From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Forgetting What We Know”

This post, one of the very first on Ethics Alarms, was written on Halloween, 2009. The blog had essentially no followers then. I judge it an excellent post (if I do say so myself) but just a handful of people read it. There were four commenters: King Kool, who traveled over from the old Ethics Scoreborad site and who, I am happy to say, still weighs in now and then; “Ethics Bob” Stone, who commented her last year,  and a friend I met through my connection with child star advocate Paul Petersen and with whom I am still in touch.

I found it extremely interesting to review–I wouldn’t change anything substantive in it, though I made three small edits—in light of what has happened since, and the theme of the post, which was how ethics evolves.

The post was written before the #MeToo upheaval. For all I know, Harvey Weinstein was forcing an aspiring starlet to have sex with him and Bill Cosby was drugging a young woman as I was posting it. It references several  rationalizations before the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations list had been launched.

I wonder, though, how much out society has really learned since it was written.  Roman Polanski is still living free and directing films in France. Six women have accused him of sex-related crimes, the most recent last November.

Bill Cosby is in prison for one of his rapes: Harvey Weinstein is standing trial right now. Bill Clinton appears to have finally been reduced to persona non grata status among progressives and his former defenders, but his complicit and unapologetic enabler, Hillary Clinton, is still treated as a feminist icon, and even harbors dreams of running for President again. The Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Justin Fairfax , has been convincingly accused of rape by one woman and sexual harassment by another, yetremains in office, and the local and national media have stuffed the story in the proverbial memory hole.

Six years after this post, David Letterman retired from “The Late Show” hailed as comedy legend, with Barack Obama and three former Presidents appearing on his farewell show. He continues to be sought after for interviews and as an MC, as in the USO event pictured above.  In 2016, Letterman joined the climate change documentary show Years of Living Dangerously as one of the show’s celebrity correspondents. In 2017, Letterman gave the induction speech for Pearl Jam when the group was inducted into the  Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. That same year, 2017, Letterman was feted on Turner Movie Classics with Alec Baldwin—don’t get me started–as he  co-hosted “The Essentials.”  Letterman and Baldwin introduced seven films for the series.

Wisely, “Rosemary’s Baby” was not among them.

In 2018, Letterman began hosting a six-episode monthly series of hour-long programs on Netflix called My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. His old friend, patron, and feminist hero Barack Obama was his first guest.

The second season premiered on May 31, 2019.

This  is “Forgetting What We Know.”

Ethics evolves. It isn’t that what is right and wrong actually changes, but that human beings gradually learn, sometimes so slowly it can hardly be detected.

For example, slavery was always wrong, but for centuries very few people who weren’t slaves understood that fact. There was never anything immoral about being born gay and living accordingly, but it has taken all of the collected experience of civilization to make this dawn on most of society. While we are learning, and even after we have learned, there are always those who not only lag behind but who work actively to undo the ethical progress we have made.

People assume these individuals will come from the ranks of ideological conservatives, misapplying valid concepts like respect for tradition, suspicion of change for change’s sake, and a reliance on consistent standards, making them slow to accept new wisdom . Sometimes, however, the people who try to make us forget what we know come from the left side of the political spectrum, misusing values such as tolerance, freedom, empathy and fairness in the process. This is especially true when it comes to the topic of sex. Liberals fought so long and well to break down the long-established taboos about sex that many of them lost the ability to comprehend that unethical conduct can  involve sex in any way.

The most striking recent example is the bizarre defense of Roman Polanski, best known as the director of the horror classic, “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Polanski has been a fugitive from American justice since 1978. In 1977,  he was charged with raping a 13-year old girl, who told a grand jury that the director had plied her with champagne and drugs, taken nude pictures of her in a hot tub, and then had sexual intercourse with her despite her pleas to be taken home. His lawyers negotiated a plea agreement that dropped the rape charge in exchange for Polanski pleading guilty to the lesser charge of “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.” ( Polanski was 44 when he had sex with the young teen.) When it appeared that the judge in the case might not accept the plea deal and force him to face the rape charge, Polanski fled the U.S. Since that time, he has directed in Europe, staying out of countries that could extradite him, and traveling primarily between France, where he was protected by that nation’s limited extradition practice, and Poland. He got careless this year, and on September 26, 2009, was arrested at the Zurich airport when he arrived to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Zurich Film Festival. Swiss authorities are preparing to send him back to the U.S.

This is not a complicated situation. Statutory rape. A rape under circumstances—drugging—that would be rape with an adult victim, with the drugs rendering consent meaningless. Fleeing from justice. By what logic could someone argue that Polanski is a victim, and that law enforcement officials are the wrongdoers? There is none. Logic will never lead us to such a conclusion. Despite this undeniable fact, many individuals with respect and following in the entertainment industry as well as some journalists, argued that Polanski was being mistreated.

