Terence Blacker: If the world's gone mad, don't blame Hugh

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The Independent Online

It is a disappointing day when there is not at least one political-correctness-gone-mad scandal in the newspapers, accompanied by a gale of hot air from the usual professional moralists. But this week's story, which concerns an eight-year-old girl called Karla Anthony, her bunny pencil case and a concerned teacher from her school, is considerably more interesting than most.

A few weeks ago, Karla went to her local stationers and chose from the children's range a £2.99 pencil case decorated by a jolly pink line-drawing which showed a rabbit in a bow-tie. At her school in Bournemouth, a teacher told her that the logo represented an organisation called Playboy, and asked her if she had seen a magazine of that name.

As required in all of these stories, Karla was "confused and upset", and later asked her mother to explain. Mrs Anthony was furious, Mr Anthony announced that the school was being "ridiculous", and both parents revealed that their little one was so upset that she was worried about going back to school. To prove how traumatised she was, Karla was photographed, smiling happily, for the national press.

Obviously, there is plenty of cause for outrage here, but a small problem has faced those who like to pronounce weightily on matters of everyday morality. It is not quite clear which of two directly opposed positions of high dudgeon those who argue for traditionalist values should adopt. On the one hand, they can ask, "Has the world gone mad when a little girl can't take her bunny pencil case to school?" Or, alternatively, there is: "Has the world gone mad when sex-related school stationery is sold on the High Street and, in the words of one commentator, 'underage children are being seduced into the pornographic brand'?".

It is true that there is something distinctly odd about Playboy actually wanting to promote itself to eight-year-olds, but at least WH Smith have taken a briskly hardline approach. They are giving their customers choice, they have said, defending their decision to sell Playboy children's products beside Winnie the Pooh, Bratz and Funky Friends.

They are not in business to act as moral censors. No doubt Mizz, the magazine which is aimed at the pre-teen market and which promoted the Playboy range on its front cover, would make the same point.

The depressing truth is that this is now a non-argument. The loss of childhood innocence, whether it is seen as unforgivable corruption or necessary worldliness, is already all around us. It has amused the adult world and its entertainment media to see and portray children as cute junior adults, and often to dress them accordingly.

Now no one is remotely perturbed by the fact that women who have made their name as topless models or in porn videos become, proudly and effortlessly, the stars of peak-hour reality series and chat shows.

Jodie Marsh is a playground favourite; many of the sales of Jordan's books are to schoolgirls, for whom she has become a role-model. Porn values are to be heard in the lyrics of songs aimed at children. They are in the poses adopted for publicity photographs, often later published in the same newspapers that are outraged by the Playboy pencil-case scandal.

We are in a muddle about childhood; the problem is in the culture as a whole and it is ridiculous to point the finger of blame at Hugh Hefner's evil empire. The bunny has already bolted.

Striking a chord with the chaps

Down at the Ponderosa, my local country music club, there will some nervy jangling of spurs, some tugging of stetsons over the eyes, at the news that Willie Nelson has released a single celebrating cowboys who like to ride together in fashionable Brokeback Mountain style.

Willie, right, is unlikely to become a gay icon - his hair's a touch lank, his teeth are rather brown - but he will strike a chord with chaps-loving riders on the range with his single "Cowboys are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)". The song explains, "That's why they wear leather, and Levi's and belts buckled tight."

But true country fans will know that there is nothing new here. Willie's own canon contains some obvious hints. "Cowboys like dirty old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings/ Little warm puppies and children and girls of the night," goes one, while in another a cowboy "does a little Shakespeare and he sings/ Plays the mandolin and other things."

Little warm puppies? Shakespeare? Around that camp fire, outlaws have been out for longer than we think.

* With Abu Ghraib, Iran and Guantanamo Bay dominating the headlines, it is only right that the Foreign Secretary should write a full-page article on a leading matter of moral importance.

"It is time for those running football to act," Jack Straw argued in The Times, deploring the tendency of players to fall over in order to be awarded a penalty.

This cheating is apparently part of a wider picture.

"Those in charge might reflect that the next time that their wife or mother or son or daughter is the victim of yobbish behaviour in the street, the perpetrator might have thought it was OK to show no respect because their heroes act in the same way on Saturdays."

How useful it is to have the man who helped take us to war on a dodgy prospectus to remind us of the importance of honesty at all times.

terblacker@aol.com

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