantastic! It’s fantastic because it’s an absolutely erotomanic game!”

These early indiscretions have come back to haunt him from time to time, but simply by denying  any paedophilic interest in children he has managed to avoid any really damaging scandal. I don’t think he would have got away with it in the US or UK.

Perhaps the most high-profile contribution by the French intellectuals in these years, though, came in the form of petitions in 1977 issued after a trial that saw three men jailed for non-violent sex offences against children aged 12 and 13.

“Three years in prison for caresses and kisses: enough is enough,” one petition said. Incredibly, among the 69 signatures were those of two government ministers, Bernard Kouchner and Jack Lang.

“French law recognises in 12- and 13-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” said a second petition signed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, along with fellow intellectuals Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida; a leading child psychologist, Françoise Dolto; and writers Philippe Sollers, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Louis Aragon. “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned. It should acknowledge the right of children and adolescents to have relations with whomever they choose.”

That was the place! Those were the days!

 

SCRUTINISING SCRUTON

I made a rare post on BoyChat yesterday, following a thread there in which the recently deceased philosopher Roger Scruton was discussed and mention was made of my critique of his work. One or two people had put in a good word for Scruton. Nothing wrong with that. I am all in favour of fair and balanced assessments but it did seem to me that they had forgotten just what a nasty piece of work the great man himself could be. So I put in my own two penn’orth here.

One thing I didn’t mention is that even as a father the old reactionary might be a bit of a bastard, if we are to take him at his word (though we probably can’t!) Back in 1999, when his son was a baby, Professor Scruton penned a piece in the Guardian on his plans for the boy’s upbringing, titled “Raising Master Scruton”. He wrote:

…my wife Sophie and I have decided to offer Sam a genuinely deprived childhood… It goes without saying that Sam will not enjoy his childhood…But that is not the point. Childhood is not an end in itself but a means to growing up…

The most important factor in the old systems of education, the factor which caused children to emerge from them with all their wildness and selfishness subdued, was religion. Sam is to get a good dose of this. His parents are Christians.

It sounds as though Sam, now into his twenties, might be dancing on his dad’s grave! I have a horrible suspicion, though, that he is a chip off the old block: it appears he studied theology at Oxford. And if he has done a jig atop his old man’s sod it would have been after reading from St John’s gospel at the funeral.

Scholar hounded over pederasty studies

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No fancy philosophical focus on Foucault and his ilk this time, folks. No festive season reflections on the passing year and decade either.

Christmas is usually slow for news because the politicians and the other movers and shakers who make the headlines are at home with their feet up just like the rest of us, somnolently finishing off the mince pies.

There is seldom any let up in bad news for us heretics, though, and this month has seen a particularly shocking story unfolding in America. What makes it so alarming is that it is not a sex scandal. There is no Kevin Spacey or Jeffrey Epstein in this story.

The truly appalling news is that a man of utterly unblemished character, a distinguished intellectual, a professor, finds himself being hounded for his scholarship on pederasty in ancient Greece and for questioning whether the age of consent needs to be as high as 18, which it is in many of the states in the USA. Worse still, he is not being given the robust support by his university that should be expected. Every reputable institution of learning knows the value of academic freedom; when such places begin to waver in defence of unfettered scholarship, we have to fear the direction society as a whole is taking.

I refer to the University of Texas, Austin, and to Thomas K Hubbard, who is a professor of classics there, is 63 years of age, and ought to be able to look forward to an honour-garlanded retirement after a couple more years. Trouble kicked off publicly early this month when the city’s main newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman reported that following protests against professors “with histories of sexual misconduct”, a group of students was calling for Hubbard’s removal for allegedly “promoting harmful ideas about the age of consent and sexual relations with minors”.

The story was taken up by other papers, including, online, The Daily Beast, and later the Chronicle of Higher Education. The latter, in a report about a week after the Statesman one, signalled an ugly atmosphere, with worrying hints of a lynch mob mentality. Protesters had massed outside the professor’s home, banging on the door, shouting that he was a predator.

A rabble-rousing journal called, appropriately enough, Incendiary News, would later report that “He needed multiple officers to get away from the wrath of the students” and that one student, giving a speech, said “Pedophilia apologists like you deserve to be confronted and to feel afraid! We will make you scared to teach, scared to leave your home, scared to even exist in the City of Austin!” The same paper featured a photo of masked vigilantes with a banner and placards used in the protest, calling Hubbard a “pedophile” and “perv”. Video footage was posted, too, in which the mob are heard chanting their abuse. In a second video clip, Hubbard was filmed as the police escorted him away to safety.Graffiti were also reportedly seen daubed on a wall in the area reading “Pedo Hubbard, watch your back”. Other sources have reported that Hubbard’s house was likewise vandalised with hostile messages sprayed in red paint, and bricks may have been thrown at the dwelling.

Masked vigilantes in a hostile act of trespass outside Prof. Hubbard’s home

It might be thought that the university would be falling over itself to see such intimidation against a member of their staff brought swiftly to a halt. They could have ordered a thorough investigation of any suspected instigators among the student population and insisted the police conduct their own determined probe into the vigilantism, which clearly went far beyond legitimate peaceful demonstration.

But no, although the police have said they are indeed looking into what happened, right from the outset the university set about washing its hands of its responsibilities. In the initial Statesman story, University of Texas spokeswoman Shilpa Bakre was quoted as saying “The university condemns ideas or world views that exploit or harm individuals”, as though accepting that Hubbard’s “ideas or world views” do indeed “exploit or harm” anyone. While conceding that the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects “even offensive ideas”, there was no reported enthusiasm for this law by the university itself, nor any defence of the need for academic freedom in order for scholarship to thrive. This was before the vandalism and intimidation at Hubbard’s home; but the university’s attitude only went from bad to worse afterwards, notably as expressed in a letter to the Dallas Morning News by the Austin President of the University, Gregory L. Fenves.

This letter followed a lengthy editorial in that paper. Saying they wanted to know for themselves whether Hubbard’s position was in line with the protesters’ claims, they read one of his articles, titled “Sexual Consent and the Adolescent Male, or What Can We Learn From the Greeks” in a 2010 edition of Boyhood Studies (then called Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies). They wrote:

What Hubbard learned from the Greeks, apparently, is that society really needs to reconsider age-of-consent laws that are intended to protect children from sexual predators. Ancient Greece, he argues, showed us that “where age-discrepant relationships are commonplace and positively reinforced, they cause little or no long-term harm to the younger partner and often confer great benefit,” he writes.

