10.03.09

How Polanski Could Help the Right

Hollywood's rally around admitted rapist Roman Polanski has resurrected the limousine liberal, reminding much of middle America why they hate the left.

It figures. On the eve of the Democratic Party’s greatest triumph—when, after decades of pangs and false alarms, universal health care has finally crowned—a coterie of powerful liberals go ahead and hand a real bullet to Republicans who have otherwise been firing blanks. The limousine liberal, that Democrat who puts privilege before principle and the status in status quo, is back, with a cocktail of issues (pedophilia, Hollywood, France) so volatile that Roger Ailes could not have scripted it better himself. As the Democratic Party makes its final push for a health-care overhaul, some of its members are reminding Middle America why sometimes it’s so easy to hate the left.

For this, we can thank Roman Polanski. You could pave a boulevard in Los Angeles with the names of his apologists: Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Weinstein, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen, among others. Journalists joined in—Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, Nation editor Katrina van den Heuvel (who backed off a bit when called on her stand by Katha Pollitt)—as did big-name authors like Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster. Even Washington advocates got into the act: “My personal thoughts are let the guy go," said Peg Yorkin, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "It's bad a person was raped. But that was so many years ago. The guy has been through so much in his life. It's crazy to arrest him now.”

Like their forebears, today’s limousine liberals display a very special brand of class-conscious hypocrisy. These people would never rally around an admitted child rapist—unless that admitted child rapist made great films, won prestigious awards, and went to the same dinner parties they like to attend.

Some people have observed this outpouring and commented on the lengths people will go to apologize for great art, but what is actually on display here is the lengths people will go to in order to apologize for great artists, which is not quite the same thing.

Great art, and film especially, is accessible to everyone, whereas great artists are much scarcer. The incarceration of Roman Polanski would not stop anyone from renting his films from Netflix, but it would require that he sit out the annual festivities at Cannes. That would undoubtedly disappointment the class of people who thrive on such exclusive company. The rush of so many wealthy and powerful liberals to defend Polanski reeks therefore of self-preservation, borne from the belief that a certain amount of wealth and accomplishment should exempt them from the American penal system.

This is, of course, one of conservatives’ favorite attacks on the left’s elites. The term “limousine liberal” connotes a lefty whose wealth inures him from the consequences of the social policies he advocates—somebody who touts the benefits of public transportation, say, from the comfort of his Cadillac Escalade, or championing the virtues of public school while sending her kid to Dalton.

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Though the epithet was first hurled by a Democrat at a Republican, during New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s reelection campaign in 1969, it became one of Republicans’ most damaging tools in the culture wars. In 1972, Vice President Spiro Agnew riled up the base with the phrase; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan ushered the Republican Party to dominance by convincing voters that the Democratic Party was run by elitist hypocrites whose wealth insulated them from practicing the values they insisted on for the rest of the American people. As a consequence, populism, which had hitherto been a phenomenon of the left, became a conservative one—the consequences of which are still on ample display on Fox News and in town halls.

Like their forebears, today’s limousine liberals display a very special brand of class-conscious hypocrisy. These people would never rally around an admitted child rapist—unless that admitted child rapist made great films, won prestigious awards, and went to the same dinner parties they like to attend.

Ironically enough, it was the murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969 that helped to awaken Nixon’s Silent Majority. As Rick Perlstein recounts in Nixonland, the libertine lifestyles of both the “Tate-Polanski Circle” and their hippie killers helped to drive home Nixon’s message: “The liberal inhabitants of the best circles: They weren’t like you and me.”

Now Polanski’s defenders are reminding us that, maybe, Nixon had a point. They have given the Michelle Malkins and the Rush Limbaughs another log to throw on the populist flame—and a particularly combustible one at that. Conservative talk-show hosts have been reduced to making up issues out of whole cloth—myths about death panels, and fantasies about President Obama’s birth certificate. So why give them a real issue to work with? When Rush describes Polanski’s defenders’ logic as, “IT’S OK TO ANALLY RAPE A GIRL IF YOU MAKE GOOD MOVIES,” he is right.

Ben Crair is an associate editor at The Daily Beast.