Monday, November 05, 2012

Naughty is not the same as bad

Whipping Boy - from Pants Family Album, c 1900. All rights reserved

Two things are abundantly clear about the late 'Sir' Jimmy Savile - that he sexually assaulted hundreds of young people, mostly girls, over a forty-plus-year career as a national treasure and that a great many people either knew or strongly suspected that it was going on. The question of why so many colluded in this obvious cover-up isn't even that much of a mystery - everyone's afraid of powerful men. Savile was, apparently, so powerful that no one dared seriously broach the subject of his heinous, criminal activities until he had died. Cursory enquiries were seemingly easily satisfied with a jovial rebuff. That's some power.

One person embarrassingly taken in by Savile's subterfuge is his biographer, Alison Bellamy. Her book, How's About That, Then? named for one of his superficially innocuous catchphrases, had barely exited the presses before this whopper of a scandal blew up. Oh the irony of that title in the present context. Bellamy writes in this piece in her newspaper, The Yorkshire Evening Post,

'Around the time of his 80th birthday in 2006, I spent many days with him as I interviewed him for a series of features. It was then I first asked him about the rumours about his fondness for young girls. He reacted as expected and said with a well-rehearsed speech: “It goes with the territory.”

He was dismissive, as if what I was saying was ridiculous.

But he was always manipulative with the press and, even though he insisted he would always answer any question thrown at him, he would often change the subject or talk nonsense.'

At that point, none of his victims had broken through the wall of silence. A lot of people thought he was a bit odd, apparently. But stars are, aren't they?

Everyone's afraid of powerful mad people and of appearing to discriminate against powerful mad people.

Anthony Barnett writes on OurBeeb,

'How, then, did he get away with it?

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.'

Everyone's afraid of speaking out of turn about the powerful because it can rebound in nasty ways. The road to justice is paved with shot messengers.

Barnett also says this,

'Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement. It would be unbearable for him to represent the human race - and at some level all who saw him knew it.' 

Everyone's afraid of being called a class snob.

Andrew O'Hagan gives us some context in the London Review of Books.  He writes of a previous culture of paedophilia at the BBC that goes back a further generation to a post-war cohort of children's presenters and programmers who congregated around the popular Lionel Gamlin,

'Gamlin, in common with later youthquakers such as Jimmy Savile, never liked children, never had any, never wanted any, and on the whole couldn’t bear them, except on occasion to fuck. And, again like Savile, Gamlin managed all this quite brilliantly, hiding in plain sight as a youth presenter full of good sport but who didn’t really care for youth and all its pieties. This was in the days before ‘victims’ – days that our present media and their audiences find unimaginable – but it gives context and background to the idea of an eccentric presenter as a teasing anti-hero within the Corporation. Auntie was essentially being joshed by a child abuser posing as a child abuser.'

Everyone's afraid of messing with a system that works this well.

Savile had a whole wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility which allowed him so successfully to 'hide in plain sight'. It was all one big, audacious parcel of dares held together by the glue of threat. Exposure would have ended the cash flow he generated, so no one looked too hard for proof. Being so obviously mad and creepy worked as a defensive shield. In the same kind of twisted logic that allows crooked bankers to cheat the public and be rewarded for it, people reasoned, en masse, that someone who is so transparently transgressive, couldn't possibly be like that for real. Playing the fool was the perfect disguise. Savile was thought of as cheeky and naughty rather than perverted and bad.

This goes some way to explaining the seemingly inexplicable - that the stream of children who complained about being molested by him were ignored or punished for saying such awful things. There was a virtual cost/benefit ledger in play. Those who needed Savile made sure the books were cooked to protect their investment. He tended to prey on vulnerable girls in environments where he was generating a lot of funds and/or good deeds of his own. No one places much value on the vulnerable. We aren't talking about an opportunistic fiddle here. We are talking about a cynical, calculated crime spree perpetrated by a man who managed to exploit every self-conscious cultural neurosis imaginable to get what he wanted without conscience or nuance.

By chance, I happen to be reading Isabel Allende's memoir Paula. She talks about how long it took the Chilean people to understand the terror of the Pinochet dictatorship and why she thinks that is. Firstly, these sorts of things simply didn't happen in sophisticated, democratic Chile and, secondly, there just didn't seem to be a motive. Surely it wasn't necessary to kill a huge portion of the population and terrorise the rest to create order in society, was it? She writes,

'I knew so little about the workings of terror that I was slow to perceive the warning signs: nothing indicated that a parallel world existed in the shadows, a cruel dimension of reality.'

And this is the parallel world into which Savile's victims fell. It was a world that others simply did not believe existed or, if they did afford it some credence, imbued it with a sense that those who ended up there did so at the behest of fate. They must, themselves, be bad. The 'good' kept themselves from harm by suspending their disbelief and swallowing the line that bad things happened only to bad people.

In mathematics, if you make one mistake in a calculation, everything you do afterwards simply compounds that mistake, making it impossible to arrive at a correct solution. This is how logic works. Our fundamental error is that we may say that human rights are extended to all equally, but we don't really mean it. We don't mean it when it applies to women, or to black people or to people with a disability or to the vulnerable elderly. And we certainly don't mean it when it comes to children, who are still often dehumanised and reduced to the status of a chattel or a 'case' in the event of family breakdown.

Andrew Barnett talks about British society being in thrall to eccentric scallywags who can 'get away with it'. He invites us to observe the behaviour of London Mayor Boris Johnson who openly and obviously gets away with behaviour far more outrageous than would be acceptable in other, less popular politicians. Barnett does not equate the gravity of this behaviour with that of Savile. The comparison he makes is with the level of public awareness coupled with the incongruous suspension of criticism, for which Johnson's personal power, charisma and popularity can be the only excuse.

I would offer a different comparison - to the Australian photographer, Bill Henson. Likewise, I don't suggest any moral equivalence. There has never been an accusation of impropriety by any of his photographic subjects. But, Henson does photograph real underage children naked and display their pictures in public - an act for which others who omit to self-classify such images as 'art' might be sent to jail. I suggest that there is a similar collective failure of logic in play, one that somehow makes it acceptable for an adult male to photograph and display for personal profit photographs of children in the nude but not okay for parents to take snaps of their own clothed children at sports carnivals. The only way to accept this anomaly is to grant to Henson exceptional rights.

If we aspire to be a global society that is truly decent and honourable, we need to go back to the place where we made our initial error of logic and fix it. We need to ditch the some-are-more-equal mentality and extend genuine equal rights to all, even the ones who don't have any money or talent. If we tell children that the law protects them from bad men and that they should report it if a man does or tries to do something to them that feels wrong, we must not then tell them that the law does not apply to all bad men and the protection does not apply to all children so they must go away and reflect on why they tell dreadful lies about powerful people. To paraphrase another of our heroes, who may or may not have been a paedophile, we should say what we mean and mean what we say.