How the Social Justice Mob Decides Who Gets Ruined and Who Doesn’t

About a year ago, I was at one of those elitist dinner parties that the talk-radio guys are always going on about, albeit in the Swiss Alps rather than inside the Beltway—how’s that for one-upmanship? It was a very agreeable gathering at the end of a practically unimprovable week, but toward the end of the evening, an unexpected (by me, anyway) guest appeared: Roman Polanski.

That presented a dilemma both ethical and etiquettical. Does one meet Roman Polanski? Shake hands? Exchange pleasantries? Put on my critic’s hat and engage in a little friendly commentary? “I really enjoyed Chinatown, but I didn’t think Carnage quite lived up to the play. I’m not saying it was as bad as being drugged and forcibly sodomized, but, you know, John C. Reilly is no James Gandolfini.”


I wish I could say that my most immediate concern was transcendently moral, but apparently I am more a willow than an oak, and the first thing that crossed my mind was how to avoid embarrassing my hosts. And I confess that I did spend a second or two considering all the malicious uses to which a picture of me shaking hands with Roman Polanski might be put.

In fact, the dilemma proved easy to avoid. I stayed in my corner, and Polanski didn’t exactly work the room. He must realize that introducing himself potentially puts people on the spot. There is an etiquette for pariahs, and Polanski has had time to master its complexities.

But it took him a long time to become a pariah. He was a high-toned exile for years, having pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor in 1977 and then fleeing when he suspected he might get real prison time. The original charges had been worse than what he was convicted of: rape by use of drugs, lewd act upon a child under the age of 14, etc. It was only in 2009 that he was detained by Swiss police at American request and then held in Gstaad under house arrest until Swiss authorities rejected the U.S. extradition request, citing incomplete documentation. When Polanski wasn’t making sorties into high society, he was making films. No less a Hollywood social-justice warrior than Jodie Foster was happy to work with him as recently as 2011, along with the rest of the cast of Carnage: Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz. The Iranian-French playwright Yasmina Reza, who wrote the play on which Carnage was based, apparently had no qualms about collaborating on the screenplay with the great malefactor. Whoopi Goldberg was a public Polanski apologist with her unfortunate and illiterate “rape,” but not “rape-rape” defense. Tilda Swinton, Monica Bellucci, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodóvar, Darren Aronofsky, Terry Gilliam, and many others put their names on a petition calling for Polanski’s liberation during his relatively brief detention by Swiss authorities.

Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, too—inevitably. That was 2009, when The Pianist producer Henning Molfenter announced that he would boycott the Zurich film festival in protest, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “There is no way I’d go to Switzerland now. You can’t watch films knowing Roman Polanski is sitting in a cell five kilometers away.” Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of the world’s most celebrated liberal intellectuals, wrote a 2010 essay titled “Why I Defend Polanski, More Than Ever,” and the Huffington Post was happy to publish it.

Polanski is hardly the only famous man to have exhibited a sexual interest in young girls. Iggy Pop, long an ornament of high society, boasted of his sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl; Fox News regular Ted Nugent, who used to be a rock-’n’-roll singer, wasn’t making it all up with “Jailbait”; Jerry Lee Lewis married a 13-year-old cousin; David Bowie and Jimmy Page both had relationships with a 14-year-old girl—the same 14-year-old girl, in fact—and the former died a beloved cultural icon while the latter is an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Chuck Berry was a genuine creep, but you wouldn’t know it from the eulogies offered on his behalf by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

Why Polanski? And, probably more relevant at the moment, why Harvey Weinstein, who now has been charged with rape? Polanski’s crimes were horrible and obvious, and he remains utterly impenitent. Weinstein’s worst transgressions remain to be adjudicated, but the known and uncontested facts of his case are horrifying enough. Maybe a better question is: Why not Iggy Pop, who just released a new record with electronic act Underworld? Why not Jimmy Page? Why not Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who went so far as to become the legal guardian of the underage girl he was sleeping with? Why not the ghost of Charles Dickens, who left his wife for an 18-year-old actress, or Norman Mailer, who thought that “A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul”? Why not a few of the celebrities who have been hauled in on domestic violence charges: Sean Penn, Emma Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Carmen Electra, Michael Lohan, Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Terrence Howard, Stormy Daniels, etc.? True, many of them never have been convicted of any serious crime. Neither has Harvey Weinstein. Not yet, anyway.

