Idea Of The Day

John Ashcroft’s “Dark Corners”

Even the Internet has slums, its own Lower East Side. Yesterday, at a press conference to announce the arrest of a large Internet child-pornography ring, Attorney General John Ashcroft remarked: “There are back alleys and dark corners of the Internet where our children can be exposed to inappropriate material or even become susceptible to offenders who view them as sexual objects.” “ Dark corners” is a phrase Dickens uses in at least six of his novels ( Bibliomania can show you where). John Ashcroft’s use (inadvertent or intended) is more likely an echo from The Making of an American, the memoir of the great late-19th- and early-20th-century social reformer Jacob Riis, a Dane who emigrated to the United States in 1870. Riis—whom Theodore Roosevelt was “tempted to call the best American I ever knew”—famously photographed and chronicled the deprivation he came upon in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “For hating the slum what credit belongs to me?” Riis wrote. “Who could love it? When it comes to that, perhaps it was the open, the woods, the freedom of my Danish fields I loved, the contrast that was hateful. I hate darkness and dirt anywhere, and naturally want to let in the light. I will have no dark corners in my own cellar; it must be whitewashed clean.”

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