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The Standard Reader

In brief: Dorothy Rabinowitz's "No Crueler Tyrannies" and the "Touchstone Reader."

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31
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Books in Brief

No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times by Dorothy Rabinowitz (Free Press, 256 pp., $25). The term "witch hunt" has been used so often--and so inaccurately--that one automatically mistrusts it these days. Yet one recent set of events does bear a striking resemblance to the Salem trials: the hysteria over sexual abuse of children in day-care centers that frenzied the nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In "No Crueler Tyrannies," the Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz presents several of the most famous cases. All of them depended solely on the testimony of children, some as young as four. And all of them included a quantity and bizarreness of charges unlike anything seen before. In Massachusetts, for example, Gerald Amirault and his mother and sister were accused of performing ritualistic sex acts on hundreds of children--many of them in front of the school and often involving a big silver robot. Most of the defendants Rabinowitz chronicles were eventually released. But Gerald Amirault recently lost yet another appeal when Governor Jane Swift overruled her own Board of Pardons and Paroles' recommendation.

Rabinowitz's book will rightly elicit outrage from her readers--stemming in no small part from her sense that, under the right circumstances, anyone could find himself in the plight of her helpless subjects. She narrates "No Crueler Tyrannies" solely from the perspective of the defendants, and while this makes engrossing reading, it does limit the book. Rabinowitz presents compelling evidence--particularly transcripts that show young witnesses manipulated by psychologists with leading questions--but one would like some exposure to the other side. If, as she acknowledges, most of the prosecutors involved still believe that "children had been assaulted and terrorized," one would like to know why.

Rabinowitz could also have made use of new literature concerning the unreliability of child witnesses, particularly in sex-abuse cases. Psychologists Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck, among others, have written extensively on the subject. Still, "No Crueler Tyrannies" is an astonishingly frightening book, and it raises the question that we must face, sooner or later: How can such witch hunts happen?

--Erin Sheley

Creed and Culture: A Touchstone Reader, edited by James M. Kushiner (ISI, 239 pp., $15). When C.S. Lewis popularized the phrase "Mere Christianity," he stated explicitly that he didn't want to create a sort of Third Way religiosity. Instead, he used the metaphor of a hallway for his description of the basic, shared tenets of Christianity, telling readers he could take them into the hallway, but it was up to them to choose a door among the existing religious traditions and step through.

Touchstone magazine bills itself as "A Journal of Mere Christianity." Published ten times a year by a cast of conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, it tries to pursue a shared social agenda and to plumb the depths of the traditions that feed the agenda. Issue by issue, the results are a little mixed. But "Creed and Culture," a book-length anthology from the magazine's first decade, is consistently good.

The book is self-consciously literary, reprinting Russell Kirk on T.S. Eliot's "After Strange Gods," Thomas Howard on "Brideshead Revisited," and James L. Sauer's surprising essay about Whittaker Chambers's translation of "Bambi."

The Touchstone crew's reflexive response to liberalism--social, philosophical, or theological--is to beat the stuffing out of it. In an essay on scientism, Huston Smith sets out five propositions to return theology to its place as the Queen of the Sciences. James R. Edwards closes the collection with a haymaker against the popular Jesus seminar.

Readers who like their coffee strong--and who are interested in literature, theology, ecclesiology, and ecumenism--will love "Creed and Culture." But even us decaf types will find in it much to ponder.

--Jeremy Lott