Seers of Suburbia

The double-irony of the Atlantic Monthly’s April 2006 letters page replies to Caitlin Flanagan’s take on the alleged “oral sex epidemic” among America’s teenagers was pretty intense when I got around to reading it this week. I didn’t comment directly on the Flanagan piece when it first came out, but the letters brought it all back to me.

Flanagan is always a good provocative read, in part because she simultaneously brightly skewers the pretentions and assumptions of many other writers and organizations on domesticity and gender and infuriates with her own unacknowledged contradictions and Delphic pronouncements. David Brooks at his best has some of the same character in his writing, the conflation of keen observational writing with confident announcements of sociological truth pulled immaculately from the ether. They’re both great at poking the soft underbelly of suburban life, of teasing out the hypocrisies of others. If only they’d just stick to that.

Both of them in particular have an especially strong tendency towards the classic kung-fu maneuver of most American cultural critics, to take the public and pop cultural self-representation of 1950s American life as the eternal and largely generic norm from which we have steadily descended into a moral and social abyss. All fables of declension in the United States since the 1970s, whether liberal or conservative, have steered by this same star. They may not consciously name the 1950s as the lost moment now despoiled some new rough social beast who has taken up slouching upon the national furniture, but once you tease out the attributes of that misty past moment, it can’t be anything but the (fantasy) 1950s.

I saw a lot of this sort of thing when writing about the history of children’s television. In Flanagan’s oral sex piece, it materializes in her invocation of some past moment where nice girls didn’t, when blow jobs were “once considered the province of prostitutes”. Interestingly in both the original article and her reply to the letters, she squeezes that past moment together with a later touchstone, a first-wave feminist moment where enlightened women allegedly were committed to getting mutual satisfaction, empowerment and respect from sex.

Flanagan is appropriately wary of the moral panic of others: concerned parents trading in rumors, new books for teenagers that depict “rainbow parties” where girls with colored lipsticks leave rings on numerous male members, pious organizations and news programs documenting an epidemic of teenage oral sex on the flimsiest of evidence. The letters about Flanagan’s piece in the April issue are almost hilarious in their overwrought contradictions: one letter-writer says with utter confidence that today’s kids are unprecedented in their immorality, another asserts with certainty almost the exact opposite. What people hear from their neighbors, see in a bad made-for-TV film on Lifetime, imagine from glances and whispers, extrapolate from one spectacular case, becomes sociological truth proclaimed as Moses proclaimed the Ten Commandments. In her reply to these letters, you can almost hear Flanagan’s glee: she could scarcely ask for a better confirmation of her jibes at middle-class anxieties and suburban pretentions.

Flanagan is as thorough as any writer I’ve seen at exempting herself from the same skepticism. I keep wondering if she’s read about the same 1950s and 1960s I have, or lived in the same 1970s that I did as a teenager. The phrase “town pump” is an old one. Oral sex was not invented in 1998, nor was it the exclusive province of hardened prostitutes for time immemorial until the last decade. The idea that nice girls don’t and bad girls do is old. It’s also never gone away and is as much a part of teenage sexual culture now as it was in 1970 or 1955. Boys in the 1970s proclaimed with bravado sexual adventures that never happened, or shared in the common perception that everyone but them was having sex. I can remember in high school in the late 1970s the female teacher that both boys and girls were certain was a sex maniac, which I think was largely a consequence of her assignment of a literary work that had a modest and short sexual scene in it. (None of the students, in contrast, talked about the sex life of a male teacher who later was caught having sex with a female student.)

Flanagan talks about the belief of many parents that most contemporary teenage girls are indifferently, casually going down on crowds of boys, listening to the anxious undercurrent of moral panic among parents and teachers, the same seething domain that brought us certainty that Satanic child abuse was rife in American day care, that teenage delinquency was sending leather-jacketed motorcyclists into every town across the nation, that Elvis was deflowering the nation’s maidenhood with every gyration of his hips.

