Michael Gerson: What the GOP’s faux outrage over child sexual exploitation is really about

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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One of the problems with deceitfully accusing your political opponents of moral abominations falls under the purview of the Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Another is the brutalization and debasement of political discourse.
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Yet the promiscuous and proof-free allegation of a moral atrocity — say, of pedophilia — is perhaps most dangerous because it dilutes the meaning of the accusation itself. It empties the claim of real content. It replaces the recognition of a horror with the performance of a ploy.
How are we to tell whether this line has been crossed? Here is one handy standard: If Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is accused of supporting the sexual violation of children, then the accuser is a dangerous fool who cares little for the actual crime of pedophilia.



The argument of the hard right goes something like this: Because Supreme Court Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson was lenient on pedophilia in her sentencing record (which she was not), then Republican senators who vote for her are sprinkled with suspicion as well. “Murkowski, Collins, and Romney,” tweeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), “are pro-pedophile. They just voted for #KBJ.”
The charge is now common, even trendy, among a particular kind of conservative culture warrior. In defending Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed on Twitter: “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” This apparently includes conservative judicial experts who find the law overly broad and purposely vague — a measure whose intended consequence is to intimidate teachers from discussing sexuality in every school grade.
Our politics needs a basic review of ethics. First, making the charge of a heinous crime against anyone — including a political opponent — demands strong evidence. Evidence, let’s say, at least as compelling as that against former judge Roy Moore and former House speaker Dennis Hastert.



Second, past grievance is not an adequate justification for current calumny. Some conservatives are perpetually perturbed by the charge from the left that they are racists or white supremacists. I also have concerns about misapplying and diluting these powerful terms. But the idea that because an opponent transgresses a norm the standard no longer applies to anyone is a perversion of principle. It encourages partisans to unleash the most hyperbolic, vicious accusations they can imagine. Fighting unjust charges with other unjust charges makes our public life a theater of deception, defamation and unconstrained malice.
In the case of racism, however, clear evidence may lead to uncomfortable places. While Senate Republican supporters of Jackson have never attended conferences featuring advocates of pedophilia, Greene and some of her House Republican colleagues have attended conferences featuring advocates of white nationalism. This seems a strong indication that some members of Congress at least do not denounce racism in their political allies.
On the topic of teen sexuality, some realism and understanding are in order. Most Americans now favor laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identify in employment, housing and public accommodations. This includes 62 percent of White, evangelical Protestants. But those on the left cannot expect many morally conservative parents to immediately or fully accept a concept of gender fluidity that emerged so recently in their perception of the moral universe. And this is especially true in settings such as public schools, where a broad ideological variety of parents feel a sense of ownership.







At the same time, the world of sexuality and gender among young people has changed with the speed of a TikTok video. Many children have friends who consider themselves trans or nonbinary. Students are likely to have early encounters with families that have two moms or two dads. In these circumstances, curiosity is a given, and silence is not a serious option. Encountering actual people rather than abstract controversies makes claims on our tolerance, understanding and kindness. These values must be taught by someone.
The Florida strategy — coming soon to a red state near you — seems to assume that the age-appropriate discussion of sexuality amounts to the encouragement of sexual experimentation. And the gratuitous charge of grooming seems intended to feed durable but false stereotypes of gay predation. Neither of these accusations has roots in reality or addresses the very real harm of child sexual exploitation. But they are useful to promote fear and organize political resentment.
The primary goal of grossly unjust accusations of grooming is not the protection of children — it is the projection of power. And it is a power that some in the GOP have gleefully abused.

 
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