Return of the angel

We all love children. But on the subject of their welfare the world has gone almost completely mad

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Hillary Clinton rouses the Democratic Convention with her usual soppy guff about children. She has to do this to counteract the Republicans' soppy guff about children. Neither party can afford not to emit soppy guff about children. It is the American way.

Meanwhile, Queen Silvia of Sweden causes embarrassment by attacking her country's tolerance of child pornography at the world's first congress against the sexual exploitation of children, being held (oddly under the circumstances) in Stockholm. In California, a Bill is about to become law that will force twice-convicted paedophiles to be either castrated or drugged to prevent them re-offending. The case of the Belgian serial child abuser and killer Marc Dutroux continues to enthrall the world and a 34-year-old Briton has been arrested in Albania for sexually abusing two boys. Oh, and a new film of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita has resurrected the controversy that once surrounded that book: does it encourage paedophilia?

I could go on, but you get the point. Children are the issue of the moment. On the one hand, they are evoked as the ne plus ultra of American politics; on the other, they are seen as being at unprecedented risk from a world- wide epidemic of paedophilia. Whole pages of broadsheet newspapers are routinely devoted to the day's crop of paedophile horrors.

But first, in order to avoid the usual misunderstandings, I need to make a few things clear. Children are important, child abuse is horrible, hell has not agonies enough for

M Dutroux and, if I thought Nabokov's great and beautiful novel in any way condoned or encouraged the abduction or seduction of 12-year-old girls, I would be the first to cast my copy to the flames.

But, bracingly orthodox and upright as my attitudes clearly are, I cannot help but notice that, on the subject of children, the world has gone completely mad.

First let me deal with their use in politics - this is, in the extreme form exemplified by La Clinton, an American phenomenon. But, in some form, it happens everywhere. What is noticeable, whenever it occurs, is that the idea of the child is held up as a shining light beyond the practicalities of politics. Neither in her speeches nor in her sentimental writings has Mrs Clinton anything of substance, use or meaning to say about the care, education or protection of children. Equally, when our own leaders kiss babies during election campaigns, the gesture is entirely devoid of practical content. All any of these people are saying is: yes, we too worship at the shrine of the child.

For those who think that Rikki Lake, Geraldo, Oprah Winfrey and our own dear Esther Rantzen are deep, this is fine. For the rest of us, it is grotesque, because what political child-worship actually means is: childhood is the only absolute we dare embrace.

Politics is a numbers game, and long ago the numbers went weird. There are, these days, too many factions, each with its own absolutes, many of which conflict. Sure, the Americans can still play the patriotism card, but beyond that there's nothing, no agreed virtues.

Here it is worse. Patriotism is out for all but the Europhobes, and all other considerations of virtue are being Magimixed down into a niceness contest between Tony and John. The public world, bereft of external validation, is infantilised and the child becomes the only acceptable icon.

Insofar as this icon has any practical content, it is this: children are the future. Fine, give them an education, give them a culture. But if that culture turns out to have been infantilised, what's the point? Children will grow up to be children. For the truth is that worshipping children as the future is another way of saying that we have no faith, no confidence, no belief in the present. The worship of the child is an admission of political failure.

Next paedophilia. I am prepared to bet - I cannot lose, since there is no way of knowing - that there is no more child abuse today than there was 100 years ago. The one difference is that cheap global travel and communications systems such as the Internet make the systematisation of abuse easier. Maybe that has resulted in some increase in the overall numbers, but I doubt it. In any case, such systems also help with the detection of child abusers - a small point but one that is invariably ignored.

What is clear is that the sexual abuse of children currently enthralls the world. Abuse stories that would once have been passed over are inflated to run alongside the big horror stories like Dutroux. Knowing this, Calvin Klein can dabble with paedophiliac images to generate publicity for his horrible clothes and illiterates can creep out of the closets, where they have hidden since the Fifties, to damn Lolita, one of the great works of art of the past 50 years.

I have written before about the way this hypersensitivity to any sexual threat to our children feeds our general contemporary sense of the world as a landscape of limitless, incalculable risk. But why this particular risk? Why have we fastened on to child abuse as the defining evil of our day?

The answer is obvious. Just as a moral, intellectual and cultural vacuum obliges politicians to adopt the child as the only absolute good, so it obliges everybody else to adopt the abuse of the child as the only absolute evil. Look at how social workers became obsessed with Satanic child abuse - dressing up this evil, borrowing the imagery of religion to make it as foul as possible.

Child abuse was all they had. There was nothing else on which they could all agree to vent their sense of evil andwhich they knew would inflame ours. It worked. Perhaps we have dropped the horns and cloaks out of embarrassment. But the sheer intensity of our interest and concern makes the same point - this crime, above all others, fulfils our need for evil.

An undue obsession with children, as focus of good or occasionally for evil, is infantile. It is a symptom of a society that cannot grow up. Of course children should be cared for and child abusers hunted down and prosecuted. But to become obsessed with these processes indicates that we are not confident we can do either, that there is something so wrong with the present that we must flee to the future we imagine to be embodied in our children. They will not thank us because children, unlike their parents, still believe in growing up.

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