Refighting the Culture War over Roman Polanski

The furore over his arrest is not about what happened in LA on 10 March 1977 - it’s a pathetic proxy clash between a clapped-out left and right.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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.

Polanski, the Polish-French maker of some decent films (Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist) and some awful ones, too (Frantic, The Dance of the Vampires), pleaded guilty in a Los Angeles court in 1977 to having sexual intercourse with a minor. On 10 March 1977, then 44 years old, he had taken Samantha Gailey, a 13-year-old child model, to the home of Jack Nicholson in Mulholland, California, where he said he was going to take photographs of her for the French edition of Vogue. After taking the photos, he gave Gailey champagne and a sedative drug and performed oral sex, intercourse and sodomy on her while she said: ‘No, I don’t want to do this.’ The original charges against Polanski were ‘rape by use of drugs, sodomy, and a lewd and lascivious act with a child under the age of 14’; as part of a plea bargain Polanski got it reduced to ‘sexual intercourse with a minor’. When he realised that even this plea-bargained charge could land him in jail for many years, he fled the US and has effectively been a filmmaking fugitive in Europe ever since.

But the miles of newspaper commentary and feverish diplomatic activity that greeted his arrest in Switzerland have not really been concerned with the facts of the case, the question of legal precedents, or the issue of justice. Instead, Polanski has been turned into a symbol. For conservatives, still convinced that the Sixties are the root of all evil, he is symbolic of the perversions allegedly unleashed by the naked, hippyish, free-love liberations of the countercultural period, with his rape of a 13-year-old girl seen virtually as the logical end product of legalising drug use and encouraging people to be sexually experimental. For liberals he is a symbol of tortured European artistry, who is now being victimised by an ‘ugly’ and ‘prudish’ America which doesn’t appreciate great art (1). For American officials, Polanski is symbolic of European degeneracy and they fantasise that returning him to an American jail will be a victory for Reaganite decency over French moral turpitude. For French officials, meanwhile, Polanski is a symbol of Europe’s gallant recovery from its dark past (Polanski and his family, Polish Jews, were persecuted during the Holocaust), who is now being tortured anew by ‘the darker side of America, the side that scares us all’ (2). Just as Mia Farrow’s Rosemary was a vessel for the devil in Rosemary’s Baby, so Polanski has been turned into a vessel for all sorts of political jibber jabber today.

It is striking how quickly the discussion of what Polanski, one man, did to Samantha Gailey, one girl, in a bedroom in 1977 twists and turns into a discussion about competing moral values and even clashing national standards. For Sixties-baiting conservatives, Polanski has long been a rotting symbol of everything that is wrong with the 1960s. Both Polanski’s experience of a terrible crime in 1969 and his execution of a crime in 1977 are held up as evidence of the darker, destructive side of the 1960s and why a diet of sexual looseness, rock’n’roll and drugs is a Bad Thing.

In 1969, Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, a beautiful budding actress, was brutally murdered by Charles Manson’s cult, The Family. Family members stabbed to death Tate and four others at Polanski’s home in California while he was away; Tate was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time. That extraordinary crime, carried out by a tiny cult of wierd hippies, has long been cited by American conservatives as the neat conclusion to a decade in which traditional values had collapsed under the weight of a new generation that was less respectful, more hedonistic and edgier than its Fifties forebears; it was the ‘dark side of the California dream’, as one writer argued, a product of the ‘political, social and cultural turbulence of the 1960s’ (3). The Manson crimes have been more analysed and discussed than any other serial-killing episodes in American history because they have been elevated from the realm of crime to the world of politics and morality, used by conservatives both to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the collapse of traditional values in the 1960s (instead it was all the fault of The Beatles, the Beach Boys, drugs and other things loved by Charles Manson) and to depict sexual liberation and social experimentation as having necessarily brutal, morally unanchored, murderous consequences.

Yet just as Polanski was a victim of alleged Sixties excesses, so he was a rapacious product of those excesses, too. Any sympathy for Polanski quickly dried up following his conviction for unlawful intercourse in 1977. This, too, conservatives argued, was part of the degeneracy of the open-minded, open-trousered culture of the American West Coast in the mid- to late-twentieth century; it sprung from Polanski’s and others’ determination to ‘push back the boundaries of sexual liberation’, as one report said this week (4). Some American law enforcers and right-wing commentators seem to imagine that having Polanski returned to the US will finally bring to an end the odious influence of the 1960s on contemporary society and morality. Under the headline ‘Why we dislike the French’, one conservative American columnist asks how ‘liberal’ Europe can ‘support a child rapist’ (5).

Yet if this attempt to write off 1960s sexual liberation and experimentation (some of which was progressive, some of which was solipsistic) on the back of Polanski’s past is bad, then the defence of Polanski by European government officials and commentators is even worse. They are motivated not by anything remotely related to legal norms or questions of justice, but by a snobbish and opportunistic anti-Americanism in which Polanski (who is probably a bit of a creep) becomes recast as a paragon of European decency against hung-up America. So determined are some liberal observers to use L’Affaire Polanski to get one over on America that they have even forgotten about their normal role of stoking up hysterical panics about paedophiles and have re-depicted Polanski’s encounter with Gailey as just a somewhat over-exuberant heavy-petting session.