That’s not all. The problem of boys without fathers in their lives might well be resolved by having men have sex with those boys, he writes. “Pederastic intimacy evolved in part as a social mechanism for addressing it.” He goes on to write, “contemporary U.S. culture has not compensated for the magnitude of the problem.”

No, thankfully, contemporary U.S. culture has not gone the way of the Greeks.

The editorial goes on to claim, “No one is more eager to defend academic freedom than we are.” But they have an odd way of showing it. They say, “Should Hubbard wish to explore his considerations at some university, he should be able to do so. But Texas taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for supporting him while he does…” While stopping short of saying he should be sacked, the editorial adds:

Instead, we urge students to do what they are doing: Stand up against this. Make your voice heard. And as important, make your wallet heard. Let Hubbard’s classrooms be empty. Let his papers go unread. And let the school know with letters and through any reviews of your education experience that this is unacceptable. Let Hubbard’s ideas, wrong and terrible and unlearned, be first challenged and defeated and finally neglected and forgotten.

Echoing this narrow philistinism, the follow-up letter from Fenves published the next day also sided with the protesting students, saying “I understand their concerns about his ideas. I personally find them outrageous.” He too claimed to support academic freedom but then hinted that he thought Hubbard might have crossed a line by teaching controversial matter that had no relation to the subject he had been assigned to teach. He wrote that:

…we are aware of the concerns and complaints about those classes this semester. We have been and are reviewing them and will take appropriate action, within the bounds of academic freedom and the constitutionally protected right to free speech.

For the university, then, it seems investigating Hubbard’s classes is more important than probing the intimidation used against him.

As for what Hubbard has been thinking and feeling about all this, we can get a pretty good idea, from two important sources, the Chronicle of Higher Education article and also his emails to psychology professor J Michael Bailey’s online academic forum, where Hubbard and I are both members.

The Chronicle report took up the theme that NAMBLA has in the past given publicity to Hubbard’s work:

His papers have been promoted and distributed by the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA, a group that advocates for the legalization of pedophilia. NAMBLA has been dormant in recent years, and Hubbard has said he does not endorse NAMBLA’s radicalism or criminal activity and does not have “personal enthusiasm for sex with teenagers.”

“If people in these groups support me, it may be because I am one of the few academics who is willing to listen to them and learn about their motivations, instead of demonizing them as incurable monsters,” Hubbard wrote in an email. “How can one do scholarship on pederasty or sex offending if one doesn’t talk to pederasts and sex offenders?”

As for Bailey’s forum, Hubbard’s approach to that group enabled him to rally support from a number of the world’s most reputable scientists and other scholars working in fields relating to sexuality and sexual ethics. Together, they signed a letter to go to the Dallas Morning News as a response to the papers’ editorial and the university president’s letter. The letter referred to Hubbard’s status as an accomplished classical historian, whose work had been recognized by a prestigious Guggenheim award.

Hubbard’s Guggenheim citation in 2017 directly commended his work on “a particularly sensitive and controversial aspect of Greco-Roman culture, namely the widespread practice of homosexual pederasty”.

On 21 December, Hubbard emailed Bailey’s forum. He said the forum’s letter had not yet been published, nor had another one from the distinguished historian and theorist of sexuality Prof. David M. Halperin. However, wrote Hubbard:

…they did publish this craven letter from our University President, in which he claims to be “personally outraged” by my views. I seriously doubt that he has actually read my publications or could understand them if he had (he is a civil engineer). He has made no statement whatever about the mob violence at my house.

I have not been officially informed by the University of the nature of their “investigation” of me or been asked to provide any course materials. This letter to the Dallas paper is the first I have heard about it, which violates all kinds of due process. One cannot discuss ancient Greece or Rome without commenting on the differing social constructions of sexuality in those cultures.

The implication in his letter that I have introduced “irrelevant” material or personal advocacy into my courses is utterly false and threatens academic freedom fundamentally.

So far, I have been referring to Prof. Hubbard impersonally; but long-time followers of Heretic TOC may recall that he has been mentioned a few times here and that we are acquainted. We met once, a few years ago, at a classics conference in Edinburgh and he kindly gave a pre-publication endorsement for my book Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons. I am familiar with some of his work and find much to admire both in his scholarship and his steadfast outspokenness and opposition to censorship. The latter was very much on display in his book Censoring Sex Research: The Debate over Male Intergenerational Relations, co-edited with historian Beert Verstraete. Published in 2013, this book finally allowed a long-censored 90-page essay by Bruce Rind, another unjustly attacked academic, to see the light of day. As Hubbard put it in his introduction:

Dr Rind contextualizes his earlier analyses of psychological data through an aggressively interdisciplinary approach, showing that his earlier finding that male intergenerational relationships are usually not harmful is not as surprising or implausible as critics claim.

Incidentally, I just recently chanced upon a very well informed and deep – if somewhat nihilistic – review of this book by Diederik Janssen.

As for what the future holds for Tom Hubbard, who knows? He knows that the demonstrators constitute only a tiny minority of trouble makers and that many other students are interested in attending his classes. Whether they will feel intimidated and will stay away, only time will tell. We can only hope that they, and Tom himself, will feel able to hang in there.

 

OUR MAN BUMPS INTO GRETA THUNBERG

A regular follower of this blog had an interesting chance encounter with Greta Thunberg recently, on a train passing south to north right through Germany and onwards to the young climate change activist’s native Sweden.

It was a fraught journey, with a train breakdown, much chaos, and a three-hours-late arrival in Malmö, in the middle of the night.

Long before that late arrival, waiting on a platform for a replacement train around lunch-time, Heretic TOC’s Europe Correspondent (as I will think of him from now on!) saw “a rather attractive girl of (I thought) about 11, slight in build”. The thought occurred to him that “if she were just a little older and larger” she could even be Greta Thunberg.

Greta will be 17 on her birthday this Friday, but still famously has the appearance of quite a young child.

Two or three changes of train later, our correspondent continues, on the way into Denmark, he “literally bumped into this girl” when they both needed to board another train for the onward journey. He said he thought he recognised her; her brief response confirmed he was right. They ended up sitting quite near to each other, “although she was surrounded by her adult keepers”. Our correspondent continues:

I exchanged one or two bits of small talk with her “keepers”, one of whom was her dad, but quickly understood that Greta herself was incredibly tired and wanted little more than to sleep. It was a first class carriage, with very few passengers, so she could and did stretch out and sleep.

