Hitchens on Roman Polanski: “Constantly Reminding the Law of its Impotence”


Brit writer and provocateur Christopher Hitchens may not have made many feminist friends with his 2007 Vanity Fair piece on why women aren’t funny. Alas, Hitchens does make some fantastic points in his recent Slate article on director Roman Polanski, in which he attempts to put the scandal into global context.

He begins with a critique of “Hollywood exceptionalism” – that is “special set of [loose - Ed.] ethics” only celebrities have the luxury of living by. Here on Zelda Lily, Dharma made a similar argument last month. Hitchens calls out Paul Shaffer’s it’s-just-too-bad-for-him treatment of convicted murderer Phil Spector:

In a recent book titled We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives (and enticingly subtitled A Swingin’ Showbiz Saga), late-night music maestro Paul Shaffer feels that he perhaps ought to say something about Phil Spector’s conviction for the murder of another human being whose name most people can’t remember. So he does say something. “I regret all the tragedy that has surrounded Phil in recent years,” is what he chooses to say. Not really even a try, let alone a nice try.

The tragedy that has surrounded Phil? Wha? No, he wasn’t the cause of the tragedy — aka the shooting of Lana Clarkson – he’s just a victim, unwillingly floating in a pool of tragedy, that’s all!

As if, says Hitchens (basically), getting right down to the real meaning of tragedy, as the same word has been thrown into the mix quite frequently of late next to the name “Polanski.” Is the usage justified? Not quite:

Polanski directed various tragedies on-screen and was also the victim of some hellish misfortunes in his own life. The media now say tragedy when they mean that bad things have happened to good or—even worse—famous people. But the types of tragedy that really deserve the name are of two main kinds, the Hegelian and the Greek. Hegel thought it was tragic when two rights came into conflict. The Greeks thought it tragic when a great man was undone by a fatal flaw.

The word we get from the second type of tragedy—hubris—applies in multiple ways to Polanski. (If you ask me, it’s hubris to release a movie version of a rather well-known tragedy and call it Roman Polanski’s Film of Macbeth.) He may also have thought that he was so cool and so entitled that he could give booze to a 13-year-old and then a Quaalude, a drug that has muscle-relaxant properties that you may suddenly find yourself not wanting to think about. There was a bit of a flaw right there.

Hitchens takes nearly a paragraph  off to do a bit of bitching about Polanski’s libel suit against his “colleagues at Vanity Fair” — and it was a crummy situation, but seriously, wah — then he’s back on-topic: How has this director managed to flout the law for so long when it is, in fact, still important that he be brought to justice?

It is not so remarkable, in other words, that prosecutors have apparently reactivated an old but still active case. It is, rather, quite astonishing that Polanski has been able to caper about on the run for so long, thumbing his nose, even collecting damages, flourishing a “Get Out of Jail Free” and a lucrative “Pass Go” card, and constantly reminding the law of its impotence.

It’s affecting in some ways that the original girl in the case has forgiven him and doesn’t want to see the matter reopened, but strictly speaking it’s of no more relevance than if she had said the same thing at the time. The law prosecutes those who violate children, and it does so partly on behalf of children who haven’t been violated yet. We take an individual instance, whoever the individuals happen to be, and we use it for precedent. And we do not know how lucky we are to be able to do so.

Teach it like you preach it on that last part, Chris. All over the world, underage women and girls are taken advantage of, and if we don’t do something about it here at home, how can we ever really encourage more humanitarian practices in other nations?

Hitchens has a major beef with religion, to be sure, so there’s that grain of salt to be taken with his final paragraphs — but, in my book, his closer is the article’s most affecting and important component:

Just three weeks ago, in Yemen, 12-year-old Fawziya Youssef bled to death while attempting to give birth to a stillborn baby. Her futile and agonizing labor had lasted for quite some time. She had been legally married at the age of 11 to a man twice her age. Her case is not by any means unique in Yemen, where it is estimated that more than a quarter of girls are married by the age of 15 at the latest, many of them becoming brides much younger. Attempts to raise the age of marriage have been stymied by political parties whose character I do not have to tell you, because you have already guessed. The child-bride scandal—which is a polite name for a scandal involving rape, torture, slavery, and incest—is also a feature of life in neighboring Saudi Arabia and several other countries in the region, where for good measure it is often accompanied by the mutilation of the genitalia of baby girls.

In Iran—where the Islamic revolution originally lowered the age of marriage to 9—the minimum age is currently 13, though this is not among the laws that the Revolutionary Guards are especially zealous in enforcing. You may, if you wish, try to make a case for cultural relativism—different standards for different societies and traditions—but the plain fact is that the Prophet Mohammed was betrothed to his favorite wife Aisha when she was 6 and took her as his wife when she was 9, and this gives an “empowering” effect to those who like things to be this way and to keep it legal. Meanwhile, a leading prince of the American Roman church sits in the Vatican as a cardinal, having for decades facilitated and covered up the institutionalized sodomizing of the underage. I would rather live in a country where children are protected and their predators prosecuted, and even (which in Hollywood is evidently not always the same thing) disapproved of.

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5 thoughts on “Hitchens on Roman Polanski: “Constantly Reminding the Law of its Impotence”

  1. A lot of criminals have talent. Charles Manson wrote songs for the Beach Boys and paints. Should be ignore his crimes? This whole thing would have been over a long, long time ago if Polanski simply faced up to what he did and served his time. Hollywood people always get exceptionally light sentences so he would have gotten 6months max if even that. But now they will probably make an example of him for thumbing his nose at America all these years…

  2. Hitchens is now on my People To Look To For Encouragement When Humanity Seems Thoroughly Fucked list. Thank you for the link.

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