A smart observer can look at those anxieties and use them as a diagnostic, as a window into the midde-class zeitgeist of that moment. You don’t look at the Satanic panic and wonder whether or not Lucifer was indeed on a rampage among the toddlers in the 1980s. You can look at it and think that the rumors and fears said a lot about underlying anxieties and unease among middle-class parents, especially women, about the progressive normalization of day care in the 1980s. You could reinforce that observation with a lot of solid data confirming that normalization.

Look back at Flanagan’s piece: she cites a National Center for Health Statistics study showing that a quarter to a half of teenage girls have engaged in oral sex and buys that finding wholesale. She even notes the key qualifier: that there is no previous data set with which to compare that finding. In terms of making the claim that teenage girls now give blow jobs with cheerful abandon when once they did not, that study is not terribly useful. You could compare it to a slightly earlier study by the National Center for Health Statistics that showed lower numbers, and that might indeed mean there’s something of a trend. It’s still pretty difficult to stand solidly behind a historical claim that once this was rare and now it is common. You certainly can’t come to any solid conclusions about what the teenagers engaging in the behavior are thinking or feeling about it, particularly not from cultural representations of the trend that largely come from people well outside of the demographic itself.

Reading Flanagan on this and other subjects is like watching someone superbly speed-assemble about three-quarters of a complicated puzzle and then getting stuck trying to hammer a piece that doesn’t fit into place. She gets the concept of a moral panic, she gets the skepticism, she gets the need for good sociological data, she even gets that what adults in the grip of a moral panic say girls feel isn’t necessarily what girls feel. Yet somehow by alchemical magic at the end of the article pornography, rap music, feminism, Flanagan’s inept mother who invariably appears at some point in everything she writes, the nasty urges and sexual confidence of dirty boys, and sex advice in mainstream media, all are responsible for causing an epidemic that Flanagan previously viewed skeptically.

Along the way she more or less forgets to show much interest in what actual teenagers think or say, save when their speech is being reported within outbreaks of moral panic. She neglects to actually talk proportionally about the history and meaning of women giving men oral sex: for her it is either the admittedly annoying clinical and de-mystified take of much mainstream feminist and medical advice, or it’s rappers and porn. If Flanagan is willing to talk about her mom, her nanny, her kid, her friends, I’m not sure it would kill her to go on and figure her sex life into this piece. Otherwise, I’m not sure that she even knows that within the kinds of mutually respectful and companionate sexual relationships that she bemoans as the lost heritage of modern American womanhood, women happily go down on men (and vice-versa). She forgets that even if we take the reported numbers of teenagers having oral sex as significant, the others who do not are also an important social fact. For Flanagan, just as all the wild-eyed captives of anecdote who write back to her at the Atlantic, the greatest magic trick is turning a large plurality of teenaged girls who may have a wide variety of understandings about their sexual experiences into uncounted legions of zombified oral sex crazed teenagers who are pulling off the simultaneous betrayal of first-wave feminism and the demure womanhood of the 1950s.

To me, the amazing thing about moral panic is its stability as a cultural structure in modernity, its cyclical recurrence, its narrative consistency from time to time. In Flanagan’s case, you can also see its irresistable pull: even an observer with skepticism and smarts can get drawn into the frame of the panic.

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24 Responses to Seers of Suburbia

  1. joeo says:

    Even the moral panics aren’t as good as they used to be. Oral sex epidemic, my ass. Why, when I was a kid, they would make up elaborate unbelievable stories about daycare providers and then put them in jail. That is a moral panic.

  2. zp says:

    I was waiting for someone with the patience of a saint to address this one, thanks. And, is it really a coincidence that the very first comment on Burke’s post mentions ye olde daycare moral panic? Thanks to you too, joeo.

    Given Flanagan’s belief in the wonders of the biological mother and her fear of the trauma induced by a surrogate mother, in the Mary Poppins essay and elsewhere, this seems to me no coincidence at all.

    I loved daycare!

  3. DougLathrop says:

    Did you ever read Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear? IIRC, one of his theses was that we manufacture these sorts of panics as a way of evading large and intractable social issues by fixating on one small (even fictitious) aspect of that problem. Thus, myths of Satanic ritual abuse became a focus for more generalized anxieties concerning two-income households and “latchkey” children (another buzzword from that time); “wilding” and “superpredators” allowed us to gnash our teeth about inner-city violence without actually doing anything about it; “road rage” becomes a vessel for all our frustration over suburban sprawl, and so on and so on. Nor were conservative bogeymen his only targets; the uproar over the alleged health hazards of silicone breast implants (which originated with feminists on the left and, as it turned out, could never be scientifically established) comes in for particular scorn.

