Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Coming Terror

The "Westminster Paedophile Scandal" appears to be galloping through the traditional narrative arc of "conspiracy in high places" in record time. As with the "Red Scare" of Joseph McCarthy, the classic modern template, there are three notable features: the suggestion that Westminster is riddled with the guilty; that some parts of government are dodgier than others (McCarthy had it in for the US State Department, his British successors for the Home Office); and that official inquiries are likely to be compromised, if not part of an active cover-up by "the establishment" (a word enjoying a mini-revival). You'll know the scandal is mid-flight over the shark when someone mentions the Freemasons or the Bilderberg Group.

This is not to say that there aren't paedophiles at Westminster or in the Civil Service (statistical probability suggests otherwise and convictions have already occurred), but there is clearly more at issue here than individual crimes, just as Watergate wasn't "about" a break-in. The question is whether the institution can be held responsible for the behaviour of its members, but it is doubtful that culpability goes beyond the willed obliviousness that the BBC exhibited in respect of Savile et al. It seems unlikely that there is anything on a par with the connivance of Richard Nixon, let alone that party whips at Westminster were routinely hushing-up criminal acts in order to strongarm MPs.

A legacy of the 1960s "sexual revolution" is the increased public salience of child abuse in the "doings of the mighty". Unconventional forms of consensual sex (adultery, homosexuality) have lost their power to embarrass or provide political leverage (McCarthy also pursued homosexuals, in what became known as the "Lavendare Scare"), while at the same time popular therapy has advanced the idea of childhood as a time of unique vulnerability. The structural origin of the "paedo threat" can be found in the increased tabloidisation of the media in the 1980s (the arrival of Today, the start of breakfast television and the evolution of the "sleb"), which recycled historic cases such as The Moors Murders and provided ample exposure for flimsy claims of "satanic ritual abuse". As these modern witch-hunts collapsed under the weight of their own hyperbole, focus shifted to institutional abuse.

Institutions are sites of power, so abuse of all sorts will always be found there. What I'm interested in is the selectivity of the media: sexual abuse is having a moment, but not in its most prevalent form, which is abuse and coercion in the workplace. Just as satanic ritual abuse was an all-to-obvious opportunity to berate social workers (first for incompetence, then for over-reaction), and by extension local councils, so the current focus on claims of a "ring" involving MPs, civil servants and local authority care homes corrals what might be termed "the usual suspects" in the eyes of the anti-state brigade. But this linkage is tenuous at best. The fact that Cyril Smith was an abuser does not implicate Parliament as a whole, nor should it excuse the media's eliding of child sexual abuse with a wider "loss of trust" in politicians and the establishment. Expenses-fiddling does not segue into kiddy-fiddling.

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer today bemoans the loss of public trust, but manages to exhibit the commentariat's conflicted instincts within a single paragraph: "I like to think I am always on my guard against hysteria ...  but I wouldn't be at all surprised if it is shown that there were cases of offenders among MPs whose criminal depredations were hushed up by whips and other party managers for the usual self-serving reasons". This is prurience masquerading as cynicism, which further fuels the nonsensical idea that whips are omniscient and omnipotent. Francis Urquhart is a work of fiction.

Rawnsley attempts perspective: "What is often called the decline of trust is really an evaporation of deference. Where once there was a reflexive respect for authority and a willingness to give it the benefit of the doubt, there is now a default to distrust". Deference was never about giving the benefit of the doubt, i.e. suppressing scepticism, but about the unquestioning acceptance of authority, often in flat contradiction of the facts. It is the reactionary frame of mind. The 60s are meant to have ushered in an era marked by the "healthy distrust of authority", though the roots of this can be traced back to World War One. In practice, the scepticism of the age soon became the motor of modern capitalism: the "me generation", those "crazy individualists", "because you're worth it" etc.

Rawnsley appears oblivious to the role of capitalism, in its anti-state and pro-market form, in the creation of what David Brooks in The New York Times admiringly refers to as a "personalistic culture". According to Rawnsley, who cites Brooks as an expert on modern manners, "It seems we'd now rather trust an individual we don't know than a big institution that we have come to know much too well". Really? You might like to help me with a small problem I have transferring a billion Dollars out of Nigeria.

In an amusing juxtaposition, Rawnsley's piece in the print edition appears opposite an editorial on BBC funding, which promotes an impeccably neoliberal position on the benefits of commodistisation: "The more various and often frankly free market ways of raising money the corporation develops, the more free from sticky political fingers it will become". In other words, only the market can save institutions from the further erosion of trust consequent on their association with the state. The ideological logic of modern capitalism, of rational utility maximisers and transactional calculation, is for trust to become a commodity that can be secured or exchanged for money. Filthy lucre becomes a disinfectant, an idea that would have fascinated Sigmund Freud, who first popularised the psychological trinity of childhood, sex and money.

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