She literally looked no more than a very slender 11-year-old, behaving as any 11-year-old would after a long and tiring train journey. She asked to sit away from the aisle “so that people don’t come up to me and want to talk”. She woke up about 20 minutes before another change of trains, and asked tetchily if she could sleep some more.

Her “keepers” talked of this and that, for example of how if the Madrid summit didn’t achieve anything it would just be a climate-negative in that 3000 delegates had been flown in.

It all got me thinking of the accusations you hear, of how Greta has just been manipulated by adults around her. Seeing her revert to a “normal”, tired, apparently 11-year-old, after a long train trip, did nothing to dispel that. And her expression later, when getting off the train, anxiously looking to see if there was yet another reception committee to deal with, almost made me think she was on the point of crisis. Absolutely in need of a long rest.

Later I saw she’d posted a picture of herself sitting on the floor of “an overcrowded German train”. This has turned into her “Corbyn moment”, because shortly afterwards the German Railways (DB) issued a curt tweet saying that she could have shown her appreciation to the staff in her first class carriage that had efficiently seen to her needs!

What our correspondent does not tell us here – although he did later – is that Greta’s post had not been “fake news”, as those keen to discredit her would be quick to allege, just as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s many enemies had done in his very similar case. She really had been on an overcrowded train that day and really had found herself with nowhere to sit but the floor, as journalists travelling on the same train confirmed. But that was one of the earlier trains in the sequence, before Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company, sprung into action to help their VIP passenger – and limit the damage to their reputation caused by the breakdown.

That apart, we are left with a more interesting question. Is Greta Thunberg really an exploited child? Or an heroically committed young woman?

 

A WARRIOR RIDES TO HIS VALHALLA

In July, I reported the death of no fewer than three prominent heretical activists with whom I was well acquainted, within the space of less than six months. And now, still within the same calendar year, I need to mention another sad departure.

Dr Nigel Leigh Oldfield, died on 21 November, aged 59. Along with about a dozen other mourners, mostly relatives, I attended his funeral in a private ceremony at Rawdon Crematorium, Leeds, just before Christmas, on 23 December.

The ceremony had to be private for security reasons. There could have been, if not a riot, then serious disruption and unpleasantness. That is because Nigel, or Leigh as he was called by those who knew him, had been a courageously defiant figure in the face of anti-paedophilic vigilantism in his local area (ominously, that “V” word seems to be rather prominent in more than one of today’s blog items).

Heretic TOC ran a piece about him in 2015 titled Hail, brave warrior, Nigel the Noble! It will be plain enough from that article as to why he attracted vigilante ire and why I found his response admirable.

Less clear, though, was the downside of his personality that played a large part in arguably making himself his own worst enemy – even with so many others – leading to his death at an early age by modern standards.

He had done very well to conquer difficulties in his early life, taking a doctorate in chemistry at Nottingham University; and, as a teacher, he distinguished himself sufficiently to gain a post as a head of department at a big comprehensive school in Buxton, Derbyshire.

But he was depressive. And he drank heavily. Common problems, both, for those of us who are Kind in an unkind society. He fell afoul of the law. He lost his job and his livelihood. He went downhill, from bad to worse, despite the amazingly loving and loyal support of an improbable partner in his final years – that, at least, is an inspirational story; but now is not the right time for its telling.

 

Turning our view of power upside down

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Heretic TOC’s two-part review of The Fear of Child Sexuality, by Steven Angelides, began last time with a focus on the author as himself a prisoner of fear.

We noted that while he clearly acknowledges children as sexual beings and is positive towards their sexual expression and agency, he is very tentative as regards the practical implications when it comes to their freedom to choose an older partner, opting to discuss it solely in relation to the more easily defensible possibilities, notably mid-teen boys in relationships with women. In Angelides’ own country, Australia, the boy in these liaisons dangereuses has traditionally been lionised as a “lucky bastard”; rather than being pitied as a victim, the young larrikin who gets to shag his own teacher – a figure of some salience on our modern sexual battleground – has been seen as a masculine success story, a legend among his mates, the subject of envy even among older males. Angelides puts a lot of good work into challenging the fierce feminist attack on this narrative, but his analysis at this point is not in an especially radical place, being applied only to narrow, particular circumstances.

His ideas can be put to more general and substantial application, however, if we dig to their roots. As we saw in part one, Angelides is held back thanks to his unwitting complicity in a Foucauldian “strategy of fear”. But there is a wider aspect of the celebrated (and execrated!) French philosopher’s work that Angelides discusses and which I can take up with more enthusiasm and positivity: this is Foucault on power.

This is complicated stuff but let’s see if we can keep it tolerably simple. Feminists have been banging on for decades with their dogmatic insistence that children are supposedly powerless in their dealings with adults, such that these older people are bound to dominate, exploit and abuse the younger ones in “unequal” sexual relations. Using Australian “scandals” in the media, Angelides very clearly demonstrates that in the (admittedly limited) cases of the teenage boys in question, a confident youth sometimes has considerably more power in practice than a young, inexperienced female teacher, both in the classroom and the bedroom.

The main thing to note about Foucault at this point is that he saw power as relational, rather than something that powerful individuals, institutions or classes possess unilaterally and impose in a top-down way on the powerless beneath them. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy usefully summarises his position in a way that hints at the potential for power flowing sideways and even upwards within society as well as downwards, no matter how formally hierarchical its arrangements may appear:

We should not try to look for the center of power, or for the individuals, institutions or classes that rule, but should rather construct a “microphysics of power” that focuses on the multitude of loci of power spread throughout a society: families, workplaces, everyday practices, and marginal institutions. One has to analyze power relations from the bottom up and not from the top down, and to study the myriad ways in which the subjects themselves are constituted in these diverse but intersecting networks.

The most obvious sorts of power, such as the power of a Henry VIII to have his wives’ heads chopped off on a whim, or the power of governments to pass laws that we must all obey, possibly on pain of losing our liberty, are of course experienced as top-down phenomena (or, in the case of tyrants’ victims, top-off!) Sometimes called sovereign, or juridical power, the unilateral imposition of force needs to be distinguished from the subtler power interactions that typify modern society – notably the power associated with knowledge, exercised through the influence of all manner of professionals and experts, whose understandings influence each other and society in ways so multifarious and complex that no one is in control. We are governed less by cunning elites pulling the strings in a deliberately conspiratorial way than by fashionable ideas such as victim feminism that seem to come out of nowhere but which reflect an awful lot of “discourse” – books, speeches, lectures, podcasts, documentaries – constructing “knowledge” about the world that may later come to be sceptically “deconstructed” by others, including Foucauldians!