    As for why cultural critics exalt the 1950s, my own theory is very simple: Most of them these days are Boomer who grew up in that era and can’t resist the temptation to idealize their childhoods. Of only we could strap them all down, glue Davey Crockett hats on their heads, and prop their eyelids open all Clockwork Orange-like while forcing them to watch endless reruns of Leave It to Beaver, maybe we could cure them.

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    Re-reading Flanaagan’s essay — though not with a fine-toothed comb — I discern only one reference to the 1950s, and that’s a brief reference to Judy Blume’s adolescent years. The standard of comparison Flanagan uses throughout the essay is her own adolescence in “the early 1970s.” I mention this because there’s an all-too-common rhetorical trope which links almost any claim of moral decline to Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, etc. It’s a quick-n-easy way to dismiss the claim, and I think Tim may have succumbed to that temptation here.

    I guess I’m wondering whether Tim wants to hold all essays that consider differences (moral, or aesthetic, or whatever) between generations to the standard of empirical support that he holds Flanagan to here. He suggests that she is insufficiently critical of the studies she cites, and those studies don’t show a sufficiently clear trend anyway. Fair enough. But isn’t it also legitimate to look at other sorts of evidence — for instance, to do what Flanagan does and compare, in essentially thematic terms, the cutting-edge teen-sex books of thirty years ago (Blume) and those of today (Ruditis)? I mean, that’s a kind of evidence, isn’t it? Now you could certainly argue that Flanagan hasn’t read this evidence correctly — for instance, you could claim that she wrongly assumes that the difference in the books indicates a difference in sexual behavior when it may just indicate a difference in what we’re willing to say about sexual behavior — but it seems to me that she’s working rather reasonably with the kind of evidence that is available and raising some legitimate concerns.

    I don’t have any problem with people who disagree with Flanagan, but I think attributing her conclusions to her getting inexplicably sucked into the vortex of a “moral panic” — whose existence Tim simply assumes, by the way — isn’t the best way to reckon with what Tim acknowledges is in many ways a thoughtful and measured essay.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ll come back to moral panic a bit later today–prepping for class now. But the point about the 1950s referent is something I mean to apply broadly to Flanagan’s oeuvre, or to Brooks, or to many such cultural critics, and it is a point that can be discerned well only through a kind of triangulation.

    If you want to see it in this piece, look at what Flanagan implies to be the “good norm” from which some kind of declension has taken place: an era when blow jobs were exotic or unknown, when women were more sexually demure, when sexuality was not so much in the public sphere. Does that sound like a good empirical description of the 1970s to you? Not to me it doesn’t. Yet we also have the invocations of first-wave feminist ideas about sexual reciprocity, which do reference the 1970s, in my view.

    I’ll stick by my guns: most broad cultural and social narratives of declension triangulate by necessity on the 1950s as the point from which decline begins. They may not say so explicitly. As I said, I noted this in a lot of jeremiads aimed at children’s television: many of them invoked an era where children were raised within secure nuclear family environments in middle-class suburban communities, innocent of exposure to commercialism and mass media. Marie Winn and many other authors talk about the innocence, happiness, security, domesticity of the world of children, into which children’s TV and commercialism are described as barbaric intrusions. Rarely do such accounts claim any kind of specific historical referent–in fact, many imply that this has been the transhistorical or ahistorical situation of children and childhood–but if you sit down to think about it, what exactly is their imagination centered on? Can’t be the 1940s or 1930s: depression and war don’t fit the paradigm. Can’t be the 1920s; can’t be World War I. Certainly doesn’t describe middle-class family life or childhood in the late 19th Century in the US. But it is the (somewhat mythical) image of American domesticity in the 1950s.

  6. too_many_logins says:

    Timothy: “David Brooks at his best has some of the same character in his writing, the conflation of keen observational writing with confident announcements of sociological truth pulled immaculately from the ether.”

