The solid story that could have been: The New York Times and the Atonement

Critical thinking is the mantra of a modern humanist education. For the chattering classes, to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, there is no higher intellectual virtue than empathy, of understanding diverse points of view, and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs.

When this ideal is met, education truly takes place. The mind -- the soul -- is broadened. But as any observer of what passes for intellectual life knows, critical thinking, as practiced by the media and academic elites, goes one way.

Recognition of cultural difference is always good, in this world view, while stereotypes are always bad. Yet few seem to be able to make the connection that stereotypes, whether good or bad, are in fact descriptions of cultural difference. The moment a writer generalizes about a culture’s or people’s distinctive qualities they are constructing a stereotype.

If pushed to explain this contradiction, the response of the modern mind is that the problem is not all stereotypes but negative stereotypes -- which means stereotypes of anyone other than white men, Evangelicals, Catholics or Americans.

In an otherwise commendable article on an abuse story from England, the New York Times offers stereotypical stock characters. While the facts are there in the story, the call to empathy, understanding diverse points of view and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs is noticeably absent.

Here’s a news flash for the New York Times: evil exists and can be found in all times, places, peoples and cultures (not just in white, upper middle class men educated at private schools and professing an evangelical Christian faith.)

Let's roll out some stereotypes. Evangelicals are sadomasochists. Catholic priests are pedophiles. Muslims are wife beaters. Jews are money grubbers. Hindus are smelly, and Mormons are Republicans. This article falls to this level of offensive stereotyping in seeking to explain the John Smyth saga.

A recent New York Times article -- “Dozens say Christian leader made British boys ‘bleed for Jesus’ ” -- recounts a story first reported in England by Channel 4 News on February 2 that subsequently received extensive coverage in the British press.

Channel 4 reported that during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, John Smyth, QC, a prominent barrister and onetime leader of director of summer camps run by the evangelical Christian Iwerne Trust that catered to boys attending Britain’s top public schools, was a sadomasochist.

Smyth befriended teenaged boys he met at the camps run by the Iwerne Trust and boys affiliated with a Christian forum at Winchester College -- an elite British public school located near his home in Hampshire. He would invite the boys to his home on weekends and developed close relationships with many, encouraging them to pursue careers in the church or military, while also propounding conservative evangelical Christian teachings.

In furtherance of these teachings, the reports allege, Smyth would beat some of the boys with a cane seeking to drive out the sin of masturbation or carnal desires.  The articles report that after one boy attempted suicide after he was invited to return to Smyth’s home, the Iwerne Trust commissioned an investigation and in 1982 found the reports to be credible. No sexual abuse was found to have occurred -- just sadomasochism.

Smyth was banned from the camps and Winchester College, and encouraged to leave the country -- eventually settling in Zimbabwe -- where he is said to have continued his criminal behavior at camps he set up. The New York Times piece reports that while the investigation concluded Smyth had engaged in criminal behavior, the police were not informed until 2013.

The article uses a different verb to describe Smyth’s departure from the UK, saying he was “sent” to Zimbabwe by the Iwerne Trust, when the other press accounts say he was “told to leave” the country by trust officials.

The story had a number of returns to the public eye in the British press because the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby served as a counselor at one of Smyth's camps when he was a teenager. Welby said he had no knowledge of the abuse, and to the delight of the press the bishop of Buckingham told Channel 4 that he did not believe the archbishop was telling the truth on that point.

It subsequently emerged the bishop of Guilford attended one of Smyth’s weekends and was abused by Smyth, which prompted another wave of news articles and opinion pieces.

The Times piece, arriving rather late in the game, developed its own angle to the affair by interviewing Mark Stibbe, one of the victims, and others affected by the abuse.

If the Times had stopped at this point, it would have saved the story. However, the editorial decision was made to explain the backstory of the abuse, and at this point the stock characters come forward.

Continue reading "The New York Times and the Atonement," by George Conger.

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