Strategy from the Abyss

“The use of Fashions in thought,” writes C. S. Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape, of evil memory, “is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.”  A simple strategy, but eminently effective:


We direct the cry of each generation against those vices of which it is in least danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm. . . .Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism.


The reader may well think of plenty of current examples of the phenomenon. Just when Islam bids fair to drive every Christian and Jew out of the Middle East, and its jihadists around the world are decapitating reporters, blowing out the brains of little boys, and burning whole villages full of women and children, people in the religiously indifferent and sleepwalking West wring their hands over Islamophobia. 

Just when it has become nigh unto treason to suggest that women are beset by any shortcomings or limitations, of body or spirit or mind, and when working class men have seen their jobs vanish or their wages sag, we become exercised over whether a female graduate student at a posh university should have to pay a few dollars of her own to purchase synthetic hormones, so that she can continue a carefree life of dissolution.

Recently, an all-star running back for the Minnesota Vikings was accused of abusing his four-year-old son. He had taken a switch to the boy and lashed his legs with it, over and over. The pictures of the result are not pretty.
 Ever since that day, the airwaves have been filled with discussions over what his employer should do about it, and the severest condemnations, if the employer should do nothing. 

I hold no brief for switch-wielding football players. But it seems to me to be a case of the Screwtape strategy. Ours is hardly an age in which children are too severely disciplined. I have very little good to say about public education, but it is a plain fact that in many schools no real education can go on, because the classrooms are out of control. The problem is particularly acute in places where children grow up without fathers. 

The danger proceeds from at least two directions. A willful and insolent child can hold over the parents head the threat of a false report of abuse; mainly that comes from girls wanting to get even with single mothers. 

Meanwhile, boys growing up without fathers never learn to keep their aggressiveness in check. They loom over the mother, the teacher, the school nurse, and the lady principal. It does not worry him if his impudence brings chaos, or confrontations. Those are the salt of the day.

          Saturn Devouring His Children by Goya (c. 1820)

This is not to say that children are “running wild” out of doors, because generally speaking they are wild within regimentation. They know neither the whispers of the old library nor the cry of hawks on the wing.  

So we are doing our children plenty of harm, and very little of it comes at the end of a stick. Return to the running backs employer, and to the sports reporters and fans who are calling for him to be fired. I take no position on what his punishment should be. I note only the astonishing blindness of the people following this particular moral fashion.

The boys legs will have suffered no permanent harm. But what if the running back had done something infinitely more harmful to his son? Suppose he had said to his wife, “Im leaving you for another woman,” and simply ducked out of the boys life, sending in a hefty check every month to salve his conscience?

Who would then be crying out that he should lose his job? No one at all. But why not? Abandonment opens a wound that never heals, and it is a wound not upon the skin of the legs, but in the heart.  

Here it will not do to say that divorce and the dissolving of other domestic arrangements are legal, but raising welts on a boys legs is not. No one denies that the running back should face the law. But the critics are calling for punishment far beyond what the law will impose. They are calling upon the National Football League to dissociate themselves from such moral heinousness. And this seems strange to me.

If the man had abandoned the child, no one would bat an eyelash. It would be interesting to find out how many children the numerous critics have fathered or borne out of wedlock, how many they have abandoned by walking away, and how many they have corrupted by flaunting their sexual misdeeds or by leaving pornography in their childrens sight. That is not to mention the children they have cut to pieces in the womb. Those switches leave no child behind to form a scar.

We will not, of course, hear any sportscaster recommending a zero tolerance policy regarding divorce, illegitimacy, or abortion.  Those sins are fashionable. They are also ubiquitous.  

Termites are gnawing your rafters to dust, and you are worried about a crack in your basement slab. Your bones are riddled with cancer, and you are worried about your waistline. And when you caulk the little crack and lose the two pounds and fire the running back, you hug yourself for being so responsible, and say that all will be just fine.

The Uncle snickers.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.