The worse the state treats kids, the more the state’s prosecutors chase after inoffensive “perverts” in the private sector who have committed the so-called crime of getting sexual kicks out of images downloaded into their computers or bought as part of an archive of archaic soft-core porn.

Before we get to Paul Reubens, a k a Pee-Wee Herman, pause to consider the Administration’s proposed cuts in social services affecting youth, as passed by the Senate in January:

§ $60.9 million cut from childcare, meaning access cut for 38,000 kids;

§ $29 million cut from after-school programs;

§ $13 million cut from programs that help abused and neglected children;

§ $3 million cut from children’s mental health funding;

§ $42 million cut from substance-abuse treatment programs.

All this and more from a President who had the effrontery in his State of the Union address to proclaim the ringing lie, “We will not pass along our problems” to future generations, even as the future generations are scheduled to pick up the tab for his proposed disbursements to the very rich.

Meanwhile, out in California a prosecutor is trying once more to destroy Pee-Wee, who took a hit back in 1991 for the awful crime of masturbating in a Sarasota film theater during a showing of Nancy Nurse. Reubens pleaded no contest and slowly hauled himself out of the ditch, but last year the shadows gathered round him once more. His travails were recently described by Richard Goldstein in a brilliant piece in the Village Voice.

A teenager complained to the LAPD about Reubens and a friend, the actor Jeffrey Jones. Though the complaint was dismissed, cops took occasion to search the homes of both men. Jones is charged with taking pornographic pictures of a juvenile, a felony. Reubens faces a lesser charge: possession. Both have pleaded not guilty.

But what exactly does Reubens “possess”? He collects vintage erotica, mostly gay, with copies of those old physique mags that slaked covert gay fantasies the same way Naked Women of Borneo in National Geographic helped out straight kids in the same era. The cops took away 30,000 items for leisurely perusal, leaving behind a further 70,000. The DA concluded there was no case, and it looked as though Pee-Wee was in the clear.

Enter a zealous Protector of Youth in the form of the city attorney, Rocky Delgadillo. One day before the one-year statute of limitations expired, Delgadillo issued a warrant for Reubens’s arrest. If Reubens gets convicted he could go to prison for a year. Goldstein writes that the cops told him Reubens had 6,500 hours of videotape, including transfers of vintage 8-millimeter gay films, with some minutes of teenage boys masturbating or having oral sex. Remember, in 1982 the Supreme Court declared child pornography unprotected by the First Amendment, with “porn” encompassing even clothed images of children if they are construed as arousing. “Child” means anyone under 18.

Collectors buy archives in bulk. An archive comes up and you grab it quick. Goldstein cites a California dealer of vintage magazines, who has sold to Reubens, as saying “there’s no way” he could have known the content of each page in the publications he bought. In other words, Reubens may get cooked for images he didn’t even know he had. But what if he actually did know what he had? So what?

The state these days nails people for what they have in their computers. Poor Pete Townshend draws a well-publicized escort of no less than twelve police officers to drag him off when he’s arrested and absurdly accused of “incitement to distribute” (also a crime here) because the silly ass used a credit card to download images from pedophile sites, which are monitored by the FBI in a vast operation involving multilayered schemes of entrapment.

In England it’s now a criminal act to look at, receive or send any pictures or electronic images of children that the police or other authorities construe as sex related. These photos can be computer-generated, with no relation to any physical being. Scan a hot little Cupid from Bouguereau, tweak it around in Photoshop, and if the cops find it on your laptop you’re dead meat.

We’re in the twilit world of the “thought crime.” Have a photo of a kid in a bath on your hard drive, and the prosecutor says you were looking at it with lust in your heart, and that is tantamount to sexually molesting an actual kid in an actual bath. The possibilities for entrapment are rich indeed. The FBI could send pedophilic images to a target, then rush around, seize his laptop and announce that porn has been found on the hard drive. Once you’re defined as a dirty brute in a raincoat, it’s hard to fight back. Look at what’s happening to Scott Ritter, with the Feds now shopping for a suitable jurisdiction in which to nail him again, even though his case was settled and sealed at the state level, before some kind soul in favor of bombing kids in Baghdad leaked the file to the press.

In an admirable article in the London Daily Telegraph apropos the Townshend case, Barbara Amiel recently wrote thus:

Behind our own attitudes lurks a recurring insistence that violent images create violent social behaviour…. Since we can’t outlaw urges, including urges of paedophilia, we throw our resources into preventing any way in which urges can be gratified. But, if gratification involves nothing else than the viewing of pictures or textual descriptions of the act, making that a criminal offence strikes one as completely insane. Shouldn’t we start by decriminalising every human act that does not go beyond reading, viewing or listening to representations of acts that if engaged in might be unlawful? Then we could punish with various degrees of severity any deviant acts that cause actual harm.

Sure, there are predators out there, seeking to do young people harm. But don’t confuse dreams with deeds, any more than we should confuse George Bush’s pledge to future generations that “we will not pass along our problems” with the pain his budgets and his war plans inflict on so many young lives.