Part of the answer is found in what Iggy Pop had in common with Pat Buckley, his sometime dinner-party hostess in Gstaad: fashion. Weinstein is out of fashion. Weinstein may have been a fearsome figure in Hollywood, but he also has long been a figure of fun. Tom Cruise gave the second-best performance of his storied dancing career as the Weinstein-inspired Les Grossman in the closing credits of Tropic Thunder. It was not a loving parody. It’s been a long time since Polanski’s was a name to conjure with, and his épater la bourgeoisie sexual-outlaw shtick is out of fashion in a Hollywood that as a matter of social norms might be characterized the way Gilbert Osmond described himself in Portrait of a Lady: not conventional, but convention itself. The soi-disant radicals of Hollywood Anno Domini 2018 remind me of the ladies in “Nasty Woman” T-shirts I see shopping at my local Whole Foods, checking out the $59.99/pound wild-caught river salmon while Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes is on the gently modulated in-store sound system singing: “I pray every single day for a revolution,” as if the Hollywood multimillionaire who went on to produce Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and P!nk’s “Get the Party Started”—and the crowd at Whole Foods—wouldn’t be the first one up against the wall come the revolution. I’ve got some bad news for you, Sunshine: You aren’t fighting the Establishment. You are the Establishment.

One could spend a few entertaining hours listing the beloved celebrities who would be shunned by polite society—here meaning polite Hollywood society and polite leftish society more generally—if they were trying to get started today. Eddie Murphy’s Delirious made him a superstar, and it made HBO a ton of money. Anybody want to talk about how many times the word “faggot” is used in that act or about how the entire first section is one long rant about buggery and AIDS? Anybody want to revisit the personal life of Errol Flynn? And consider the question of which big publisher would bring out Philip Roth’s first few novels today without trigger warnings—and without subsequently firing whomever acquired them in the first place. The original opening number from Disney’s Aladdin is practically samizdat today, and poor old Howard Ashman would be un-personed if he had penned those purportedly anti-Arab lyrics in 2018.

Middle Eastern sensibilities are, in a sense, what’s actually in play in all this.

The word takfiri, familiar to those who follow the religious and intellectual currents sustaining Islamic extremism, is useful in other contexts as well. A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy—of being impure. That’s a big deal in the Muslim world, because some of your more energetically orthodox Muslims believe that it is religiously acceptable—or mandatory—to massacre infidels wherever they are found (and an “impure” Muslim is an “infidel”). Some Sunnis argue that all Shia are infidels and that killing them is therefore in accordance with Islamic law. As with everything related to Islamic sectarianism, it gets more complicated: Takfiri itself is used as a sectarian slur by Shia jihadists to denote a Sunni tendency that apparently is to be regarded as just too bonkers for the people who run Iran.

The same tendency can be found less violently expressed outside the Islamic world: for example, in the exasperating tendency of Anglo-American Protestant sects to divide and subdivide over what would appear to the outsider to be incredibly trivial questions of doctrine and practice (cf., the curious case of the Methodists vs. the Anglicans), breaking off into new congregations inevitably describing themselves as practicing mere biblical Christianity while casting their former co-factionalists into the outer dark. The Brethren Church, a Christian congregation with radical pietist roots, is one example of “non-creedal” Protestantism, i.e., a church that claims to have no creed but the New Testament. Any number of more conventional evangelical storefront churches make the same claim and come to radically different theological and social conclusions.

Political movements work the exact same way. I am sure that more than a few readers of THE WEEKLY STANDARD (and probably all the people who work there) have been told from time to time that they are not “real conservatives,” often by the same people who the day before yesterday mocked them for opposing Donald Trump on the grounds that he is not a conservative. As a matter of both logic and rhetoric, that sort of thing is inevitable: If the words “conservative” and “Christian” and “Muslim” and “civilized” mean anything at all, then there must be some people or institutions that are not conservative, not Christian, not Muslim, not civilized, etc. And people will disagree about where those borders are, partly for good-faith reasons and partly because there’s generally some juice in it. Those “Call Now If You Have IRS Problems” radio ads aren’t going to sell themselves.

