For Barbara Amiel, Sex Crimes Are "Minor Vices"

03/28/2013 08:42 EDT | Updated 05/28/2013 05:12 EDT
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CHICAGO - JULY 23: Barbara Amiel Black arrives for her husband Conrad Black's bond hearing at federal court on July 23, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. Black was released from a prison in Florida on Wednesday after posting a $2 million bond while he appeals the 6 1/2 year sentence he received for a conviction of crimes related to theft and fraud he committed while serving as chairman of Hollinger International. (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

Barbara Amiel is a clever lady. She wrote a fine memoir and spouted what is probably my all-time favourite one-liner about US-Canada relations: "If America was trying to keep the bubonic plague out of its hemisphere, Canadians would import it just to show their independence of American foreign policy." That's pretty funny, you have to admit.

But I deny it's possible to muster any emotion beyond gape-mouthed revulsion at her latest Maclean's column, a seething, meandering rant (there's no other term for this type of angry, rambling writing) against anyone who dares affect "prune-faced horror" at innocent partakers of "a few minor vices." The minor vices in question, incidentally, are sexual harassment, rape, and child porn. Barbara does not suggest which sort of fruit-faced reaction would be more appropriate.

Since its online publication on Saturday, the Amiel piece has gone viral in the purest sense of the word. Like a bad rash, social media users have spread its unpleasantness from one victim to another amid groans and gasps. True, such exaggerated convulsions are standard fare on Facebook walls and Twitter feeds these days, and in the era of Microaggressions it's tempting for the thicker-skinned to presume Babs' column couldn't possibly be that bad in the eyes of anyone tougher than the Womyn's Dreamcatcher Collective sensitivity subcommittee.

But it is.

Amiel dismisses the Steubenville rape case, which involved drunken teens literally dragging the unconscious, naked body of a 16-year-old girl around town while others filmed the spectacle for YouTube, as something a "normal society" would have left in the private domain of parental discipline, and likens it to her own carefree college days. A bit much, sure, but certainly nothing to justify a "trial and media circus."

Mayor Ford's (alleged) groping of a political contemporary is dismissed equally swiftly by virtue of the (even more alleged) sluttiness of the accuser. Some esoteric in-joke is presented out of context to suggest the woman, Sarah Thomson, has some history as a prostitute-adulteress. So that's that.

Last, the crime of child porn possession, a crime which requires the consumption of -- and thus demand for -- the most vile, exploitative, and traumatizing images of grade-schoolers in various states of kidnapping and abuse, is, in Barbara's mind nothing more than "the private contemplation of squalid pictures." Prosecution, however, is "rounding up people." Perhaps on rickety Polish train cars. Who knows.

It's a hard article to summarize without sounding like you're setting fire to straw men, but I'll wait patiently if you need to read the thing yourself. I can't be more cruelly flippant than she already is.

Now, Amiel's too accomplished a writer for her piece to be entirely lacking in insight. Sexual crimes are complicated, and society's desire for quick vengeance at the merest whiff of wrongdoing can easily congeal into mob-rule that undermines fair trials and retards fair coverage. 

It's possible Mayor Ford is being railroaded by a hysterical media and political establishment that has always loathed him. It's possible it was cruel and unusual to charge one of the Steubenville boys as a child pornographer for videotaping a girl his own age.

For that matter, it's possible the entire realm of child porn jurisprudence needs an overhaul. It's possible to have a nuanced discussion about any of these things. But doing so also demands some shred of empathy, sensitivity and propriety govern the conversation, because what's not debatable is that these are extraordinarily delicate subjects.

In her opening paragraph, Amiel harrumphs with prickly irritation that these days all discussions of sex crimes "must preface with ardent assurances that nothing with the possible exception of matricide could revolt more, and only abhorrence flourishes in the breast of the commentator who now feels compelled to address these matters."

But really, an author's obligations of decency are less about must and more about should. It's not the man, the system or the state that demands our default reaction to allegations of sexual violence or gross indecency be outrage and sympathy, it's our humanity. The alternative is not "tellin' it like it is," but sociopathy.

There is a marked habit of some on the right, particularly the most self-righteously reactionary or "traditionalist" factions of it, to exert enormous energy in telling the world what they hate and how much modernity they reject, often through appalling impoliteness, justified as anti-PC subversion. This, they imagine, is what true intellectual bravery looks like. The result is a conservative commentariat drained of the very restraint and dignity that a conservative disposition is supposed to entail.

Herein lies the central irony of Amiel's essay: it's an appallingly immoral call for morality, an anti-elitist argument that reads like an offering from Monty Python's Upper-Class Twit of the Year competition. Only the most sheltered among us, after all, are likely to suffer from the self-important delusion that our grossest opinions should be shared without censorship, and every obligation of social forbearance -- showing respect for the raped and molested, for instance -- is an arbitrary jackboot of tyranny.

It's an attitude of oblivious egotism quite similar, in fact, to that which makes teenage boys feel no need to tame their primal urges around alcohol and women. Or middle-aged men around attractive female coworkers. Or perverts around the internet.

Barbara's vulgar paean to victim-hate is less a contrarian pine for the virtues of some idealized past than a grim glimpse of our own ugly present.