The discourse of victim feminism in recent decades has all but eradicated the idea of child sexuality. As Angelides notes, the sexual child “is being reduced to (adult) sexual effect – victim – and generally disappears into debates about the corruption and sexualisation of childhood and innocence” (p. xxiii). This insistence on children’s victim status is tied to age of consent laws that deploy top-down  sovereign/juridical power in an arbitrary way to distinguish legitimate (adult-adult) relations from illegitimate (adult-child) ones. In doing so, we lose sight of the two-way power (operating sideways and bottom-up) to which Foucault drew attention when speaking of power as relational.

Angelides has an early chapter on the fear of child sexuality in which he invoked the Freudian figure of the “uncanny” or scary child. Anyone familiar with the spooky kids in The Turn of the Screw, or the possessed (especially with sexual manifestations) child of horror movies such as The Exorcist, will get the idea. A personal experience of this kind made a great impression on him. He describes how, as a teenager, he was at a dinner party hosted by friends of his parents when he was confronted by an eight-year-old girl “confiding in me and recounting in great detail, and with great delight, her sexual exploits with a thirty-year-old man”. It was an “intensely disconcerting” experience for him. “I distinctly remember fearing this child,” he said, “and feeling ashamed at being privy to her inner world.”

This little girl had unsettled not just his idea of childhood innocence but even “my own sense of self as an adolescent”. In other words, she had blown his socks off, producing such a powerful effect that he would later write about it in ways that have already been felt in the academic world, at least, around the globe. Not bad for a supposedly powerless kid! Not bad, either, as an example of bottom-up relational power in action.

Victim feminism’s focus on children, notably through the 1970s work of Florence Rush and later David Finkelhor, was produced against a background in which feminism in general sought to create relations of greater equality between men and women. In seeking an end to “patriarchal” male dominance, most feminists (apart from radical lesbians who wanted nothing to do with men) entirely reasonably wanted a society in which women received equal pay for equal work and men were not allowed to beat their wives for disobedience. Where some of them have lost their way has been in their doctrinaire insistence on promoting even undesirable forms of equality. Are poor black women, then, only to be allowed to have poor black husbands as partners because a relationship with a rich white man would be unequal and “inevitably” exploitative? This would be the logical outcome of identity politics, which is now all but ubiquitous and which has its roots in the racial and gender politics of victimhood.

Where adult-adult contacts are concerned, at least, thoughtful feminists have taken on board Foucault’s insight that power is relational. But they fail to apply this model to child-adult relations, especially with regard to sexuality. Instead they crudely seek to impose sovereign/juridical top-down power through the age of consent laws.

Angelides understands and elaborates on this. He takes issue with feminists who say that power ceases to be a factor in relations of equality. He says he cannot agree with this, adding:

…my disagreement issues…from a post-Foucauldian, nonjuridical conceptualization of power which assumes that where there is a power relationship between two people – and not a state of bondage or pure force – power is exercised and not possessed…Dominance and submission are not fixed positions determined by the presence or absence of power.” (p.56)

He seems to have been referring here at least in part to the work of the British psychologist Wendy Hollway, to which he turns some fifty-odd pages later, where he speaks of “the post-Foucauldian reworking of relational power as an intrinsically intersubjective phenomenon animated by the dynamics of recognition”. This “dynamics of recognition” turns out to mean, basically, people’s emotional effect on each other e.g. someone might feel personally empowered by being recognised as competent at their work. Under this model, he says, “power is not to be conceived as a substance or entity that an individual possesses, wields, and controls, as Foucault argued. Instead… power is always only a relational phenomenon referring to struggles to control the giving and receiving of recognition.” (pp.110-111).

Hollway is a new name to me and I have only a sketchy idea as to what is meant by the “dynamics of recognition”. The concept sounds promising although I suspect it might turn into the blind alley that is identity politics. Angelides also mentions the sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990), who outlived Foucault (1926-1984) but who was born long before him. His intellectual output was such that he might be considered pre-Foucauldian, although he came to fame – or at least to recognition as a towering figure in his field – late in life, at around the same time as Foucault’s books began to appear, from the 1960s onwards.

Angelides mentions Elias only very briefly, in the context of his ideas about the power of shame as a sexually inhibiting factor. I learned much more about him from The Cambridge Handbook of Sexual Development: Childhood and Adolescence, which I reviewed recently for Sexuality & Culture (see separate item below). There was one quote from his work that struck a chord with me:

In so far as we are more dependent on others than they are on us, more directed by others than they are by us, they have power over us, whether we have become dependent on them by their use of naked force or by our need to be loved, our need for money, healing, status, a career or simply for excitement” (Cambridge Handbook, p.40).

Now compare the Elias line with what Angelides says when he proposes that children are far from being universally positioned outside of power. On the contrary, he says:

…no non-physically forcible sexual relations (adult-adult or adult-child) and no parent-child relations can be disarticulated from power. Children exercise power in myriad and subtle ways in their relationships with parents and adults” (Angelides, pp.54-55).

Note that Elias refers to being subjected to the power of “naked force” but he then draws attention to a range of other factors, such as love, and excitement, that can put us under the spell of another person – the magic power, as it were, of really wanting to be in their company and esteemed by them. Now consider one final passage, by another author:

…power, in paedophilic as in other relationships, doesn’t necessarily reside with the elder party. It depends on the circumstances, especially on which partner needs the other most. One might even propose, as a law of human nature, that power in a relationship resides with the party that needs the relationship less.

Any idea who this writer was? Ring any bells? Full marks if you knew, or guessed, that it was me, in Paedophilia: The Radical Case, 1980 (p.173). This “law” was explicitly limited to de facto consensual relationships, hence no “naked force” or other coercion. I was writing from my own direct personal experience rather than from contemplation of Elias or Foucault, or any later theorists such as Angelides or Hollway. Elias was not on my radar at all in those days. Admittedly, I had just read Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1, hot off the presses as a new title in 1979, and even discussed it personally with sociologist and historian Jeffrey Weeks. But I was not impressed by the fashionable Frenchman’s obscure, abominably written ramblings. I have warmed to him since, after reading a fair chunk of his other work, but my writing on power back then owed nothing to his influence or anyone else’s so far as I am aware. The chapter in question, Chapter 9 on “Power and Equality”, was the most original aspect of The Radical Case and probably the best.

