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Kaalgat pseudo-liberalism and the Polanski affair

The late Irving Kristol once defined a liberal as someone who, upon witnessing a fourteen-year-old girl engaging in a live sex act, worries about whether she is getting the minimum wage. It was the same Kristol who described a neo-conservative as a liberal who has been “mugged by reality”. Kristol himself is widely regarded as neo-conservatism’s foremost intellectuals, if not its actual founder.

The reaction of many to the recent arrest in Switzerland of filmmaker Roman Polanski echoes a lot of what Kristol, I think, was getting at. One sees all too clearly from this unfolding saga the propensity of certain self-defined liberals to turn a blind eye to glaring social evils when it suits them.

For the liberal-left intelligentsia, particularly in the artistic community, Polanski is being portrayed not as a man who notoriously drugged and sodomised a thirteen-year-old girl and then fled to France to escape the consequences. Rather he is being presented as a victim of middle-American vindictiveness, a real-life version of Victor Hugo’s saintly Jean Valjean hounded by the implacable inspector Javert. Was it not punishment enough, they argue, that the gifted Polanski was unable to receive his 2003 Best Director Oscar in person for fear of arrest? Has he not suffered sufficiently from his ‘mistake’ by all the notoriety he has attracted, the lawyers’ fees he has paid, and the fact that he has been unable to visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film?

Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit, asks how the same outraged voices would have responded had Roman Polanski, distinguished artiste, instead been Monsignor Polanski, Catholic priest. He writes: “Imagine if the Knights of Columbus decided to give an award to a paedophile priest who had fled the country to avoid prison. The outcry would be universal.”

Neo-conservatism (before it so lamentably became an excuse for an aggressive foreign policy aimed at forcibly imposing democracy on others) was, and still is, a powerful intellectual force. It confronted and exposed the blinkered double standards of those who ignored (and frequently even championed) the world’s most human rights delinquent nations whilst depicting the Western nations, particularly America, as the epitome of evil.

The special pleading on Polanski’s behalf seems to me to be reminiscent of the same kind of excuses that were routinely made for the emergent post-colonial countries and communist regimes. In his case, the fact of his being a great filmmaker is seen as a good enough reason to judge him according to a different, less stringent, standard of behaviour.

This reasoning is pernicious in the extreme. When standards of behaviour are not consistently imposed but rather selectively applied, or not, according to one’s ideological proclivities, they become a hollow mockery good only for smearing others. If the passage of time does not lessen the imperative of bringing a felon to justice, why are so many apparently reasonable voices being raised for Polanski to be let off?


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.