Talking ’bout my degeneration
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
When the news headlines bizarrely announced that ‘Pete Townshend says he is not a paedophile’, my first reaction was to wonder if there was anything sad celebrities would not do to get their picture in the papers.
We don’t know (and some of us are not much interested in) exactly what Townshend has done, or what was going through his head while he was completing his ‘research’ into child pornography on the internet. The only thing he has been found guilty of so far is idiocy, for having once used his credit card to access a child porn website. But it is already clear that the unfolding Townshend affair is a story for our times, revealing much about the sordid obsessions of contemporary culture. It involves the sort of things that, while not exactly news, are guaranteed to make headlines: celebrities with a ‘troubled’ past of drug addictions and marital strife, claims of suffering child abuse, glimpses of internet pornography. It is enough to make the death of The Who’s bassist John Entwistle last year, after a night of cocaine-fuelled sex with a Las Vegas stripper, sound like an uplifting tale of human liberation.
The Townshend story has been framed by the prevailing climate of prurient curiosity about child sex abuse. The resources invested in Operation Orr, the UK-wide drive to arrest 7,000 people whose credit card details were found on a long-defunct American website, tell us much about policing priorities. More striking still is the way that this ongoing police inquiry into child pornography has been conducted through the media, with reports of each fresh arrest – of a judge, a deputy head-teacher, a policeman involved in the Soham murders case. The press seemed to know that Townshend was in the frame before he did.
Townshend’s response, and the reaction to it, was equally revealing. Winona Ryder’s claim that she had shoplifted only for research purposes was laughed out of court. Yet Townshend’s similar story has been treated far more sympathetically, mainly because the statement that he released contains the magic words ‘I believe I was sexually abused between the age of five and six-and-a-half’.
Townshend’s statement suggests that, although he ‘cannot remember clearly what happened’ to him as a boy, it has shaped his life. He implies that his interest in child pornography is part crusade – ‘it is part of my duty, knowing what I know, to act as a vigilante’ – and part therapy – ‘to try to deal openly with my anger and vengeance towards the mentally ill people who find paedophilic pornography attractive’.
This babble immediately sent the pop psychologists off searching for evidence in Townshend’s defence, wondering whether the abusive Uncle Ernie character in The Who’s rock opera Tommy was ‘based on a real paedophile who stalked the star’s own wretched childhood’, and whether the ‘ritualised violence’ of his guitar smashing on stage had poisoned roots in his past.
There is something more than the reputation of individuals at risk in this obsession with abuse. It risks destroying the self-image of our society. There has always been a dark side to some people’s behaviour. But we have not always suffered such a one-sided preoccupation with the most degraded aspects of the human condition. The automatic assumption underlying today’s discussion is that people cannot be trusted; that abusive relationships are the rule rather than the exception; that we are all in some way victims or violators, and probably both if we look far enough within.
The crackpot theories of the Recovered Memory movement might have been discredited, but its broad assumptions about how hidden abuse determines people’s destinies continue to influence the public debate. One Sunday report noted that Tommy, the story of a disabled boy ‘abused by a succession of sadists and thugs’, offers an ‘unremittingly bleak view of humanity’. More than 30 years on, bleak is the new black, and Tommy’s time would seem to have come.
Townshend’s claim that he has long predicted that ‘the internet would be used to subvert, pervert and destroy the lives of decent people’ is equally resonant today, when we are often depicted as hapless objects at the mercy of technology, blank disks on to which the evil e-pornographers can transfer their perversions.
I, too, have a confession to make. I own a personal computer, a credit card, and an internet account. Presumably this means that I, too, must be teetering atop the slippery slope to shame. Where are those vigilantes when you need one?
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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