Some arguments were offensive: on “The View,” Whoopie Goldberg argued that drugging and having sex with a 13-tear-old wasn’t “rape-rape,”  implying that statutory rape is an archaic crime rooted in outdated concepts of sex, rather than the real crime of forcing a woman to have sex in an alley at the point of a knife. Some were ignorant: the eminent legal scholar Debra Winger pronounced Polanski the victim of “technicalities,” and suggested that the case should be “dead” because it was three decades old. Winger is apparently unaware that major crimes like rape are usually not subject to any statute of limitations, and that’s no technicality. She and others also claimed that Polanski had a right to flee because the judge  “reneged” on the absurdly lenient plea deal agreed to by the prosecutor at the time. Wrong: judges are not bound by plea agreements that they feel are inappropriate; watching any TV lawyer show would teach them that.

Some of the arguments for Polanski were just jaw-droppingly stupid, such as the claim by some of his fellow directors that international film festivals should be respected as sanctuaries from arrest, like a church. Even more legitimate commentators lost their bearings. In a stunning op-ed called “The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski,” Washington Post columnist Ann Applebaum argued that it was wrong to arrest Polanski because:

  • Polanski’s mother died in Auschwitz and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was butchered by the Manson clan. This is a non-sequitur. Personal tragedies and hardship never can justify or mitigate harm done to another.
  • Polanski has suffered for his crime “in notoriety, in lawyers’ fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film.” An astounding statement. He had lived well in Europe and continued to work as a film director. The justice system does not acknowledge lawyer fees as punishment, and rightly so. If fees, notoriety, and professional stigma are sufficient punishment for child-rape, surely Bernie Madoff, currently in prison for the remainder of his life, should go free for the lesser crime of defrauding investors out of billions of dollars.
  • His victim, now in her forties, says she forgives him. Victims do not, should not and can not waive the criminal laws. Forgiveness is an excellent ethical value, but there is understandable self-interest in Polanski’s victim’s attitude: she has moved on in her life and has no desire to revisit this traumatic experience. She is not the only stake-holder here, however. Society has a legitimate interest in prohibiting rape and sexual violence against children, and that means that rapists must not evade punishment, no matter what the preference of their victims may be.
  • Polanski is 75. The fact that Polanski is facing his just punishment for a crime he committed now, in his Golden Years, rather than when he younger is 100% his own fault. Applebaum made the equivalent of the apocryphal plea by the defendant who murdered his parents that he deserved leniency because he was an orphan.
  • If Polanski wasn’t famous, “no one would bother with him.” I think she’s wrong about this, but even assuming she is correct, famous fugitive rapists advertise to the world that if you are rich and powerful, you can get away with rape. There are excellent, practical, societally valuable reasons to take special care that famous criminals are brought to justice.

The real, and true conclusion, is that if Polanski’s crime didn’t involve “just sex,” to quote one of the most infuriating defenses of Bill Clinton’s lying under oath, neither Applebaum nor the director’s  other defenders would lift a finger to support him. It took liberals and women’s rights advocates decades and decades to get across the concept that rape, sexual domination, sexual discrimination and harassment were not about sex, but about misuse of power, abuse of trust, and the disrespect and unfair treatment of women. Yet all it takes is a popular and artistically respected director to make some forget that lesson.

Or a popular TV talk show host. David Letterman, forced by an extortion scheme to admit on the air to a series of sexual affairs with staffers, was able to cast himself as the victim and avoid professional consequences. Yet he was essentially no different from the infamous male corporate executives of the pre-sexual harassment era, using their female subordinates as company-paid harems. Gloria Steinem and other feminists fought to hammer into American culture the concept that when an individual has power over one’s livelihood, there can be no true “consent” to sexual relationships initiated by the boss. I would have written “successfully hammered,”  but the lesson vanished when the boss was funny old Dave.

Talk show host (and Letterman employee) Craig Ferguson tut-tutted against “holding late-night talk-show hosts to the same moral accountability as we hold politicians or clergymen.” The code word here is “moral”: Ferguson and others were suggesting that objections to Letterman’s conduct were rooted in moral rectitude, the idea that sex—recreational sex, older man/younger woman sex, adulterous sex— was wrong. But Letterman is accountable, exactly as any supervisor (including a politician or clergyman) is accountable when he abuses his position and influence to turn the workplace into a personal sexual hunting ground. His escapades weren’t “personal conduct”—another of the bogus defenses raised on Letterman’s (and Clinton’s) behalf—because they occurred in and affected the workplace. Letterman’s predatory sex was thus workplace conduct, and legally prohibited conduct at that. This was classic third-party sexual harassment under Title IX, a “hostile work environment” created when other female employees receive the message that they are required to be sexually accessible in order to succeed. Letterman’s conquests’ “consent,” invalid anyway because of his position, couldn’t mitigate the toxic and inherently unfair culture the illicit relationships created.