European liberals were super-quick to rally to Polanski’s defence against what Frederic Mitterand, nephew of the former French president and a close friend of Polanski, described as a ‘senseless’ and ‘outrageous’ arrest that springs from ‘the darker side of America, the one that scares us all’ (6). In short, Polanski is not merely being pursued under an old legalistic arrest warrant, the kind that exists for many fugitives around the world, but rather is the European victim of evil and vengeful America. One French commentator says the US is ‘acting out some kind of prudish revenge’ against a ‘great talent who never abided by American rules’ (7). Here, Polanski’s actions in 1977 are presented as a bit of rule-breaking and anyone who thinks he should be punished for them is clearly an unarty prude from the dark and scary United States. But whatever you think of the usefulness of the arrest warrant against Polanski, and the motivations behind its continued pursuit by American law enforcers, it is not prudish to think that performing oral sex and sodomy on a drunk 13-year-old is unacceptable behaviour.

The difference between the liberal media reaction to Polanski and to someone like Gary Glitter – the big-haired glam-rock star who in 1997 was discovered to have child porn on his computer – is striking. Where Glitter has over the past 10 years been turned by the British media into a symbol of the paedophilic evil that is allegedly stalking our land, proof that New Labour’s sex offenders’ register is not a bloated and fearmongering database after all but a necessary evil to protect our children from harm, Polanski is presented as the misunderstood artist who is the real victim here – of a ‘money-grabbing American mother and a publicity-hungry Californian judge’ (8). So keen are some liberal observers to mark themselves out as Not American, and to find a new way to lambast the conservative values of now Republican-ruled California, that they are effectively saying: ‘Polanski might be a paedophile, but he’s our paedophile.’ Seemingly lacking the cojones to defend any of the social and sexual gains of the 1960s openly and loudly, commentators instead seek to excuse Polanski’s behaviour and to demonise the anti-Sixties right-wingers.

But perhaps the worst aspect of the Polanski affair is the competition of victimhoods. It is testimony to the domination of the victim culture in contemporary society that both Polanski haters and Polanski defenders, both sides in this bizarre re-enactment of the Culture War of the 1960s and its aftermath, have used the language of victimology to make their case. For many American and British commentators this is all about Samantha Gailey, whom they have transformed into the archetypal and eternally symbolic victim of the alleged great evil of our time, Child Abuse. ‘Remember: Polanski raped a child’, says a headline in Salon, in an article that provides sordid, misery-memoir-style details of what Polanski did with his penis to Gailey’s vagina and anus (9). For European observers, by contrast, Polanski’s actions can be explained by his own victimised past, especially during the Holocaust. We have to understand his ‘life tragedies’ and how they moulded him, says one filmmaker (10). Anne Applebaum, the American commentator who spends much of her time in Europe, says Polanski fled America in 1978 because of his ‘understandable fear of irrational punishment. Polanski’s mother died in Auschwitz. His father survived in Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto.’ (11) (Applebaum fails to disclose that she is married to the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who is actively campaigning against Polanski’s extradition.)

This spat in victimology confirms that the politics of victimhood, the pursuit of law, politics and morality in the name of respecting and helping victims, dominates debate on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the Anglo-American sphere it is the victim of child abuse that is most sacrosanct, while in Europe it is the victims of the Holocaust who enjoy the greatest, most unquestioned moral authority – to the extent that Polanski’s pretty cowardly fleeing of America in 1978 can be excused as a latent reaction by a tortured man to the emotional horrors of Auschwitz.

L’Affaire Polanski has become a Culture War that dare not speak its name, a pale and dishonest imitation of the debates about values and morality that have emerged at various times over the past 50 years. As a result we are none the wiser about the legal usefulness of 30-year-old arrest warrants or contemporary extradition laws, as desperate political observers have instead turned Polanski into either a ventriloquist’s dummy or a voodoo doll for the purposes of letting off some cheap moral steam.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg explained why Polanski picked London for his 2005 libel trial. Alison Felus and Toby Marshall had contrasting views on Polanski’s Oscar-winning The Pianist. Elsewhere, Nancy McDermott looked at America’s unhealthy obsession with paedophilia. And Mick Hume critised Britain’s obsession with paedophilia, too. James Heartfield argued in 2002 that the Left’s embrace of Europe as an alternative to America creates illusions of a destructive elite. Again in 2002, Josie Appleton argued that how we see America reveals a lot about ourselves. Or read more at spiked issue America.

(1) Polanski’s arrest has shocked France, Comment is Free, 28 September 2009

(2) Polanski’s arrest has shocked France, Comment is Free, 28 September 2009

(3) Manson’s lasting legacy, CNN, 10 August 2009

(4) Roman Polanski: a hero unfairly persecuted by America, say French media, The Times, 28 September 2009

(5) And then we remember why we dislike the French, National Review Online, 28 September 2009

(6) Polanski’s arrest has shocked France, Comment is Free, 28 September 2009

(7) Polanski’s arrest has shocked France, Comment is Free, 28 September 2009

(8) Roman Polanski: a hero unfairly persecuted by America, say French media, The Times, 28 September 2009

(9) Remember, Roman Polanski raped a child, Salon, 28 September 2009

(10) Roman a Clef: Wanted and Desired,, 2003

(11) The outrageous arrest of Roman Polanski, Washington Post, 27 September 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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