But where religious and political organizations inevitably police creedal issues, the social-justice mobs on Twitter and Facebook do that only incidentally because they are not actually very much interested in politics or ideology. Their animating concern is etiquette.

Consider, for example, the bubbling kulturkampf over transgender issues. To believe, as many radical feminists do, that Chelsea Manning is not a woman in the same sense that Chelsea Clinton is—or that Bradley Manning is no more a woman in that sense than Bradley Cooper is—may be controversial, but that belief alone does not place one among the infidels. What does bring out the takfiri tendency is “misgendering,” refusing to—or simply failing to—conform to the orthodox court etiquette touching these issues. The gentlemen at National Public Radio found that out the hard way when in the interest of journalistic clarity they used the name Bradley Manning in a story about Bradley Manning deciding to adopt a new name and to begin living as though he were a woman—which is to say, they used the name Bradley Manning at a time when everybody who followed the news knew who Bradley Manning was but nobody had ever heard of Chelsea Manning.

No one seriously believes that the people who manage editorial practices at NPR have the sexual politics of Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee. And if hooked up to a polygraph machine by electrodes attached to the genitals associated with the sex assigned to them at birth, not many people would take seriously the insistence that a biologically male human being who entered this vale of tears capable of fathering children becomes a woman in the same sense as a biologically female person who walks this Earth capable of bearing and nursing children simply because we monkey around with a few pronouns and call the result a “trans woman.” Much of the social tension associated with gender dysphoria could be managed with such old-fashioned bourgeois values as kindness and liberality rather than the carefully cultivated group psychosis currently prescribed. But bourgeois values are unfashionable to speak about, especially among those who profit most handsomely by living in accord with them. Some of that is homeopathic magic straight out of The Golden Bough, but more of it is etiquette obsession straight out of Versailles.

Watch what you say: Someone is.

The question at the center of social life at Versailles was: Who belongs where? Who belongs at court, and who does not? Who stands where—literally and figuratively, though there was scarcely any difference in many contexts—in relation to the king? Proving that one belonged in one’s place—and avoiding gauchely giving any impression that one did not belong—governed practically every aspect of court life: how to sit, how to stand, how to walk, how to speak, how to knock on a door (the correct method was to scratch at it gently with a fingernail until noticed), how to button a coat, pursue a romance, make money. The word “status” literally means standing.

The generation that reached what passes for maturity in the age of social media is the most status-obsessed—and hence etiquette-obsessed—since the ancien régime. They are all miniaturists: There hasn’t been an important and original book of political ideas written by an American Millennial, and very few of them have read one, either. But they are very interested in individual pronouns and 280-character tweets. It is extraordinarily difficult for any one of them to raise his own status through doing interesting and imaginative intellectual work, because there is practically no audience for such work among his peers. Worse, the generation ahead of him stopped paying attention to Millennials years ago, and the generation behind him never started.

What that leaves is the takfiri tendency, scalp-hunting or engineering a court scandal at Versailles. Concurrent with that belief is the superstition that people such as Harvey Weinstein or Bret Stephens take up cultural space that might otherwise be filled by some more worthy person if only the infidel were removed, as though society were an inverted game of Tetris, with each little disintegration helping to enable everybody else to move up one slot at a time. Status obsession does funny things to one’s map of social reality. It leads to all manner of bizarre thinking.

A second party scene: Some years ago, I was at a cookout at a friend’s in the suburbs of Philadelphia. One of the guests was a well-meaning young Democratic state legislator of the familiar modern type: doggedly and dully progressive, rich, suburban, Osmondite in his regard for convention, overly self-assured, and—this was before it became a red flag in and of itself—dating a pretty young woman about half his age. He wanted to talk about abortion, because that’s what people like him do at parties. It was a cordial enough conversation, and he—being insufficiently schooled in the new etiquette—used the descriptors “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” And every time he uttered the words “pro-life,” his hall-monitor of a girlfriend (I do hope they got married; it would serve the both of them right) snapped at him: “anti-choice.” Like an angry little weasel, making whatever noise it is that angry little weasels make when they’re laying down the mustelid law. Kind of a chirp, really. Neither one of us was exactly wobbly in our respective views on abortion, and neither one of us was likely to change his own mind or the other’s. That wasn’t the point.

I wonder if he knew that. I wonder if she did.

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