Who was listening though? And who will now take much notice of Angelides? Some of his work has been intellectually influential (there have been over 220 citations of his paper “Feminism, child sexual abuse, and the erasure of child sexuality” on Google Scholar, an exceptional score) but it is already clear that his new book has not set the publishing world on fire, nor the reviewers or the public. Put it this way: in the Amazon Best Sellers Rank, as I write, it is not in the top 100, or the top 1000, or even the top million. It languishes at position number 3,100,263!

But, hey, let’s not judge a book by its popularity. The Fear of Child Sexuality does at least explore and clarify issues of importance to us heretics. I do not regret the time I spent reading it.

 

SUFFRAGE LITTLE CHILDREN

Jesus said “suffer little children to come unto me”. He did not say extend the suffrage to children. But as we find ourselves coming up to a general election in the UK in less than two weeks from now we might want to ponder whether votes for kids would be a good idea. They could hardly get us into a bigger mess than the country is in at the moment, torn apart as we are over Brexit.

Oddly enough this idea has just been proposed not from the radical fringes of politics but by Polly Mackenzie, who served as director of policy to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, from 2010-2015. In an article for the rather good online journal UnHerd, she points out out that the age of criminal responsibility in England is 10, and says:

How can we argue that a 10-year-old has the judgement required to understand the law and the consequences of breaking it – and then argue that a 10-year-old doesn’t have the judgement required to understand democracy or the consequences of voting? If you have to follow the law, you should have a role in making it.

 

CAMBRIDGE HANDBOOK

As briefly mentioned above, another book review of mine was published recently. This was an extensive (over 4,000 words) critique of The Cambridge Handbook of Sexual Development: Childhood and Adolescence, a huge (600+ pages) multi-author academic tome from Cambridge University Press. The article is in Sexuality & Culture. As will be seen at the journal’s official link, which has the Abstract, publishers Springer Nature are charging £34.74 for the privilege of reading the full text, which pro rata would work out at around a princely £1,000 for a book of average length. Not that I will see so much as a penny from any sales as the traditional academic publishing model involves scholars surrendering their commercial interest. Happily, though, free full-text access is available here.

As many be imagined, it was very gratifying to a “paedophilia apologist” such as myself to be afforded a prestigious platform on which to pontificate about, of all things, childhood sexual development. Perhaps S&C were assuming that only paedos have sufficient direct knowledge of the subject to be able to write with authority on the matter! However that may be, I can report that a couple of professors have already responded: one found my review “very interesting”; another sent a PDF of her latest paper, saying she thought her work would interest me – it did!

 

INCREDIBLE AND FALSE

The hot news this morning is that former MP Harvey Proctor is to get a £900,000 pay-out from the police in London after being subject to false accusations of brutality, rape and murder against children.

This is the latest fall-out from the Met police’s Operation Midland investigation, which disastrously chose to believe lurid, bizarre and utterly incredible allegations made by fantasist Carl Beech, who claimed boys were raped and tortured in the 1970s and 80s by members of a VIP paedophile ring involving leading figures in politics and government. Even more astonishing, and incredibly stupid, was that a senior officer – supported from the very top of the force – went public with the declaration that Beech’s fabrications were “credible and true”. Beech is now serving an 18-year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice and fraud.

 

 

Warily going where angels fear to tread

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Book review: The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex, and Agency, by Steven Angelides. University of Chicago Press, September 2019.

This is an important new book. Heretic TOC has accordingly decided to give it an in-depth review in two parts. This first part will focus on Angelides’ aims in relation to his earlier track record. The second part will consider the book’s content in more detail with a particular focus on the author’s interestingly “post-Foucauldian” view of power in sexual relationships. 

We might guess that someone called Angelides would be on the side of the angels. This family name is Greek for “son of an angel” or “descended from the angels”. Something like that. The name of the book itself, its title, tells us it is about fear, so we might find ourselves wondering whether the writer will boldly go where angels allegedly fear to tread. Portentously, too, this wordsmith’s given name is Steven, after the first Christian martyr. His more specific subject is child sexuality, a notoriously dangerous theme for any writer these days, so is this perhaps saintly scribe doomed to martyrdom, or even actively courting it?

Child sexuality: obscured, censored, but not entirely erased from public discourse.

Definitely not the latter, on the evidence so far. The good Dr Angelides, a senior academic whose PhD was in history and gender studies, is affiliated with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society at La Trobe University and an honorary senior research fellow at Macquarie University. This much, and his listed publications, are a matter of public record, but otherwise he has kept a low profile. He isn’t big on the social media, doesn’t appear to give interviews, has no Wikipedia entry, and not much has been written about him.

Having been impressed many years ago by a couple of his papers, especially “Feminism, child sexual abuse, and the erasure of child sexuality” (2004), I was keen to read his new book when word reached me about it a few months ahead of its publication last month. So I wrote to his official university email address offering to write a review, possibly for an academic journal but certainly here at Heretic TOC. I heard nothing back. After a suitable interval I wrote again. Still silence.

I was a bit miffed. This was an unexpected snub. My recollection, admittedly somewhat foggy, was that Angelides had written quite respectfully about paedophile organisations such as PIE, which I chaired for several years. It was as though he at least acknowledged our sincerity and idealism. The impression I had was that he believed children are not only sexual but sometimes want sexual contact with an adult and are capable of consent in fact if not in law.

So why would he shun me and my interest in his book? Perhaps because he thinks I am a crap writer, of no significance? That would be mortifying but there is another explanation. Fear. Fear of guilt by association with a “convicted paedophile” like me.

History professor Joanna Bourke knows about these things. She is an expert on fear, author of a book called Fear: A Cultural History. So it is not surprising to see that Times Higher Education recently carried her review of The Fear of Child Sexuality. She wrote:

Even scholarly analyses of the sexuality of young people risk accusations of championing paedophilia. It is therefore very brave of Steven Angelides, an academic at La Trobe University in Australia, to tackle the topic. He is very clear about his ethical stance: he opposes all attempts to normalise paedophilia.