    ‘Keen observational writing’? I must have missed that. Brooks is just a content-free right-wing columnist who has a list of grudges in his head, looking for something which can be connected to them. No matter how tenuously. He’s just like Krauthammer, Will, and all of the rest, except for that his niche (brand, theme) is that he’s not really a right-winger, that he’s a likeable centrist/sociologist.

    Take a look at his column about the Duke rape case. He writes as if this sort of thing was virtually unknown ‘back in the day’. What was actually virtually unknown is the black stripper reporting this to the police, and the police taking it seriously.

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, I look forward to hearing what you say about “moral panic” when you get a chance. It seemed to me, reading your post, that you were saying that you agree with Flanagan about A, B, and C, but when she got to D, that was a step too far, which indicates that she has succumbed to the pressure of a moral panic. But that begs the question of whether D really was a step too far, and even if it was, whether that step must be attributed to the cause you name.

    A couple of brief comments: you write, “look at what Flanagan implies to be the ‘good norm’ from which some kind of declension has taken place,” and you say that that must be the 1950s. But if that’s so, then why does she spend so much of the essay comparing The Rainbow Party not to 1950s writing but to Judy Blume? As far as I can tell, her chief point is that teen sexuality in Judy Blume’s books, because it invokes intimacy and mutual pleasure, is healthier for girls than representations of teen sexuality in which girls give pleasure without intimacy and without the possibility of receiving pleasure in return. And that seems to me a pretty strong point, one which you may be evading by asserting that there’s a Fifties subtext to her essay which trumps its explicit frame of reference — in other words, you seem to be trying to find a subtextual reductio ad absurdum because the text doesn’t commit one.

    Have there always been blow jobs? Sure there have always been blow jobs, some of them offered by “good girls.” But isn’t it significant that Judy Blume doesn’t write about blow jobs? Absolutely; it’s just a question of figuring out what that significance is.

    Also, I think you’re absolutely wrong to rule out the nostalgic appeal of the 1940s just because it was a time of war — in fact, the war is a key element of its nostalgic appeal, since it was a “good war’ (Studs Terkel) fought by “the greatest generation” (Tom Brokaw). Consider this: how many movies and TV shows take a funddamentally ironic attitude towards events of the World War II years? Very few — indeed, we allow ourselves an earnestness when depicting that period cinematically that we allow in very few other circumstances. Conversely, how many films treat the ’50’s non-ironically? (Doesn’t prove anything, just something worth thinking about.)

  8. zp says:

    “Girls, or at least the “good girls,” would go to movies blindfolded.”

    I have to admit, I found this New Yorker essay hilarious, and generally, I hate The New Yorker. And right on. I think its a direct response to Flanagan, and an apology on behalf of the New Yorker for subjecting us to her nonsense.

    And triangulate away, Tim Burke! I think the slipperiness of pinning down the implications of throw-away comments and commentary in pop media can make us wary of really trying to critique the arguments. At the same time, it makes these arguments easy targets . . . now and then I think its really worth the effort, though.

  9. DougLathrop says:

    The standard of comparison Flanagan uses throughout the essay is her own adolescence in “the early 1970s.”

    Well, that blows my theory about Boomers out of the water. On the other hand, I’ve also encountered quite a few people (both in print and in real life) who aren’t old enough to have experienced the Donna Reed era, but nevertheless have concluded that it must have been swell because (in their opinion) the 1970s sucked so bad. Maybe there’s something similar at work here — call it the Happy Days Syndrome, if you want.

    It appears that Salon doesn’t care much for Flanagan eitherL :

  10. RCinProv says:

    Caution: there is a lot of historical revisionism concerning the day care sex abuse cases. This is an argument it will take me a full book to prove, but here are two little tastes of my argument that will help explain why I think the conventional wisdom about this topic is wrong:

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Paul Ingram and Olympia. The McMartin case. Just as two counters to those items. But I’d add to that two more substantive discursive constructions that spanned many cases: “recovered memory” as an evidentiary tool and the fairly strong shared belief at the outset of the eruption of accusations that children who recounted narratives of sexual abuse or Satanic cults were by definition telling the truth since they would otherwise be unable to produce such narratives. I’d even argue that’s characteristic of moral panic: types of information that might reasonably be viewed as complex or ambivalent in their truth-content become understood as much more self-evidently true.

