30 Sep 2009

Culture War Skirmishes All Over the Polanski Plain

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Brendan O’Neill, like yours truly, finds the Roman Polanski left-right skirmish a competitive exercise in narrative-framing with a lot of posing.

(T)he 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… (Remember, Roman Polanski raped a child, Salon, 28 September 2009 ). 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 (Roman a Clef: Wanted and Desired, Documentary.org, 2003). 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.’ (The outrageous arrest of Roman Polanski, Washington Post, 27 September 2009 ) (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.

David Zincavage, failed to disclose when he editorialized against the Polanski extradition, that he is married to Karen L. Myers, who has seen several Roman Polanski films. She also alerted me to Brendan O’Neill’s article.

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