Except that he doesn’t. I had just finished reading Angelides’ book when I encountered Bourke. It was fresh in my mind and I knew that, mercifully, there was nothing whatever in it that could distinctly be taken as opposing paedophilia. Just as I remembered from his earlier papers, the perspective presented in his book is entirely compatible with children, especially those on the pre-teen cusp of adolescence and beyond, being sexually active and capable of voluntary participation in an intergenerational relationship. Wonderful! Delighted to see it! It could hardly have been otherwise, actually, because it turns out the book is pretty much a “greatest hits” compilation album of this earlier work.

So where was Bourke’s utterly contrary claim coming from? Could this reputable historian have misinterpreted Angelides at some point? Or else be lying?

Well, it turns out that I cannot call her a liar but I do say loud and clear that her words performed a major deception, and it was one in which Angelides colluded. What happened, in effect, was that the pair of them came together to enact a strategy of fear. It was presumably not concocted in a conscious conspiracy between them (they may not have contacted each other or be personally acquainted) but it ends up working in the same way. There is a tactic as well as a strategy in all this that I will come to shortly. But first let’s get into this strategy business. Angelides has plenty to say on this theme, starting in his Preface. He refers to:

… the cultural and political work the mobilization of emotional vocabularies of fear, anxiety, and shame does to endlessly defer an encounter with the agentive sexual child. This, I suggest, is a “strategy” of many child sex panics — although by strategies I am thinking of those aspects of power relations that are, as Michel Foucault famously puts it, “both intentional and non-subjective.” Power relations have aims and objectives, and in this way are intentional; but they are also beyond an individual or group’s will, consciousness, or control — in that no individual or group possesses power and in that power relations have unintended and entangled aims and consequences—and so are nonsubjective. Strategies can thereby also be anonymous and unwitting (pp. xiv).

Unintended consequences. Unwitting strategies.

Precisely!

By a supreme irony, an unwitting strategy of fear has produced a wholly unintended consequence in which Bourke and Angelides accidently collude against the sexual child that both of them (to judge from Bourke’s review as a whole, as well as the book she is reviewing) would wish to support. This unwitting, accidental antagonism expresses itself through a contradiction.

To see how that has happened we must turn now from the strategy to the tactic. As we have seen, Bourke asserts that Angelides “is very clear about his ethical stance: he opposes all attempts to normalise paedophilia”. Where does he make himself “clear”? Not, as I have said, in his book, or not at least in the main text, including the Preface. No, the tactic adopted by Angelides was to hide away his “clear” ethical stance in the Acknowledgements section, positioned near the end of the book, in the most obscure place possible, between the last page of the book proper and the beginning of the Notes. I am very pleased the disclaimer appearing there is indeed obscure because to make it more prominent would be to obstruct his long-held and much more positive message, a message all us heretics will applaud, namely that intergenerational sexual relationships can be ethical. The one thing that really is clear, it seems to me, is that Angelides is so fearful – understandably – of being crucified in the media and elsewhere that he feels the disclaimer, distancing himself from paedophilia, was necessary.

So how did Bourke come to notice this “clear” statement, hidden away among lengthy tributes to the author’s colleagues and friends that would be of little interest to the general reader? My guess is that the publishers, the University of Chicago Press, sent a memo drawing attention to it along with every review copy they sent out. That would have done the trick. So, it looks as though there was probably corporate collusion too.

But we do not need to subscribe to this little bit of conspiracy theory on my part to see that fear is massively at work. Angelides gives us plenty of grounds for seeing why it would be in play. He tells us:

Publishing variously on the historical emergence of the modern pedophile, on child sexual abuse, on queer theory, and on child and adolescent sexuality, has done me no favors in some respects. In a way that gets to the very heart of this book’s fundamental concerns about child sex panics, my work across these areas has sometimes been maliciously misrepresented by people who are opposed to almost any examination of young people’s sexualities and who have a range of political axes to grind… Merely writing on these topics has been enough for some people unwilling to properly read my work to presume falsely that I am an apologist for pedophilia. Nothing could be further from the truth. From my very early involvement in the emergence of queer theory in Australia, I am on the published record denouncing any attempt to normalise pedophilia by way of transgressive queer theories (pp. 179-80).

As someone who knows what it feels like to be maliciously misrepresented of course I sympathise with all writers who find themselves on the wrong end of such abuse. However, I have been able to find only a couple of articles, published online, that attack him and his work – as already indicated, he has managed to maintain quite a low profile, perhaps because queer theory in general tends to hide itself in a fog of dense academic language that few can penetrate – and to my mind these seem to give a reasonably accurate account of his ideas. Hostile, yes, but nothing like as distorted and downright false as many of the allegations levelled at those of us who put our views out there in more straightforward activist terms.

Coming back to the contradiction I mentioned, it is this. Angelides says children may be capable of ethically acceptable participation in an intergenerational sexual relationship; Bourke is less committed but describes his book as well argued and sensible. Yet almost in the same breath, as it were, both of them badmouth paedophilia. So they arrive at the strange position of willing the end but denying the means. For how are children going to find themselves in intergenerational relationships unless they are allowed to have adults who are sexually attracted to them (i.e. paedophiles) as their older partners? Or are they supposed to confine their interest to “normal” adults who might turn to them temporarily as an inferior substitute when a physically mature partner is not available? Doesn’t make much sense to me. Indeed, some might see it as a recipe for encouraging casual exploitation by the older person.

Fortunately, a clear explanation of this contradiction is available, at least as regards Bourke’s thinking, which gives us a good steer when we come to the subtler line taken by Angelides. She writes:

It is unfortunate that Angelides pays insufficient attention to specificities within the category of “childhood”: too often, readers are presented with an abstract “child”, when he is actually referring to an adolescent, middle-class, white male.

She is saying, in other words, that he is mainly talking about teenagers, not little kids; and the ones he highlights as capable of consent are also likely to be relatively confident and empowered, based not just on their personal maturity but thanks to their privileged class, race, and gender as well. So why doesn’t Angelides, who is plainly worried about being misrepresented and unjustly attacked, give himself an easier ride? Why didn’t he call his book The Fear of Teenage Sexuality, which would have been far less controversial?

I find his official explanation utterly unconvincing. He says he uses the word child because that is what the law does, adding that “Retaining a legalistic definition of the child even when referring to those between ages fifteen and seventeen is also a deliberately provocative reminder of the ambiguities and contradictions faced by young people in Western societies” (p. xxvii). But it is a pointless provocation unless you have a further agenda.

