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Morality, Hollywood Style

Moral hypocrisy is an ugly thing, regardless of its source. Hypocrisy is a moral trap of constant threat — the price of holding any moral standards at all. To hold to the truth of moral judgment and then to allow for the transgression of that moral judgment is hypocrisy in its essence. The only total escape from the threat of hypocrisy is to forfeit any claim to moral standards at all.

Hypocrisy is found in ample supply among both conservatives and liberals. The conservative variant seems most evident when political or religious leaders are found guilty of transgressing the very principles they preach. The hypocrisy spreads in both extent and significance when those who claim to be conservatives attempting to conserve moral wisdom excuse those who flaunt their personal disregard for that wisdom.

The liberal variant seems most evident when, for example, moral relativists all of a sudden discover moral scruples. It turns out that even postmodern relativists and the children of the 1960s do believe in moral principles after all. Yet, the cultural left has always found sexual morality most difficult to define or defend.

The other liberal variant that so often appears is the argument that artists or celebrities or academics are above the morality to which the rest of society is accountable.  In the end, the children of the sexual revolution have gravitated toward a sexual morality that boils down to consent. In its essence, this sexual morality holds that anything consenting individuals do with each other sexually is beyond moral censure.  And anything means anything.  An ethic of consent is all that remains after the ethic of moral rules is discarded in the name of liberation.

That leaves the definition of consent as the issue of central concern. Who can and cannot give adequate consent to sex? Feminists have been quick to point out, quite rightly, that women are often forced into situations in which consent is an illusion. Thus, they have been steadfast defenders of laws and moral codes that protect women from situations in which consent is not genuine. They have insisted, rightly again, that the very young, the vulnerable, and those under threat of harm (such as an employee approached by an employer) cannot grant meaningful consent.

Of course, the most vulnerable are the youngest, and the most vulnerable of all are the youngest when exploited by adults. This moral wisdom — the wisdom of any sane society — has been affirmed by virtually all but the most scandalously outrageous figures driven into the moral wilderness.

Until now?

The response of so many Hollywood leading lights to the arrest of filmmaker Roman Polanski now suggests that, at least when it comes to one of their own, sex with children is within the pale. This deserves and demands a closer look.

The cultural left has responded to the arrest a week ago of Polanksi with outrage — directed not at Polanski but at the arrest.

The facts are not in dispute. Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. The girl had been invited to a “photo session” with the famous director but Polanski gave her alcohol and drugs and then twice had sex with her.  Polanski entered a guilty plea based on an agreement that he would not be prosecuted for rape or sodomy (crimes for which he had been indicted). He fled the United States before his sentencing and has generally avoided any nation that has an extradition treaty with the United States.  His arrest in Switzerland set off international protests.

The French cultural minister expressed outrage that the United States would demand Polanski’s return. Within days, over 100 Hollywood luminaries had signed a petition demanding Polanski’s release.  Names on the petition included Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein defended Hollywood’s defense of Polanski, referring to his sex with a 13-year-old girl as a “so-called crime” and telling The Los Angeles Times: “Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion . . .  We were the people who did the fundraising telethon for the victims of 9/11. We were there for the victims of Katrina and any world catastrophe.”  In other words, our morality is superior to you unartistic types with your moral scruples about sex with children.

As Terry Teachout commented in The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Weinstein is, of course, a moral idiot.” Clearly.  The larger question is why so many Hollywood types have jumped so eagerly to defend Polanski.  Whoopi Goldberg said on “The View” that what Polanski did “was not rape, rape.”  Then what is rape, rape?

The Los Angeles Times reported:

Jonathan Kuntz, a visiting professor in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies school, said the local reaction may be a version of the “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” “I think that there are a lot of folks in Hollywood in the late ’60s and ’70s who may have done a lot of things they weren’t really proud of, and may have been participating in very similar things,” Kuntz said. “And it touches on a question that’s been around for a long time: whether the celebrity is above the law.

Is the celebrity above the law? The case of Roman Polanski is tragic to the core. He went on to have an affair with a 15-year-old actress even after fleeing justice in the United States.  He was always warmly embraced by Hollywood, receiving a standing ovation when he was announced as the winner of an Oscar for “The Pianist.”  He gave his acceptance speech by satellite broadcast.  Hollywood was glad to oblige.

Give Katha Pollitt credit, the feminist left-winger supreme was quick to denounce both Polanski and his Hollywood enablers:

The widespread support for Polanski shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst. They may make great movies, write great books, and design beautiful things, they may have lots of noble humanitarian ideas and care, in the abstract, about all the right principles: equality under the law, for example. But in this case, they’re just the white culture-class counterpart of hip-hop fans who stood by R. Kelly and Chris Brown and of sports fans who automatically support their favorite athletes when they’re accused of beating their wives and raping hotel workers.

No wonder Middle America hates them.

The moral gap between Hollywood and “Middle America” is vast, though for some reason many Americans blind themselves to this fact.  The Hollywood embrace of Roman Polanski and their outrage at his arrest in Switzerland shines a floodlight on this gap.

Are art and artists above moral accountability? The Hollywood elite seem to believe so — and even to be willing to lend their names to the defense of the morally indefensible.  Is the celebrity above the law?  Watch this case closely.