What is it with Puritans and Witchhunts?

salemI never been a great fan of religion, let alone missionaries. Among Christians, the Catholics are particularly unwelcome; by large, the Protestant puritans have generally caused less trouble. But bizarrely, puritans do go in for witchhunts. Famously, of course, it was Salem, but it certainly hasn’t stopped there.

Take Oxfam for example, which has recently been in the press. The offence? It turns out that some of their people have been using prostitutes in Haiti, and other disaster struck places.

Now, I am not an expert in prostitutes, by any means, but I imagine that if you have chosen that particular profession, a major natural disaster – the sort of thing that will get Oxfam turning up – is likely to be very bad for business. I’m not saying it’s a good business, or something that we should encourage. I am simply saying that if a particular young woman – or even a somewhat older woman – chooses to earn her income by offering sex for money, then she will be among the many people adversely affected by a national disaster. So, a natural disaster happens. Business dries up for this young woman. That’s bad. After a little while, the aid agencies turn up, with their cardboard boxes full of food and their white SUVs full of earnest do-gooders.

And here’s the thing. If you happen to be a prostitute, and if one of these do-gooders in a white SUV is willing and able to be a good customer, that is not bad news. On the contrary, it is good news. Compared with the usual local customers, the guy in the white SUV is likely to pay you better, in US dollars, and less likely to kill you as an alternative to settling the bill.

But the puritans back home don’t like it. They are not out in the field. They are flopsies. They do not approve of prostitutes. It is contrary to their feminist standards.

It is worth just doublechecking on the facts here. There were prostitutes in these disaster struck areas before the disaster. There are going to be prostitutes in the same areas after the disaster. There is no practical possibility that Oxfam or any other bunch of missionaries turning up in a white SUV with food in cardboard boxes is going to get rid of prostitution in these areas. With the following wind, some of the Oxfam people might relieve some of the hardship for the prostitutes during this rough period.

But of course, the puritans don’t stop there. Once they start on the feminist rant, they want an enquiry. And what they find? Hey ho, in an organisation that engages thousands of people all around the world it turns out that there have been examples of men making clunky, and sometimes downright objectionable, attempts to engage the affection of their women colleagues. I do not have any grannies left. But if I did have any grannies left, I would bet their lives on the proposition that there is no organisation of that size in the world where an enquiry could not find similar examples. They will also find examples of men who masturbate because they are lonely, of women who pretend to be on the pill when then not because they want to entrap a husband, of young women who entice older married men into affairs because they want the security of those men’s financial means, and of people of both sexes who use their positions of power over their subordinates to advance their romantic ambitions. None of this, you might say, is shiny, shiny good, but it is real life, and I suspect that there’s nothing particularly exceptional about Oxfam in this regard.

As it happens, I think that both prostitution and Oxfam are unwelcome. But they are both part of the tapestry of life. Prostitution seems to be more or less impossible to stamp out. Oxfam might be more vulnerable. And if it is destroyed, it is likely to be replaced by something even more pernicious.

We increasingly seem to be living in a world where truth is irrelevant: what matters is the sentiment of the mob. If the mob is going to be run by puritans for the next few decades, it is not going to be a good time for our children.

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