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By Eric Oppen

Although it is now common wisdom that most of the attitudes characterizing the Victorian period have been swept away by the massive reaction against them that grew out of World War One, one in particular remains very much alive and unquestioned, even in this last year of the 1900s. I'm referring to the belief in children as vessels of innocence, incapable of true evil and very much in need of being kept ignorant of anything that might somehow disturb this pristine Edenic state.

This belief cuts across the traditional political and cultural lines that score our society so deeply; liberals and conservatives, radicals and reactionaries, all agree, chanting the party line in unison. When someone suggests distributing condoms to people under 18, the conservative Anti-Sex Leagues all howl "You're giving condoms to children!" despite the known fact that many so-called "children" are adults in all but chronological age. The "liberals" who dominate the "entertainment" industry are no less enslaved by this myth, as a quick glance at the way they censor classic cartoons will show. Ironically enough, when they censor Bugs Bunny, they actually turn the heroic rabbit into an amoral sociopath; in "Long Haired Hare," what they choose to cut is the crucial provocation by the opera singer that makes the rabbit's retaliation against him more than just mindless vandalism and cruelty. This, they say, is good for the so-idealized children to watch, while the original, where it was made very clear that the conflict was instigated and prolonged by unprovoked attacks by the opera singer, is "too violent."

Both conservatives and liberals get misty-eyed very quickly at the way in which (as they see it) children are innocent of the sort of vicious bigotry that too often characterizes relations between groups of adults. However, this attitude depends very heavily on a certain amnesia about some unfortunate facts of life in childhood: just for the record, children are a lot quicker than adults are to take out after anybody they perceive as different. Be seen as different from your classmates, whether by being more or less intelligent, "funny-looking," dressing differently, being richer or poorer, and they'll cheerfully make your life hardly worth living. Children will torment and harass any peer they find "different" to an extent that would have made the Ku Klux Klan look like patron saints of tolerance.

Non-recognition of this fact by adults could well be at the root of a lot of the youth suicides that were so talked-of a few years ago; a lot of adults forget pretty quickly that their children have to live with their peers, on their peers' level, and that what the adults perceive as "childish squabbles" aren't so childish when you're at the level of the ones doing the squabbling. Stephen King, in his non-fiction comments on his writing, states that his first novel, Carrie, was based partly on his observation of life among high school students, both as a student himself and as a teacher a few years down the line. (For those not familiar with the book or the (rather faithfully-adapted, for a change) movie made from it, Carrie White, the heroine, is an outcast among her classmates, largely because her mother's religious mania forces her to be different from them.) Children are conformists on a level that the much-reprehended 1950s never approached; an alternate title for this essay could have been "The Child in the Gray Flannel Playsuit."

In addition to being fierce conformists, utterly intolerant of differences, children are just as capable of true evil as adults are. Every year, you hear of children killing each other, and the response is always that things were different in some vague Never-Never Land in the past, when all children were good and obeyed their parents. The difference between now and this past Utopia is less that modern children are more evil or murderous, but that the news media are less willing to sit on the story. The invaluable John Marr, of Murder Can Be Fun, has amassed many stories from before the 1960s of children who murdered, raped, committed arson (he hints that a lot of cases of "children playing with matches" could be read to mean "children trying to burn something down,") and broke nearly every law of God and man alike. Although far more parents kill their children than the reverse, Marr points out that it's a long way from a shutout.

In fact, some crimes, especially those involving the sabotage of railroad trains, were once almost a juvenile speciality; children have been implicated in some of the most spectacular cases of railway sabotage in American history. Reading this made me think about the young saboteurs of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe; was it necessarily all patriotism that motivated them, or was it at least partly a joy in vandalizing and sabotaging while knowing that most of their elders, for once, approved of their deeds?

Another crime that is apparently a juvenile specialty is lying someone into prison or Death Row. A famous case of this, in the 1700s, was Elizabeth Canning, who followed a predictable pattern: she disappeared for some time, turned up the worse for wear and told a story about how she had been kidnapped and abused. As a result of her lies, one woman was branded on the hand for robbing her of her corset-stays, and another was sentenced to be hanged. Had it not been for people who noticed many discrepancies in her story, the other woman would have certainly been hanged; as it was, Elizabeth herself ended up condemned for perjury and transported to the American colonies, to end her days as a wife and mother in New England. The cases of the girls whose lies set off the Salem witch trials are too well-known to requre repetition, but cases of this general pattern are far from unknown even today, as those familiar with the hysteria about "ritual molestation" a few years ago can testify. Many a man has served years in prison on the word of a girl who was frightened enough at having had sex to claim rape, stick to her story, and accuse a specific man.

One particular folly to which the conservatives in particular are prone, is idealizing nineteenth-century childhood, or pre-television childhood, as somehow far better than what is on tap today. For people who believe this, I would recommend looking up the case of Jesse Harding Pomeroy, John Marr's candidate for the naughtiest child in American (if not world) history. Born in 1859, Jesse Harding Pomeroy became known as "the boy fiend" after he was apprehended, at age 12, for a series of torture-assaults on younger boys. Sent to the reformatory, he apparently became such a model prisoner that, although his sentence was supposed to be until his majority, he was paroled after fourteen months. A few months later, a little girl disappeared in the vicinity of where he lived, but he wasn't considered a serious suspect, since his preference for boys was well-known. Unfortunately, shortly after this, a little boy's corpse was found, stabbed and sexually mutilated, and the police had a pretty good idea of who would have done this. When the girl's corpse was found in a pile of rubbish in the basement of Pomeroy's mother's store, it was all up for Jesse. He was sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted due to his youth, and served nearly fifty years in solitary before being allowed to mingle with other prisoners. I need hardly point out that Jesse Pomeroy was not, to put it mildly, corrupted by television. Nor by radio shows, or by movies, or even by books; there was a story going the rounds that he had a serious taste for dime novels about Simon Girty, but he stated for the record that prior to his second conviction he had never read a book for pleasure in his life.

I'm not trying to denounce children as vicious little monsters. However, I have long since become well and truly fed up with people who apparently believe that they're all such little saints and angels that reality is too much for their fragile little psyches. I am torqued off, nay, enraged, at laws that forbid "adult" entertainment within a thousand feet of a school. What, I may ask, is so sacred about a school that an X-rated theater or strip joint, where children aren't allowed in any case, shouldn't be within a thousand feet of it? I feel much the same about laws requiring the same "zone of sanctity" around churches, but denunciation of churches is another essay for another time. The "kiddie protectors" really annoy me, whether they're saturating Saturday morning cartoons with idiotic "messages," delivered with all the subtlety of a chainsaw, or frantically trying to prevent one of their precious kiddie-winks from, the gods forfend, seeing a nude person in a movie. Their fanaticism has long since roused me to counter-fanaticism; I reflexively oppose anything if the proponents raise the whine "It's for the chill-dren!" I enjoy needling my progenophilic friends with statements about how, in an ideal world, children would be reality-compatible or Soylent Green; either being far preferable to the current state of affairs. Honestly, I don't hate children; I feel that I actually respect them as human beings more than most of their most frantic protectors. However, I do not feel that claiming that you're doing something for the children automatically nails a halo to your head, or gives you the moral high ground. If you want to benefit children, why not start by treating them as people, instead of as saintly idiots that can't handle reality? I can't see that making children into "bubble babies," protected from the germs of reality, is going to help them. Sooner or later, the bubble will be gone, and without a chance to become acclimatized in childhood, their adjustment to dat ol'debbil reality is going to be much more difficult.

(c) 1999 by Eric Oppen

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22 April, 1999