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Douthat: Rape and Rotherham

By Ross Douthat
Sept. 8, 2014 at 10 p.m.


There are enough grim tidings from around the world that the news from Rotherham, a faded English industrial town where about 1,400 girls, mostly white and working class, were raped by gangs of Pakistani men while the local authorities basically shrugged and did nothing, is already slipping out of American headlines.

But we should remain with Rotherham for a moment, and give its story a suitable place of dishonor in the waking nightmare that is late summer 2014.

We should do so not just for the sake of the victims, though for their sake attention should be paid: to the girls gang-raped or doused with gasoline; to the girls assaulted in bus stations and alleyways; to the girl, not yet 14, who brought bags of soiled clothes as evidence to the police and earned nothing for her trouble save for a check for 140 pounds - recompense for the garments, which the cops somehow managed to misplace.

But bearing witness is insufficient; lessons must be learned as well. It's a case study in how exploitation can flourish in different cultural contexts, and how insufficient any set of pieties can be to its restraint.

Interpreted crudely, what happened in Rotherham looks like an ideological mirror image of Roman Catholicism's sex abuse scandal. The Catholic crisis seemed to vindicate a progressive critique of traditionalism: Here were the wages of blind faith and sexual repression; here was a case study in how a culture of hierarchy and obedience gave criminals free rein.

The crimes in Rotherham, by contrast, seem scripted to vindicate a reactionary critique of liberal multiculturalism: Here are immigrant gangs exploiting a foolish Western tolerance; here are authorities too committed to "diversity" to react appropriately; here is a liberal society so open-minded that its brain and conscience have fallen out.

A more subtle reading, though, reveals commonalities between the two scandals. The rate of priestly abuse was often at its worst in places and eras (the 1970s, above all) where traditional attitudes overlapped with a sudden wave of liberation - where deference to church authority by parents and police coexisted with a sense of moral upheaval around sexuality and sexual ethics, both within seminaries and in society at large.

In Rotherham, the local bureaucracy was too fearful of being labeled "racist," too unwilling, as a former member of Parliament put it, to "rock the multicultural community boat." But the rapes also went unpunished because police officers seemed to think that white girls exploited by immigrant men were "tarts" who deserved roughly what they got.

The crucial issue in both isn't some problem that's exclusive to traditionalism or progressivism. Rather, it's the protean nature of power and exploitation, and the way that different forms of blindness can combine to frustrate justice.

So instead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it's better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I'll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.

In Catholic Boston or Catholic Ireland, that meant men robed in the vestments of the church.

In Hollywood and the wider culture industry, it has often meant the famous and talented, from Roman Polanski to the BBC's Jimmy Savile, robed in the authority of their celebrity and art.

And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.

The point is that as a society changes, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don't expect tomorrow's predators to look like yesterday's.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate. Because your assumptions and pieties are evil's best opportunity, and your conventional wisdom is what's most likely to condemn victims to their fate.

<em>- Ross Douthat writes for The New York Times.</em>

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