When Oscar-winning film director Roman Polanski pleaded guilty more than 30 years ago to having illicit sex with a 13-year-old girl, his legal counsel brokered a plea agreement, according to press accounts, in order to avoid incarceration. But then the judge (now dead) reportedly reneged, and Polanski, 43 at the time, was confronted with the possibility of serious jail time. So the director, like in good movie drama, fled the country and has lived in France ever since, frequently visited neighboring European countries.
According to a New York Times op-ed piece by a friend of his, Polanski dined privately with three French presidents and has lived a life unmolested by French political and law enforcement officials for decades. In fact, he enjoyed the perks of celebrity status as he continued his film career. According to a Slate “Explainer” article, France and the United States have an extradition agreement in which both countries must consent to transfer fugitives. The Americans wanted Polanski, but the French declined, hence the man’s freedom until Swiss law enforcement authorities finally arrested him two weeks ago.
While I make no judgment about this case per se, the following comes to mind: the French seem to have no problem granting freedom and privilege to a man who “drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl in the home of actor Jack Nicholson” (according to Slate). Yet French President Nicolas Sarkozy may declare, with little public dissent, that a woman who wears a burqa is not welcome in France because the burqa is a symbol of a woman’s repression. In other words, the rape of a girl has no negative symbolism, and if there were such symbolism, then its expiration is rushed along nicely by a rapist’s association with the arts.
Is this what we may infer from this French quandary? To recap, a middle-age man who reportedly forced a girl to satisfy his lust in natural and unnatural ways repeatedly is welcome in France to live, work, sign autographs, and dine at high levels, but a woman who dresses like the mother of Jesus (God bless mother and son) is told that there’s no room at the inn.
It seems that once again the age of placid paradox hands us another controversy. Like others, this one draws attention to the unevenness of contemporary liberal discretion, if not neo-colonialist self-righteousness. Life mimicking his own art, Polanski has become a symbol of sorts, attracting commentary that ranges from insightful to truly bizarre, splitting even those who are of liberal-leaning persuasion. Hundreds of well-known men and women, mostly of the literati and cinema arts, have come to the man’s defense and have gone so far as to demand not only his release from Swiss custody but his acquittal for the reported rape and sodomizing of a little girl. Let us have a moment of reflection here: no one of repute would defend Polanski’s right to acquittal if the offender were Polanski the Plumber or, worse yet, Polanski the Afghani.
Instead, it is Polanski’s cultural status as a film director, a Western award-winner to boot (not the passage of time, the offer of forgiveness by the victim, alleged malfeasance of the judge, or any other “yellow cake” argument) that has the likes of Whoopi Goldberg (“It wasn’t rape-rape”), Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and many others signing all kinds of petitions demanding Polanski’s release. Notes Ben Crair in The Daily Beast, “Like their forebears, today’s limousine liberals display a very special brand of class-conscious hypocrisy. These people would never rally around an admitted child rapist, unless that admitted child rapist made great films, won prestigious awards, and went to the same dinner parties they like to attend.”
More than 60 years ago, the Spanish philosopher and cultural critic José Ortega y Gasset wrote powerful essays under the book title The Dehumanization of Art. One of the many observations he made was the segregation of modern art from human purpose. He surely did not have in mind the symbolic meaning we find in the Polanski flap (this unholy defense of a crime because of the offender’s status as an artist). Still, one can’t help but recall Ortega y Gasset’s arguments and their tangential, if not inevitable, connection to the relationship between art and the defense of dehumanizing crime. It’s easy to recall recent cases over the years that were dismissed or diminished because of the shield of celebrity: shoplifting, DUI’s galore, underage sexual relations on video, and worse. This is not an esoteric matter. A kid on my old South Side neighborhood of Chicago will get more jail time for selling a lid of hemp than an actor charged with felonious theft, rape, or vehicular manslaughter.
Human beings are observant of precedent, which helps to inform our laws, whether sacred or secular. We also have natural enthusiasm for the arts and hold in high esteem those who produce it. But nothing betrays our enthusiasm for art more than this idolatry of conferring icon status and above-the-law zealotry upon makers of art, whose priests then turn around and find it odd that people should sign petitions and be offended by xenophobic political cartoons or a droopy novel set in wearisome prose that disfigures the wife of a prophet (I do not, of course, condone violent reactions, but I support the right of reaction, which the limousine liberals selectively find unbecoming).
As author and blogger G. Willow Wilson comments, “I find myself really irritated by the hypocrisy surrounding film director Roman Polanski’s extradition. Practically every day we’re bombarded by arguments that the Prophet was a pedophile for marrying Aisha, yet when Polanski drugs and rapes a 13-year-old, he is a misunderstood genius.” Universally people are averse to contradictions and acts of hypocrisy. The French decades-long hospitality to a confessed child rapist, especially when held up next to Sarkozy’s nasal exegesis of the burqa, drips with pretense and hypocrisy.
Still, we need to be clear that these drippings are not the patented product of Western Europe. They are, as mentioned before, part of our postmodern age that has no regard for boundaries. The controversies, overreactions, and strange applications of sacred law of the East are well known, despite the scripture of Islam’s strong censuring of hypocrisy, duplicity, and unevenness in evoking rules and consequences. Of course, it’s easy to spot contradiction when one thinks he or she is on the right side of the event. When we look at the world, East and West, the wind of irony and paradox fills many sails. This current flap, though, is particularly embarrassing, given the cottage industry surrounding the search for all things wrong and conflicting in the Islamic realms. As this current controversy plays out, we’ll see how some of Polanski’s defenders may “revise” the stands they have now taken, but only when they are shown the angst of the all-important public, which fortunately is not duped by the pretenses of this furor.
Ibrahim N. Abusharif is a writer and educator. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s new campus in Doha, Qatar. His blog is fromclay.blogspot.com.