Thursday, 15 October 2009

Yesterday's news

WARNING: CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC IMAGES. (My mother reads this, and I don't want her, or anyone else of delicate sensibility, to be shocked.)

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

All right my darlings, I am back, and in celebration I am going to go all feminist on your ass. (As a Briton I find it interesting that this particular collocation only works if you use the American version; ‘on your arse’ sounds either incredibly pompous or slightly sinister. Still, it’s one of my favourite pieces of demotic and I am not going to give it up just because I risk confusing British readers who may think I am referring to a hardy pack animal.)

Anyway. I know the Polanski thing is all too last week but I want to talk about it all the same. Thinking about whether to write this or not, I was struck by the stratospheric speed of the news. I know there was always the tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping aspect of reporting, and in some ways this is why I love and stick up for journalists, because their secret hearts must always be broken: what they write is utterly vital for the public square, but literally disposable. Even when they break a huge story, like the Trafigura scandal currently tearing up The Guardian, it is very soon yesterday’s news.

I once met a very lovely gentleman of a certain age at Hay on Wye, and he spent an hour telling me about the glory days of The Sunday Times Insight team, when he would spend six months working on one story. ‘They just gave you your bus ticket and said Go and get it, it doesn’t matter how long it takes,’ he said, wistfully. That was how we discovered what Thalidomide actually did to babies. But it seems that now, in the age of the global village and the new media and the crushing commercial pressures and Web 2.0 and the Twitterers and the bloggers, that the news moves at warp speed. I am sometimes a bit snarky about the columnists; occasionally even I, with my stern liberal heart, go a bit clichéd and cheap, and talk about the chatterati and the commentariat, and some of them do deserve a big slap upside the head, but they too have an impossible job in these days of high velocity. They must be ready to comment on the scandal du jour right now, this minute, because if they dare to spend two days pondering what they really think about a big subject, their weary editor will just say: ‘What’s the hook?’.

Polanski exploded like a tropical storm coming out of nowhere, a couple of weeks ago, and now, like any unstable weather system, it has moved offshore. Everyone has had their opinion. The papers have gone back to the archives and dredged up the material about the Warsaw Ghetto and the Sharon Tate murder. The great and good of the film industry have signed their petitions demanding that he should be freed. The friends have appeared on the television saying what a marvellous fellow he is, not as others. The commentariat has commented. The bloggers have had their say. Even moral philosophers have given their considered opinion. It’s done and dusted. Everything that has to be said has been said. But it is such a strange and haunting case, and the reaction to it has been so bizarrely unexpected, that it has taken me a fortnight to work out exactly what I do think about it. So here I am, way behind the curve, but through the enchanting self-indulgence of the blog, weighing in anyway.

What seems to me the oddest aspect of the whole thing is that the central facts of the case are beyond dispute. It’s not as if we have to go back and relitigate the thing. In 1977, Polanski, at the time a hugely famous director, lionised by Hollywood, took a thirteen year old girl, hungry for fame, gave her champagne and Quaaludes, performed oral sex and sodomy on her without her permission, and then drove her home. Due to some complicated legal wrangling and the very strange mindset of the judge in the case, Polanski ended up pleading guilty to only one charge, which was having unlawful sex with a minor. It looked as if he would get off with probation, but then the judge went wiggy, seemed as if he was going to cede to public and press outrage, and possibly lock up Polanski and throw away the key, at which point, Polanski fled. He went back to being a very famous film director, got a hugely sentimental reaction when The Pianist won the Oscar for best picture, and everyone forgot about that unfortunate little episode so far in his past, until the Swiss decided to arrest him.

This was when things got really strange. Moving as a pack, the artistic community expressed righteous outrage and fury, not at a man who raped a thirteen year old girl, but at the authorities who dared to arrest him. People I admire, from Bernard-Henri Lévy to Michael Mann, put out livid statements about the inequity of the arrest. Robert Harris told an audience in Cheltenham that the ‘nightmare’ was that Polanski might have to complete his latest film from a prison cell. (As opposed to the nightmare of a forty-three year old man sticking his penis up a thirteen year old anus. I am sorry to be vulgar, but this whole thing is vulgar.) Inexplicably, it seemed that there was an argument to be had here. The argument was amorphous and inchoate, shifting from post to post: it went from a basic leave an old man alone, to a sort of plea bargain he’s had more tragedy than one man should bear, to a sand in your face but the judge was nuts, and finally, to a blatant but he’s so bloody brilliant. As the lovely Miss Whistle wrote on her blog, this last seemed to be: ‘genius trumps child rape’.

