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Roman Polanski and a turn of the tide

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted October 5, 2009

Roman PolanskiThe outpouring of outrage after the Roman Polanski arrest is surprising in its bipartisanship. There are threads in Democratic Underground which, if suitably paraphrased, would belong in the Free Republic. Attempts in the Huffington Post to defend Polanski have been swamped by angry comments. The case is becoming a flash point, serving as yet another indicator of the gap between America's elites and more ordinary folks.

There's nary a Mencken to be seen. Anyone familiar with H.L.'s writings could come up with a fairly accurate guess as to how he'd bellow over the Polanski case. No-one has undertaken to live up (or down) to his example. Nor has any left winger with a left-wing analog, which would have included the rote comparison to the Nazis. No would-be anti-populist is stepping up to the plate. Nary an elitist peep has been heard from the circuit that professes aversion to the "mob," however defined. An American commentator wouldn't be far wrong in saying "we're all populists now."

It's made for a real sea change, a turn of the tide. Polanski is from a field where sexual misbehavior has been formerly tolerated, and his own life has been marred by tragedies that few others have experienced. Not many people have fled from the Nazis when a child and, later, had their pregnant wife murdered by a psychopath and his gang. In an earlier age, a lot of people would have stuck up for him. Now, they're almost nowhere to be found.

Double Standard And…

In modern times, artists have traditionally been both succored and hemmed in by a double standard. They're "bohemian" types, prone to activities that would be considered degenerate if done by normal people. Typically, bohemians are (or were) desperately poor, dissolute and somewhat deranged. They live in the worst parts of town, and live wildly. Having sacrificed all for art, they are condemned to live in society's fringes. Rather than beyond society's norms, they tend to live below society's norms.

Immortal works of genius have come from those slovenly slums. That's what gives Bohemianism its mystique. The admiration, however, has always been at a distance. Bohemians who have craved legitimacy have found out the hard way that there are real barriers between they and normal society. They've tended to retaliate in kind by bourgeois-bashing; they doing so endorsed the divide.

"Stay away from them! They're trouble!" Many an artist pegged as the "trouble" has faced that barrier. The personal and creative freedoms that come with the lifestyle have largely been compensatory.

We see its remnants whenever an actor or artist is laughed out of court after going political. The same stricture applies to arts that have an aristocratic character, like high fashion. How many easy laughs have been called forth with the stupid-model gag?

It may be harsh for me to say it, but artists' freedom is largely the freedom of the court jester. The jester could get away with saying anything to anyone, even the king, without facing the consequences anyone else would face. Ostensibly, a jester could act if he were "above the King and his Law" – but no-one in the know was fooled.

… Its Erosion

Said jester-status can coexist with crowd adulation, and often has. It can also coexist, although uneasily, with a pile in the bank. It cannot, however, coexist with real influence. Any jester who fooled himself into thinking that he was a real member of the King's council would have learned different with a quick boot in the rear.

That's why the Polanski case is a real turn of the tide. Had the old customs regarding Bohemians been still in place, Polanski would have been let off the hook. The only one blamed for his ravishing of Samantha Gailey would have been her parents. The person who "should have known" is always held to a higher standard than the person who needn't.

Roman Polanski is not being treated as a Bohemian; he's being treated as a citizen. No court-jester freedoms for him. In fact, he's being held to a slightly higher standard given that his earlier sufferings have not translated into an excuse.

Hollywood indeed has arrived. Many stars, many directors, many artists have sought out political influence. They've now gotten it, along with the higher standard expected of those who have it. The Polanski case shows that a Bohemian in America is no longer ipso facto below the law. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan dances with the Grim Reaper.


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