  12. RCinProv says:

    The Paul Ingram case is not what it appeared to be in the New Yorker.
    I commend the article below for a sense of the distortions in the story that has been accepted with utter and undeserved credulity by all too many New Yorker readers:

    I wonder if you saw the completely rare correction that Lawrence Wright had to publish months later because he went so overboard in an New Yorker talk of the town peice on this subject. So I am curious how you explain the complete mistelling of cases like Ingram, Country Walk, Halsey….

    I would say that there is a kind of reverse moral panic at work here–exaggerated fears of false convictions–that remains unrecognized.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Ofshe is not the only source of reconsiderations of Ingram, and certainly not the only one to raise questions about the evidentiary and legal uses of “recovered memory”, which seem to me to have indisputably metastasized wildly for a brief but intense period. While I think it’s right to say that the Ingram case is murky and difficult to sort out, I don’t see how you can be absolutely certain on either side after looking the case over. This is what I think “moral panic” does: it resolves out narratives which are genuinely ambiguous in an overdetermined direction. You may be right that the backlash which follows does the opposite, but I don’t think I draw the conclusions that you apparently do, that most cases about which questions have been raised are in fact cases in which the original accusations are completely sound.

    Part of what I think makes the debate about recovered memory so difficult in the aftermath of the 1990s accusations is that it continues to be fought over not just in the legal system but among competing groups of experts who have strong reputation capital invested in one paradigm or another. Not just reputation in many cases, but also therapeutic practices which are strongly invested in one fashion or another, against or for particular techniques and claims. Ofshe is hardly the only party in these disputes who could be called an opportunist. In some measure, ALL psychotherapy has a strong vested interested in the idea of repressed memory which is recovered through narrative work or dialogue: that is conceptually the heart of psychotherapeutic practice. The false memory/recovered memory debate is really just one front in the general war over psychotherapy, and I have to say I have some sympathy for general skepticism about psychotherapeutic claims. Add to that the vestment that one form of feminism made in the proposition that women routinely suffer from patriarchal sexual abuse as children, and you have a contested ground from which I doubt anyone should emerge with confidence.

    As an outsider looking over what’s been done in broad terms in research on human memory since Olio’s 1996 critique of Poole, I’d say that it would be a terrifically bad idea to accept, especially in a legal context, any of the “strong” assertions made about trauma, memory, childhood, suggestibility, either from the False Memory Syndrome people or the folks conducting rear-guard defenses of various recovered memory practices. There’s a lot of cognate research that also raises powerful questions–for example, recent work on witness reliability in criminal cases suggests that many, perhaps most, eyewitness accounts in criminal cases are unreliable in some respect, and all the more so once police and prosecutors become involved. Perhaps in general we need a profound rethinking of what kinds of evidence establish guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. I’m certainly not convinced reading the aftermath of the Ingram case that there isn’t still profound ambiguity about what actually happened.

    I suppose in part that accounts like Lawrence Wright’s (which I agree was flawed in many respects) were intuitively persuasive to me partly because I’d watched the McMartin case with deep frustration (I went to high school about fifteen minutes from where the school was)–there really were expert claims made that it was literally impossible for children to produce such narratives if those narratives were not literal recollections of actual events, which just struck me as not only profoundly wrong in this particular case, but a suggestion that there was at least one branch of expert opinion that was likely to produce a kind of misguided reading in many other cases.

    But more importantly, I find recovered memory dubious (and the strongest claims of the false-memory syndrome people dubious as well) as a historian: neither orthodoxy seems to me to properly describe the truly intricate relationship between personal memory, personal imagination, collective memory, cultural representation and reproduction, storytelling and narrative, and so on.

    By the way, Wenatchee is another case that I think raises questions about moral panic over Satanic child abuse. I’d be curious to hear your reading of that instance. (Or McMartin, for that matter.)