It seems to me that if you rape a child, that’s it. I don’t care how many Chinatowns you direct. All bets are off. I think of my adorable sixteen year old niece, and of what I would do if someone twice her age laid a finger on her. But as I listened to all the furious debating back and forth, and spent my days thinking about it, I was, for a moment, caught by the tragedy argument. For a moment, I wondered if there was any mitigating factor here. To be a Polish Jew in the 1940s, to watch your mother killed by Nazis and your father dragged off to a concentration camp, to find some kind of happiness with a beautiful woman and then be woken with the news that she has been butchered while eight months pregnant, is more suffering than most people know in any lifetime. Perhaps I should have compassion for such a man. His friends, possibly rightly, point out that it is a miracle someone could walk and talk after such a catalogue of horror. Maybe that would lead someone to lose their moral compass, and perhaps instead of judging I should try to walk a mile in his shoes.

There are several problems with this line of reasoning. The central bloodless legal one is: if we were to do that, we would let off, say, a teenage boy who has stabbed someone to death because his father beat him and his mother was a crack whore. If we were to do that, as a society, then the rule of law would break down. There must be some absolutes: no matter how drenched in tragedy your life is, you may not stab a human or rape a child. If you follow the tragedy argument to its logical conclusion, then you end up saying Well, Hitler’s father caned him every day until he bled, so no wonder he had to go and invade Poland. I am not drawing equivalence between Polanski and Hitler, that would be crass and wrong, but I am pointing out where flawed reasoning eventually leads you.

Another problem is that such mitigation leaves out all the people who have endured unspeakable suffering and chosen not to stab and rape and transgress societal mores. There are many of those, probably more than we know, and it is insulting to them to make excuses for those who did not exercise their restraint. Finally, I think you can turn this entire argument on its head. You could say: someone who has undergone unspeakable sorrow should have more care and compassion for other humans, not less. Polanski, more than anyone, knew what it was to feel powerless and persecuted; to inflict those same feelings on a vulnerable child is less excusable, not more.

But, and this is the feminist part, it seems that the really crucial point of the Polanski defenders is that the rape itself did not really matter. It was a peccadillo, in the distant past. There is the terrible suggestion, so familiar in all rape cases, that somehow the girl was asking for it. It has been said that she was longing to be famous, as if that makes it all her fault. It is endlessly repeated that she was the child of a pushy showbiz mother, as if that lets Polanski off the hook. There is the recurring subliminal theme that she was some kind of Lolita, luring poor hapless Roman to his doom. He certainly said that she was a willing participant, and frankly admitted to Clive James in a television interview not long afterwards that he loved young girls, and so what.

This is a story as old as the stones: that men, despite ruling the world for thousands of years, are somehow weak as water when faced with designing women singing their siren song, dragging the poor males onto the rocks. It has a nasty little corollary: that women are so devious that they lie to the sad honest men, just to get them into trouble. We females do not mean what we say, so how are men to know what is right? This is why the old feminists had to keep banging the No Means No drum until even they were sick to the teeth with it. In a truly bizarre example of Stockholm syndrome, Whoopi Goldberg, who I thought might have been of the Sisterhood, said the most horrible thing of the whole tawdry affair. ‘It wasn’t rape-rape,’ she said. No, no, of course it was not. It was at Jack Nicholson’s house, not in a back alley. There was vintage champagne, not a knife at the throat. It was adorable talented Roman, not a faceless man in a balaclava. It was a photo shoot for French Vogue, not a snuff movie. Whoopi, it turns out we barely knew you.

But here is the final point: even if that thirteen year old girl had been a sex-crazed little vixen, which she most certainly was not, even if she had stood naked in the middle of the room shouting Take me now, the correct thing for a forty three year old man of considerable power to do would be to say: get your clothes back on, I’m taking you home, go back to your schoolbooks.

And just so you know, this is what the noble defenders of Mr Roman Polanski are so righteously standing up for:

From the Grand Jury transcript:

A. He said: ‘I’ll take you home soon’.
Q. And then what happened?
A. And then he went down and he started performing cuddliness.
Q. What does that mean?
A. It means he went down on me or he placed his mouth on my vagina.
Q. At any time did he say anything before he put his mouth on your vagina?
A. No.
Q. What did he do when he placed his mouth on your vagina?
A. He was just like licking and I don’t know. I was ready to cry. I was kind of, I was going: ‘No, come on, stop it.’ But I was afraid.

But I was afraid.

I am not going to reproduce the testimony about the sodomy, because it is too much. But maybe the saddest thing about that whole exchange is that the child was so young and innocent that she thought ‘cunnilingus’ was called ‘cuddliness’. Some Lolita.

Further reading:

The always sane and marvellous Libertylondongirl:

The enchanting Allison Anders, whose films I have long loved:

And I wanted to give you a link to maybe my favourite blast of outrage on the whole subject, so lovely to hear coming from a man - my new number one columnist, Hugo Rifkind, writing in the dear old Speccie, but for some strange reason (lawyers? injunctions?) his coruscating piece does not appear online. But just to give you a flavour of what he wrote, the column began with 'He's a paedo, but he's our paedo'. From this tremendous start, Rifkind goes on to slam the weird Hollywood whitewash of Polanski: 'Polanski shags an actual child and they love him. What's that about? Is it because he is European? Do they think it must be an art form?'