What it comes down to, I think, is that he is alert, like Bourke, to a range of socially significant intersecting dimensions (class, race and gender, as well as age), some combinations of which seem to him to make likelier candidates for ethical relationships than others. He makes no positive case, for instance, for men’s sexual involvement with young girls, but focuses at considerable length on sexual relationships between schoolboys in their mid-teens and their female teachers – contacts not only manifestly desired and enjoyed by the boys but also in which they exercised significant power and control. Another combination he apparently sees as viable is that of adolescent boys and men, the type of connection that was so explicitly the focus of that most famous of all paedophile organisations, NAMBLA, an acronym with “man-boy love” embedded into it. The membership of such organisations, including Britain’s PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) and Australia’s PSG (Pedophile Support Group), tended mainly towards an interest in consensual relationships between older pre-teen, or early teen, boys and men. Angelides writes:

…insisting on a distinction between paedophilia and child sexual abuse was precisely the ongoing concern of groups like NAMBLA, PIE and the PSG. At the heart of this distinction were questions of consensual sex and the sexual agency of young people in intergenerational encounters (p. 80).

Quite so. And, to the extent that these consensual relations potentially relate to pre-teen kids, Angelides finds himself cheer-leading for children’s sexual agency, not just that of teenagers. He can still just about viably argue, though, that he is not defending paedophilic contacts but hebephilic ones. As he says in relation to PSG, “many group members did themselves no favor by misnaming their category as pedophile” (p. 84).

Either way, there is no escaping the fact that this truly is scarily controversial terrain that could easily set off a witch-hunt against the author – and not just at Halloween as today happens to be: the witch-hunters never stop!

The kids are not alright. Why not?

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What makes a child happy?

Heretic TOC readers, thoughtful and Kind in all senses, as I believe you generally are, will see this as an important question. So it should trouble us that a recent Children’s Society report found a decline in children’s happiness in the UK over the last decade as judged by a range of factors affecting their sense of wellbeing, such as whether they are being bullied at school, or neglected at home, or even whether, in food bank Britain, they are going hungry.

Not a care in the world… for now

Anxiety about their job prospects, the state of the environment and their own future mental health were also raised as issues in the survey of children aged 10-17, published as The Good Childhood Report 2019. Over the last 14 years around 67,000 young people have been involved in the society’s research programme, which comprises quantitative surveys alongside classroom consultations, focus groups and interviews.

It may be recalled that H-TOC took its own in-depth look at children’s mental health in a three-part blog under the “driving kids crazy” heading three years ago. See here, here and here. Key themes from that trilogy will be touched on below but first let’s take a look at this latest survey. For a broad overview of the statistics there is perfectly adequate coverage in the Guardian. Rather than reviewing the whole survey, though, I think it will be more illuminating to focus on a single aspect for what it says about the approach taken, which I will argue is sophisticated and has produced important results to which political attention should certainly be paid, but…

There are important matters on which the report is utterly silent.

Let’s start, though, by giving credit where it’s due. For instance, the survey has an in-depth analysis of children’s worries about the future, part of which is detailed in Figure 9 of the summary report. The anxieties listed in this chart, notably worrying about the future state of the environment, will probably strike us as entirely rational. Far from showing there is anything wrong with the kids, the extensive concern over this topic (over three quarters being at least a little worried) shows they are intelligently alert to the real dangers of climate change, plastic pollution and so on – an alertness increasingly witnessed in mass demonstrations such as we saw just a couple of days ago.

If there is any misplaced anxiety it appears to be not the children’s but the Children’s Society’s. The report says “it is the extent of children’s worry that is of most concern” and “It is important that we acknowledge these worries, monitor them and respond to them in order to reduce the amount of worry children are experiencing and promote positive well-being.” What we should all be worried about, surely, is tackling and solving the problems in question, not worrying about whether kids worry about them.

A separate chart (Figure 8: see below) sets out the children’s anxieties about their own futures, including their school grades, university admission, jobs, having enough money and somewhere to live, mental health and physical well being. What the survey very usefully did in this regard was to look beyond the overall figures. There was an additional focus on the minority of children (1 in 9 of them) whose other survey responses indicated they had low life satisfaction. These were significantly more worried about all seven aspects of their future than other children.

This sub-analysis revealed that the largest gap in worries was for future mental health. Children who currently had low life satisfaction were almost three times as likely to be quite or very worried about their future mental health as other children. Now that really is a worry, especially in relation to other studies – previously discussed, as I say, in Heretic TOC – that disclose real reasons to be concerned over children’s actual rather than just future mental health, as shown in findings of extensive self-harming, depression and suicidality.

Again to their credit, the Children’s Society does go on to address the implications of its findings for society at large, pointing out, for instance:

Record investment in NHS mental health services for children is accompanied by massive cuts to children’s social care. More children go to outstanding schools than ever before at the same time as unprecedented food bank use by families struggling to put meals on the table. We are not seeing children and young people in the round.

Also, the Children’s Society has focused this time solely on children’s own views and feelings rather than letting parents or others speak for them. They say:

…young people need to be heard, but without them being able to vote how do we ensure that their views are taken seriously and acted upon? There are lots of approaches in policy-making that could be used to achieve this – from more passive options like advisory boards and impact assessments, to more active ones like participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies, and co-production in service design.

All good stuff. Sensible, imaginative suggestions, although a reduction in the voting age should be considered as well.

So much for the good news. But now we need to put our radical, critical, hat on and start thinking in earnest. The sense I get from the report is that it has successfully located a problem – children’s increasing unhappiness – but that the questions it is posing are too limited, with the result that the data the survey has come up with tell us more about symptoms than causes.

For instance, the “cyber” factor (see Figure 9, summary report) focused on children’s worries about personal information being shared online. This is unquestionably a serious issue, especially for teenagers in connection with cyber-bullying, which can have devastating consequences, not least when intimate photos intended for just one recipient are put on general view by that person, whether to show off or as an act of revenge following rejection in a relationship.

So the problem is well known. It did not take a survey for us to hear about it. The problems to which the online world has given rise tend to be the focus of intense scrutiny and (often justified) anxiety simply because the technology is so new and constantly changing. The temptation in these circumstances in to blame the tech and overlook the deeper reasons why kids might be behaving viciously towards each other. Same with the fear of crime that features so strongly in these figures, being right up there with environmental worries as a major concern. While many British children live in reasonably safe circumstances, others do not, especially those suffering multiple disadvantages in areas of squalid, run-down housing, low incomes, and a drugs and gang culture increasingly associated with a spectacular increase in knife attacks.