  14. RCinProv says:

    Wenatchee is not one case. It is a series of cases, some of which have strong evidence and some of which are far more dubious. But you might pause and wonder why the Northwest Innocence project decided, after interviewing a bunch of imprisoned defendants in the related cases, only to take some of their cases. They declined to take at least five defendants. Why? You might also be interested in the videotaped interview of a jailed female defendant in that case admitting that she desrved to be in jail and allowing that she engaged in child sexual abuse with other adults. My question is, Why don’t these facts seem to permeate the hard-shell formed by the sex abuse hytseria” proponents?

    I’m glad to know you’re interested in my take on McMartin. I’ll make sure you know when my book comes out. But for now I’ll say that the expert testimony in that case has been wildly exaggerated. Lawrence Wright’s outlandish claims about what Roland Summitt allegedly said about Child Abuse Accomodation Syndrome ended up requiring a major retraction. Your claims about the expert testimony in McMartin are similarly flawed. But there is, to be sure. plenty of support for your view in the mainstream media. Just not in the court transcript.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    But that’s the whole point, that these are not just court cases, but the creation of broad new forms of social understandings, of platforms for interpretation and consciousness, of distributions of common sense about families, childhood, sexuality and so on.

    The observation you make about Wenatchee is a good example of that, of how a legitimate response of authorities to a likely instance of criminal conduct became something much more distributed and untenable.

    I will in fact be interested in your account of the court proceedings of McMartin if you want to claim that there was very little misconduct among experts charged with interviewing or counseling the children, or that the charges levelled against the defendents were substantially true in their particulars. The sequence of events is not a “media” figment, as far as I know (e.g., Judy Johnson’s original accusations, followed by a letter from police to 200 other parents). As far as I know, it’s a part of the “court transcript” that some of the children deposed or interviewed produced accounts of flying witches, giraffes beaten to death, games of ‘naked movie star’ and the like: these weren’t made up, even if they were sensationalized, by critics and media reports. As far as I know, the prosecution argued in the “court transcript” that this was a case of ritual Satanism.

    Even outside the court transcript, there are accounts like that of one of the accusers that have appeared in the media that are worth considering thoughtfully.

    There is also the problem that in cases like McMartin and Wenatchee, the long legal resolution of the cases have suggested that many of the accusations were in fact false or misfounded. In a sense, you have to take the good with the bad here if you want to take the court proceedings as more authoritative than the public or media representations of the cases: it is hard to say, “As long as the transcripts suggest guilt, they’re authoritative; at the moment where the proceedings turned towards exoneration of some of the accused, they’re determined largely by mass media”. You’re probably right to suggest that I and others have become convinced of the mirror image of this point (that suggestions of innocence are trustworthy; suggestions of guilt definitionally questionable). But if Halsey, for example, is in your view obviously guilty because of voluminous evidence against him collected by the legal system, then I think you sort of have to deal with the more mixed or ambiguous record on other cases.

  16. RCinProv says:

    Tim, The book I am writing is devoted to dealing with “the more mixed cases.” That is, the research design is precisely aimed at doing that. (Why else would anyone write about McMartin at this point?) And I am delighted that you are interested in the book. I promise it will challenge the views you have acquired exclusively through media representations of these cases, beginning with the difference between the Johnson boy’s actual medical report and how his condition and the sequence of events has been represented in the media.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    Sounds very interesting!

    Not to keep getting you to write the book in this space, but do you feel that the actual medical report on Judy Johnson’s son indicates that her accusations against the McMartin teachers were highly credible? Even given her own issues? I know later there were those who claimed her mental problems were caused by rather than preceding the case, but from what I can recall (I followed the case pretty closely at the time because it was so close to where I grew up) she had known phobias about clinical medicine, was having money troubles, was already a heavy drinker before the case began. I know that there was a report from the UCLA medical center that the boy had been sodomized, but didn’t the doctors who did the examination later admit in court that they had no expertise or prior experience with determinations of abuse or anal insertion? At the least, don’t you think that Judy Johnson’s mental and personal history is of comparable importance to a medical report of that kind?

