The Long Gaze of the State

It is no accident, Thomas Wilkinson, a CounterPuncher now living in Germany, pointed out to me a while back, that the first “political” novels about the US, e.g. those of Nathaniel Hawthorne, were concerned with violations of the official sexual code imposed by the country’s founding theocrats.

The control of sex and pornography is a major part of promulgating a prudish, puritanical political culture without ever imposing an overt political censorship regime. The debates about so-called “political correctness”, whether in the race, gender, or ethnicity conflicts can only be explained by the culture of prudery which prevails in American political discourse of all sorts.

“I think it is useful and important,” Wilkinson writes, “to see the ‘sexual crimes’ mania, even its embarrassingly retroactive manifestations, as part of maintaining this rigorously prudish, puritanical political culture the surface of which was barely scratched by the Sixties. Sexual crimes stand for the violation of the established order based on supposed personal deviance and not on any actual material challenge. They have the benefit of being immensely trivial and yet due to the absolutely poor to non-existent transmission of the ‘standards’ for acceptable sexual conduct, esp. occlusion from public instruction, remain ultimately “fantasy crimes”. People can imagine the most heinous punishments for this behavior because it is impossible for them to conceive of a sex crime in the same way as bribery of public officials or assassinations performed by agencies disguised as armies or cultural aid missions. This impossibility goes back to the terror used by parents and teachers to threaten children for violations of their will by creating nonsensical consequences for trivial acts.”

With these reflections in mind, let us turn to that story of the man in Fairfax County Virginia, who got up early on Monday morning, October 19, walked naked into his own kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee? The next significant thing that happed to 29-year-old Eric Williamson (not to be confused with Tom Wilkinson, quoted above) is the local cops arriving to charge him with indecent exposure. It turns out that while he was brewing the coffee, a mother was taking her 7-year-old son along a path beside Williamson’s house, espied the naked Williamson and called the local precinct, or more likely her husband, who turns out to be a cop.

“Yes, I wasn’t wearing any clothes,” Williamson said later, “but I was alone, in my own home and just got out of bed. It was dark and I had no idea anyone was outside looking in at me.”

The story ended up on TV, starting with Fox, and in the opening rounds the newscasters and network blogs had merciless sport with the Fairfax police for their absurd behavior. Hasn’t a man the right to walk around his own home (or in this case rented accommodations) dressed according to his fancy? Answer, obvious to anyone familiar with relevant case law, absolutely not.

Peeved by public ridicule the Fairfax cops turned up the heat. The cop’s wife started to maintain that first she saw Williamson by a glass kitchen door, then through the kitchen window. Mary Ann Jennings, a Fair-fax County Police spokesperson, stirred the pot of innuendo:” We’ve heard there may have been other people who had a similar incident.” The cops are asking anyone who may have seen an unclothed Williamson through his windows to come forward, even if it was at a different time. They’ve also been papering the neighborhood with fliers, asking for reports on any other questionable activities by anyone resembling Williamson—a white guy who’s a former diver, and who has a 5-year old daughter, not living with him.

I’d say that if the cops keep it up, and some prosecutor scents opportunity Williamson will be pretty lucky if they don’t throw some cobbled-up indictment at him. Toss in a jailhouse snitch making his own plea deal, a faked police line-up, maybe an artist’s impression of the Fairfax Flasher, and Eric could end up losing his visitation rights and, worst comes to worst, getting ten yeats plus posted for life on some sex offender site. You think we’re living in the twenty-first century, in the clinical fantasy world of CSI? Wrong. So far as forensic evidence is concerned, we remain planted in the seventeenth century with trial by ordeal such as when they killed women as witches if they floated when thrown into a pond.

Let’s head north from Fairfax County to Massachusetts, home of the witch trials. How about if you’re white in Boston (wise decision), weigh yourself in your own bedroom with no clothes on and…. But let my Boston friend pick up the story, because it happened to him.

“It was the early ’90s. Early on Xmas eve two burly cops pushed into our house and invaded our bedroom—no warrant. They only backed off after they realized that the scale in our bedroom where I weighed myself was in front of a window. To see me there the born-agains who moved in next door (actually on the far side of a vacant lot separating us) had to keep a tight watch since it does not take long to weigh oneself.

“My girlfriend was dressing in the bedroom and my mom and stepdaughter were visiting. By the time the cops understood that I had been weighing myself every morning, the paddy wagon was there ready to take me away.

“I would have sued them but I was running for Congress at the time. The cops liked my opponent, a right-wing pro-lifer, and I have always thought that had something to do with their moral diligence that day. One of the cops, the chief, later resigned in a corruption scandal.”

Now this was in the early 1990s, please note. This was when the wave of hysteria over satanic abuse of children was in full spate with people being imprisoned for life on just the sort of ‘evidence’ the cops are now trying to marshal against Williamson. Massachusetts actually saw  the first trial of a daycare teacher charged with satanic abuse. Bernard Baran was released after twenty-two years and exonerated three years after that, on June 9 of this year.

As the attorney Mike Snedeker, who co-authored with Debbie Nathan the 1998 book Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, recently reminded us here on the CounterPunch website, there are victims of that hysteria, almost certainly innocent, still rotting in prison: Fran and Danny Keller in Texas; James Toward and Francisco Fuster in Florida almost a generation later.

Earlier this year Nancy Smith, a school teacher, and Joseph Allen, a Head Start bus driver, were released from Ohio prisons after SERVING fourteen years for committing phantom crimes against five-year-olds. John Stoll—convicted of allowing people he barely knew to sodomize his 6-year-old son, and himself sodomizing young children he had just met and then sending them on home after school—was released in 2004 after twenty years in state prison. He is featured in the documentary Witch Hunt, narrated by Sean Penn, and recently settled a civil rights suit against Kern County, California, for $5.5 million.

Among the many brilliant observations of Morse Peckham in his 1969 book Art and Pornography (published by the Kinsey Institute) was that the concern with sexual behavior has nothing to do with sex but everything to do with policing. American sexual prudery is part of political and social policing within the nominally legal context of supposed individual freedom. People learn to be prudish with sex before they understand anything else in society and this prudery is transferred to other areas later which are even more important for social control and stability.

The control of sex and pornography is, as Wilkinson suggested to me,  a major part of promulgating a puritanical political culture without ever imposing an overt political censorship regime. Sexual repression, through the allegation of ‘deviant’ fantasy crimes, is often the designated stand-in for violations of the social order harder to stand up in court.

The “satanic abuse” hysteria was particularly appalling, but year after year in America prudery exacts a terrible toll – as witness the unfortunate female schoolteachers packed often to prison with hefty sentences for having affairs with boys in their mid to late teens. Is America permanently lodged in the seventeenth century so far as moral policing is concerned? The answer is Not exactly, since gay marriage wasn’t a big item on the legislative agenda of the colonies at that time. But regulation of sexual behavior is the preferred route to wider social control.

As Williamson is now ruefully aware, the state not only has a long arm, it has a long gaze. Moral: the eyes of the law are on you at all times, even at 8.30 am in the supposed privacy of your own kitchen.

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