Now the observation that children – or anyone – stuck in a bad environment will behave badly is hardly a great revelation either. There is actually a long tradition, going back well over a hundred years, of social surveys linking deprivation to depravity in one form or another, with Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth as early pioneers focusing on the poor of London in Victorian times.

Interestingly, the Children’s Society has always been a part of that tradition, having been founded by Sunday School teacher Edward Rudolf as the Church of England Central Home for Waifs and Strays, in 1881, after he had seen for himself “the brutal effects of poverty on the lives of children”. Over the years, the society appears to have made commendable efforts to keep up with the times in identifying and meeting the needs of disadvantaged children, starting with children’s homes, then going on to become a major adoption agency and now offering a wide range of support services.

But then, in the society’s online history, we find a hint that heretics here might not see entirely eye to eye with them:

The charity’s direct practice now focuses on vulnerable children and young people aged 10 to 18 – including children who have been sexually exploited, children in care and young refugees.

It is, of course, the focus on “sexual exploitation” that will raise our suspicions. Yes, some children are sexually exploited and, yes, their needs should be addressed. But what we have reason to suspect is that this churchy outfit has a long history of attitudes shared with the prudish, sexually restrictive social purity movement that succeeded in pushing for an increased age of consent in the same decade as the Children’s Society had its beginnings.

Accordingly, we need not be surprised when we find – as we do – that asking the children about their feelings and opinions, and ensuring that “their views are taken seriously and acted upon” does not extend to putting any questions in the survey about how happy or unhappy they are over their sexual desires and frustrations.

Nor are the children asked any questions that might seem to encourage them to aspire to real freedom and choice in their lives in ways that might imperil the timid, over-protective, health and safety culture of our times – even though, as I believe, along with such thoughtful commentators as sociologist Frank Furedi and Free Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy, the most profound underlying reason for children’s unhappiness as they grow beyond dependent infancy is the restrictions unreasonably placed on them these days.

Indulgence: not the same as happiness. With thanks to a Guardian Weekend magazine cover for a feature titled “A greedy person’s guide to summer”

Not that children are necessarily aware of what they are missing. They are not like ardent Brexiteers who feel they have lost out and demand to Take Back Control. Parents, teachers and other adults have always been firmly in charge of these young lives. So 10-year-olds, or even most teenagers, will be unaware of earlier eras when kids could venture far and wide on their own, or with their mates. They won’t realise that being held prisoners in their own bedrooms with only a virtual reality world for comfort denies their birthright to grow and mature through interaction with real reality – a reality that includes nature in all its wonder and also teeming, exciting urban life, with its people of all ages, all genders (more than two these days!), and all sorts of characters, a few of whom will be downright dangerous to mix or mess with, but most will prove friendly, interesting, helpful and educative.

Accordingly, because youngsters largely don’t know what they are missing, and how much fuller life could be, they are unlikely to notice that the Children’s Society, and others such as the Children’s Commissioner, make great play of the need to listen to the views of the young but tend to avoid asking kids anything that might tempt them to make an escape bid from their virtual prisons.

Steering clear of such questions might seem the responsible thing to do. After all, as the conventional wisdom has it, kids need to be protected from their own naivety and from falling into bad company. But how well is that going right now? Cocooned in their sedentary domestic cells, youngsters are getting fat and unfit, which brings its own serious risks of diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening ills. Meanwhile, drug lords run rings around the “protective” system anyway, recruiting the most vulnerable teenagers and even younger kids to do their dirty work for them as “county lines” dealers.

There is a case to be made that the best protection policy would be two-fold: (1) focus on reducing the child poverty and other forms of deprivation that make some children very open to exploitation; this should be very do-able in our fundamentally wealthy but very unequal society; (2) allow kids to become streetwise – or, rather, to become shrewd judges of character and life’s pitfalls –  through gradual exposure to the world beyond their home in such places as youth clubs. There used to be far more of them in the UK, before all the “austerity” of recent years. And they did a good job.

None of these observations of mine will come as a surprise to heretics here, so let me end with something a bit more intellectually challenging, that could take us all out of our comfort zone.

Do children need to be happy? Or, rather, do they need to think about their own happiness? The pursuit of happiness is famously written into the US Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right. But whether we become happy by pursuing happiness is a very doubtful proposition. Arguably, many adults in our consumer society are encouraged to worship a false god, hoping to make themselves happy through buying ever more “stuff” – material goods we do not really need. So to encourage children to fuss over their own happiness, by asking them to rate it, might just be gratuitously making them self-centred and potentially greedy. Even kids’ excessive agonising over their own appearance, leading to such problems as anorexia and other manifestations of “body dysmorphia”, might be part of a related problem.

I came across a fascinating article the other day by Peter Stearns, a specialist in the history of emotions. “Happy Children: A Modern Emotional Commitment”, reveals, as the title suggests, that focusing on children’s happiness is really a very recent concern, and is still not a feature of all cultures. Children’s birthday parties, for instance, were a mid-19th-century innovation. As for birthday gifts, when they first started the birthday boy or girl was expected to give the presents, not receive them! In his opening paragraph the author says, “Explaining the intensification of the happiness commitment also reveals some of the downsides of this aspect of popular emotional culture, for example in measurably complicating reactions to childish unhappiness.”

While I make no recommendation that we should return to an era of indifference towards children’s happiness, it may be that we should be more concerned with their wider well being, including such factors as whether they are developing worthwhile goals in life. What do you think?

 

BURSTING WITH AMBITION

A lighter note to end on now. A young research psychologist had occasion to mention an amusing encounter in his childhood online recently. I’ll leave him to tell the story in his own words:

My grandmother used to take me to Pride every year. We’d sit on two little blue-green chairs together, enjoying the spectacle. One of my favourite things was picking up the condoms that would be tossed by some of the floats, and then filling them with water, and then dropping them from the third floor of my grandmother’s building. You’d be surprised how much water a condom can contain before it BURSTS.

As I was gathering up as many condoms as my little hands could carry, I have a memory of a well muscled shirtless man handing me a few more condoms and warmly saying, “Well aren’t you ambitious!”

 

 

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