If you can get your hands on a copy of the October 3rd Spectator, from a nice librarian or a kindly aunt, do try and read the whole thing. I don't know Hugo Rifkind, but he is now my favourite feminist hero. And that is really not a contradiction in terms.


  1. This is all from my heart, the only two points I am still not getting in the story: 1) Why on earth did former Miss and now Mrs say she would rather have him free now?
    2) Is it possibly true that crimes like this can really legally run out of time and therefore P. legally can not be guilty?

  2. Marianna - good questions. The second one is easy: there is no statute of limitations in this case. The first one is really hard. The victim has said publicly that she forgives Mr Polanski. I cannot know her mind, but my suspicion would be that she wants to put the thing behind her and get on with her life, rather than have the whole horror show dragged up again. The defenders of Polanski have used this as a key point in his favour, but personally I think it in no way affects the gravity of what he did. There was a very wonderful man, I wish I could remember his name, who lost his daughter in the bombing at Enniskillen. He famously forgave the IRA members who set the bomb and murdered his child. I think that showed the extraordinary nature of his own heart, but I do not think it means that society as a whole should forgive the terrorists, or that the law should look the other way. Although of course the irony is that, for the hope of peace in Northern Ireland, sometimes the law did do exactly that.

  3. Tania - I am a bit drunk so am incapable of writing a meaningful comment. TOTALLY brilliant post, you've articulated what I feel. All that "it was so long ago" bollocks - how would Roman feel if people said that about the Holocaust? It's all just monstrous.

  4. I happen to live in the country where Roman Polanski is currently incarcerated pending extradition [request] to the US. (As an aside, it seems to me that the British press particularly has really gone to town on this story.) What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is that he was apparently able to purchase an apartment in a chalet here where he spent most of last summer, reportedly. So either the US/Californian authorities haven't been pursuing him as relentlessly as they could have done or there is some 'good' reason why he hasn't been arrested until now. He has travelled extensively in mainland Europe in recent years without being apprehended.

    If you're interested, my take on the 'cause Polanski' is here:

  5. Bloody fantastic post - thank you so much, you said everything I thought.

  6. Really good post. The whole debacle is outrageous and leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. It seems to me to tie into an era - and a rather nasty string of cases - where child abuse was accepted in certain circumstances and to walk away unpunished, a given, depending on who you were; cf the Catholic church, endless rumours of child care homes... all of a similar era I think (60s and 70s although I stand to be corrected), as if children's rights to living without abuse ended with the day they stopped putting them up the chimneys.

    However - and this is a slight tangent but it raised an interesting thought process for me - reading 'Mad World', the bio of Evelyn Waugh and his real-life Bridesheads, it seemed that pederasty was just a given that time too, both when EW was at school in Lancing and - shockingly - when he became a teacher too; a teacher-colleague tells him how a particularly dull school trip was enlivened by taking a small boy behind a rock, etc. Just 40-50 years before, it was almost accepted that people in positions of authority, people in charge of younger people's welfare, would take advantage of the access afforded by the time. And not a word was said.

    My own reaction upon reading this in the book was less than startled. I almost glossed over it. And then on reading this post, it made me think 'Why am I not outraged? Is my interest and liking for EW clouding my judgement? Do I think it wasn't child abuse because it was in an era I generally admire and so this particularly unsavoury element can be brushed aside?' And quite honestly I don't know what to think.

    Boys at Eton and the like accepted abuse - both physical and sexual - as the status quo and that has become a tacit right of passage. Whoopi,as you mentioned, said it wasn't 'rape-rape' (I'd love to know her definition of rape in the singular). Where does the line get drawn. Shouldn't there just be one full stop - why has it become flexible depending on events and people involved?

  7. I must find that article by Hugo Rifkind.
    Thank you for this excellent post!

  8. So well said!
    Polanski's filmmaking genius, the hardships he endured in his life: all irrelevant. He RAPED a child, end of story. As for the people who defend him by claiming he's "paid" for his crime already: HOW? By living in Paris for decades, traveling occasionally to his Swiss chalet, and continuing to work and make movies? How is that the equivalent to jail time in the U.S.? It boggles the mind.

  9. Hear hear.

    And Rifkind's article is now to be found online:

  10. as usual, a wonderful post. enjoyed reading it very much. I came across this on Twitter- it is from a UNICEF report- "More than half of women and girls in developing countries think that wife-beating is acceptable".
    your post made me think- are these women who are being physically abused "afraid" like the 13 year-old girl? i should hope so, bec if they think it is "acceptable" it would be a sad tragedy, indeed.


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