    This is really at the heart of the “moral panic” claim: that at some “tipping point” in the overall cultural phenomenon, bodies of evidence which at the very least ambiguously weigh against each other are suddenly thrown out of relation, that some kind of disjuncture occurs.

    There was a period in the South Bay area (where the McMartin school was) where I can remember literally everyone in my parents’ social circle being 100% certain that the McMartin teachers had done virtually everything ascribed to them in the media reports. At a later point, you’re right that everyone grew convinced that the entire thing was an utter fiction, which may be equally questionable, but I think in this case also pretty understandable. That wouldn’t be such a big deal except that a lot of people’s lives got pretty badly mangled in the process.

    I also really do think that some of the experts who got involved, including the people who interviewed the children at the Children’s Institute International and the police who composed the initial letter to the parents, have a lot to answer for–I just don’t see how you could come up with anything in hindsight that would excuse some of the errors of judgement and practice involved. A letter to a huge group of parents based on a single case (even if there was some evidence in that case) that read in part: “Records indicate that your child has been or is currently a student at the preschool. We are asking your assistance in this continuing investigation. Please question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he or she has been a victim. Our investigation indicates that possible acts include: oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttocks or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretense of taking the child’s temperature. Also, photos may have been taken of the children without clothing. Any information from your child regarding having ever observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during any nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important” is by any standard of justice I care to live under a big mistake. More importantly, it is precisely the kind of document that I would look for early in an outbreak of “moral panic”: a kind of template narrative that emanates from a civic or political or cultural authority that generates in many people a simultaneous pressure to reconstruct their sense of social experience, that reorders everyday life, that has an element of panic and anxiety in it.

  18. RCinProv says:

    “Not to keep getting you to write the book in this space, but”

    I appreciate the sentiment and the interest.

    I also appreciate the tone with which this dialogue has occured, with the exception of your need to put the words court transcripts in quotes in an earlier comment. So be it.

    Yes, there were terrible errors in the case. But the UCLA report is better than you think, and the Judy Johnson chronology is not as compressed as you claim. I just can’t go into it more here. I need time to read and think about your new moral panic post — oh, and I need to get back to writing said book.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    Sorry about the quotes–I just mean to indicate that court transcripts necessarily include more than just testimony given in court, but prosecutorial strategies and prosecutorial statements in the media, depositions collected, records of expert interviews of possible victims, at least in my view.

  20. RCinProv says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t get that. But I definitely agree that depositions, for example, are part of the record at large. These documents often shed important light on a case. They are also much harder to find, at least in some cases. (But I love a challenge.)

    This does raise a question for another time: a question about what kinds of sources can be used as evidence. If I have a deposition in my possession, can I use that as “evidence” even if you would probably never be able to find it? Because most of the documents outside of the actual transcript are in that category. I have sought out such materials whenever researching cases, but I now face some interesting questions about what can and cannot be used as evidence. I know that some scholars use “item in the author’s possession” as an answer to this question. I don’t find it a very satisafactory answer. For another day.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s a question I think about a lot: some of my evidence for my first book are interviews that I taped but never transcribed. I guess a deposition at least someone else *could* obtain, or you could give to someone as a copy if they really wanted to look at it. In your case, I wouldn’t be that surprised if someone actually asked for it, given the hotly contested nature (even now) of the case. At some point, that kind of request would clearly become an enormous burden if you had to handle it on a one-by-one basis. Where this gets especially tricky in in the case of privileged or private information. I wrote a little bit back about a paper I had to comment on that was partially based on an author’s work in a private corporate archive where he was not allowed to reproduce the documents and where no one else had access to the archive. That may not matter so much when the argument made from that seems “commonsensical” to other historians, but when the argument moves off in a contrarian direction (as this paper did to some extent), it becomes a pretty excrutiating dilemma, because your only choice is to either take someone’s word for it, or to raise questions about their expert ability to read documents.

  22. lauram says:

    What about the whole Catholic priest thing? Does that count as a “moral panic?” Like your other examples, it concerned protecting the youth. It was a widespread fear. It resulted in front page sensational articles. But it was also all true. Can a moral panic be justified?

  23. lauram says:

    oops. just saw you wrote a whole post expanding your idea of moral panic. off to read it.

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