Should the film director Roman Polanski be extradited to the US over his statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles in March 1977? It’s a potentially interesting legal question. But it’s not the question that is driving the transatlantic furore that followed Polanski’s arrest and imprisonment in Switzerland over the weekend. Instead, various political prejudices and unresolved battles are being projected on to L’Affaire Polanski, robbing it of its specific legal complexities and turning it into the site of a proxy Culture War in which clapped-out conservatives and disoriented liberals are hurling intellectual (and not-so-intellectual) hand grenades at one another. And I find both sides pretty revolting. –Brendan O’Neill
This article, by the editor of Spiked, says it is, and I think it’s getting at some key pieces of it. There may be critics of Polanski who are using him as a symbol of the excesses of the 60s. I think the description of where the collusion with Polanski’s sex offenses on the part of more strident liberals and members of the European elite is coming from is quite accurate.
When it comes to my criticism of those elites over the last two posts, however, I don’t think you can stretch what I’m saying to an attack on the 60s, and I don’t know how good of a fit that is of those who are glad to see Polanski finally face justice for what he did. Does it describe the members of the Academy Awards audience who refused to applaud Polanski when he received his award?
Wait. I had heard reference to these individuals, but now I’m unable to find any reference to any lack of applause to Polanski when he received the Best Director award in 2003 for The Pianist. There were references to people who refused to applaud Elia Kazan for his Lifetime Achievement Award due to his mentioning Hollywood people he thought were communists in the 1950s that resulted in the studios black listing them, but nobody apparently stayed in their seats when Polanski was honored for his work.
So, instead of speaking of the armed camps O’Neill wants to frame this as, I’m the guy sitting aside from them, pointing out that Polanski may well be a great artist (his stuff doesn’t appeal to me, much, but that’s not really his fault), and certainly has been victimized by the Holocaust and the Manson Family. I can sympathize about those things and give them full weight. But not one of those things justify his rape of Samantha Gailey in one iota, nor do they mitigate his escaping the consequences of his actions for thirty years. I don’t know of any child molesters who weren’t victimized sexually as children. We don’t accept that their previous victimization justifies their victimization of others — we all learned “two wrongs don’t make a right” before we were five years old, didn’t we? None of which has anything to do with rejecting the culture of the 60s (I very much enjoy 60s protest music, even though I disagree with most of what it was trying to say), unless the culture of the 60s was nothing more nor less than rejecting the idea that there is anything wrong or that nobody should be held accountable for their behavior.
I think there are some problems reflected in Polanski’s defenders that reflect very much on the problems we have with holding sex offenders accountable right down at the human level:
We want to separate ourselves from SOs, and make them very different, other and alien. We certainly don’t want anybody to think that we might be or sympathize with SOs. So we demonize them and talk about all the mean things we would want to do to them as a way of showing how much they aren’t like us.
And then we find out that they are actually more like us than the cardboard cut-outs we created above. We are faced with someone we know, respect, like, love and care about who has done something horrific. This gives us two options. We can admit that we were wrong, and adjust the paradigm we’ve created to acknowledge that SOs are much closer to us than we thought.
Or we can take a trip down the River of Denial and decide that our respected person couldn’t possibly be an SO. Don’t you know that they’ve got horns on top of their head, and long tails, and that you can tell them just by looking? Our respected person doesn’t look anything like an SO. So we can attack those who are accusing them — what’s wrong with a little victim-blaming if it helps us maintain our denial? They’re lying, or overly sensitive, or they just misunderstood what was going on. There’s a simple, logical explanation about why it couldn’t possibly be the case that our respected person has done something wrong. They’re too much like us to have done that.
Oh, and then there’s the problem if we’ve actually done, or wanted to do, something not entirely dislike what our respected person is accused of doing. Pornography is widely popular, and includes many stories, photographs and videos portraying fantasies about sex with young girls, and where women don’t exactly consent to the sex right from the start — up to and including child porn and rape and snuff porn. The physical attributes that men are sexually attracted to are present in teen-aged girls, and we are exposed to thousands and thousands of sexualized images of them without even resorting to the world of porn. This doesn’t mean that all, many or most men have or will engage in any kind of sex offense, but the reality is that far more people have been engaged in not-entirely-consensual sexual situations than anybody should be comfortable with.
So, being faced with accusation of doing something totally horrific (which we’ve fantasized about doing, or have done things similar to) by someone we like, respect, love or care about, particularly if the accusations are being made by people we dislike (or who remind us of people we dislike), which challenge our ideas that keep us safe and separated from evil and obvious SOs, it’s easier to side with the SO, condemn and attack the victim and the accusers, and do our best to see to it that the SOs are not held accountable for their actions.
All very understandable. All very human. All very insidiously evil and destructive. And all-pervasive.
So, if this is the case, why does anybody ever stand up for victims of sexual abuse? Well, there is the other side of the question. Either the victim is someone close to you, or there is enough evidence that makes any effort to deny what happened ridiculous. This, then, requires turning the accused person into the cardboard cut-out stereotypical SO. It helps if they have horns and a tail, or the metaphorical equivalents, and then everybody can dog-pile all of their abuse on this person, label them, and feel totally justified in every wrong thing they want to do with them, including assaults, torture and even murder.
Just as understandable. Just as human. Just as insidiously evil, destructive and all-pervasive.
Facing this at a personal level is a whole lot harder than dealing with this penny-ante case of Roman Polanski and Samantha Gailey thirty years ago. What if it’s your son and your sister, or your best friend and some sexualized minority girl that you secretly think is quite hot?
I think O’Neill is correct that this is a culture war. But he’s misidentified the sides in this war, and he’s misidentified the real battleground. It’s not some tidy, sterile question of conservatives who still can’t deal with long-hair on boys and sexual permissiveness, or of liberal elites who want to give one of their own a pass. It’s a very personal, very difficult, very immediate question of what do each of us do to excuse and perpetuate sexual abuse, and what price are we individually willing to pay to bring that to a halt. Are we prepared to admit that we contribute to the objectification and sexualization of children and adults with our time, attention, fantasies and money? Are we prepared to admit to and give up the gratification and excitement we get from that objectification and sexualization, or the power we gain by sexualizing and objectifying ourselves or others?
My experience tells me that very few people are prepared to do such things without being forced to. Are you one of them?