Over the past few years, I've gotten a real education in how, and why, the sexual assault of children continues to be tolerated. On one side we have people who think forcing sex offenders to live under bridges is an awesome idea. And then on the other side we have people who don't really think sexually assaulting children is that bad. Cue Richard Dawkins:
While he told the Times that an unidentified schoolmaster "pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts" when he was a child, he argued that he did not think the abuse -- which he referred to as a "mild touching up" -- against himself and other children in his class "did any of us lasting harm."
"I am very conscious that you can't condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours," Dawkins was quoted as saying. "Just as we don't look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can't find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today."
No, this is very wrong. It's very convenient to believe that racism is a relic of an unenlightened, barbaric past. But a good body of historical scholarship shows that modernism and racism go hand in hand. Indeed, you can find people condemning racism in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and the 19th century. For a sliver of the 15th century, the city of Florence was ruled by a black man
.* Early 17th century Virginia was less
racist than early 19th century Virginia. The myth of racism as a failure of manners is convenient because it conceals what lies at the heart of any system of exploitation--power.
I don't have the intellectual chops to extend that out to the history of children, and childhood, but I have my suspicions. At any rate I am very skeptical that if, say, Harry Truman was found to enjoy giving children a "mild touching up" the country would have cheered him on. On perhaps they would have. The "Pedophilia isn't so bad" caucus is significantly larger than I'd once thought.
*Bonus question for the Horde. I've been going back over my early modern Europe lectures with Margaret Anderson. Was Florence, technically, a city-state?
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power