It should have been no surprise when former Letterman writer Nell Scovell, writing on Vanity Fair’s website, recently revealed that the sexually-charged atmosphere on Letterman’s show caused her to feel demeaned as a woman and led to her resignation. All those “consenting personal relationships,” in other words, caused her professional hardship. Yet even Scovell, good industry liberal that she is, has forgotten the lesson. “I don’t want compensation. I don’t want revenge. I don’t want Dave to go down (oh, grow up, people). I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect,” she wrote.

“Oh, grow up people.” Grow up: don’t require accountability or consequences when unethical, harmful workplace conduct involves sex…because sex is good, remember?  Remember the pill, abortion rights, Woodstock? Except that sex, like many good things, can be involved in very unethical, harmful conduct. Until individuals like David Letterman and Roman Polanski “go down” for such conduct, it will continue, and innocent people will continue to be hurt.

We should have learned that by now.

8 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Forgetting What We Know”

  1. Some were ignorant: the eminent legal scholar Debra Winger pronounced Polanski the victim of “technicalities,” and suggested that the case should be “dead” because it was three decades old. Winger is apparently unaware that major crimes like rape are usually not subject to any statute of limitations, and that’s no technicality.

    Statute of limitations apply to filing a formal criminal complaint with the court.

    Regarding Polanski, the complaint was lodged in court when the victim herself was still a minor.

    • I think you’re seeing a joke where there was none intended. Or she’s inept. The sexual slang is “Go down ON,” not “go down.” I read it then as “Grow up–you shouldn’t want poor Dave to be brought down just for sex.” Then I read it that way again today.

      • Ah, gotcha. All these years I thought the attractive female elevator operator in Aerosmith’s Love In An Elevator video was utilizing sexual innuendo with the line ‘Good morning Mr. Tyler, going down?’ Turns out I was mistaken.

        • Context is everything. I strongly recommend against basing your editorial comprehension on Aerosmith videos.

          Here are the lyrics of Sick Puppies’ “You’re going down.”

          Define your meanin’ of fun
          To me it’s what we do when we’re bored
          I feel the heat comin’ off of the blacktop
          And it makes me want it more
          Because I’m hyped up, outta control
          If it’s a fight I’m ready to go
          I wouldn’t put my money on the other guy
          If you know what I already know
          It’s been a long time comin’
          And the table’s turned around
          ‘Cause one of us is goin’
          One of us is goin’ down
          I’m not runnin’
          It’s a little different now
          ‘Cause one of us is goin’
          One of us is goin’ down

          You think normal people who heard this thought, “Hee hee. They said “down”!”? All the Rocky movies when a boxer says, “He’s going down”?

          In the AA essay, the meaning was crystal clear. Interpreting the “Grow up” line to refer to the actual and obvious meaning conveyed rather than how Stephen Tyler things is Occam’s Razor in action.

  2. Hi Jack,
    Just a minor disagreement with your post. You wrote,

    Washington Post columnist Ann Applebaum argued that it was wrong to arrest Polanski because:
    [Bullet Point 1] Polanski’s mother died in Auschwitz and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was butchered by the Manson clan. This is a non-sequitur.
    [ … 3 more bullet points

    Bullet Point 1 is based on the following paragraph from Ann Applebaum,

    He can be blamed, it is true, for his original, panicky decision to flee. But for this decision I see mitigating circumstances, not least an understandable fear of irrational punishment. Polanski’s mother died in Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto, and later emigrated from communist Poland. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson, though for a time Polanski himself was a suspect.

    I read that as follows,

    a. Polanski fled the USA
    b. He can be blamed for this.
    c. But his decision to flee was not a rational decision (as in the thinking of a ‘normal, rational’ suspect/criminal) … it was a panicky one
    d. Polanski has, given his past, an understandable fear of irrational punishment.
    e. His past contains the following events:
    e.1. Polanski’s mother died in Auschwitz.
    e.2. His father survived Mauthausen.
    e.3. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto.
    e.4. He emigrated from communist Poland.
    e.5. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson.

    So, in my view, Applebaum gives in the paragraph above the one I quoted here, several reasons why he should not be prosecuted for the statutory rape / rape case. But then there is still the punishable case that he fled the USA. Applebaum agrees with that but sees some mitigating circumstances.

    The way you incorporates the above argument as Bullet Point 1 in your text suggests to most readers that she is using his past as an argument to not prosecute Polanski for his statuary rape /rape. As does most commentators on the original publication.

    And I think that this is not fair based on what she wrote.

    • It’s a valid point, and I should have noted that in the intro: my rule is that I don’t substantively re-write old posts. Yet her point, in light of your interpretation, is even more unethical than I thought originally. The issue is whether Polanski should get away with rape, nit his jumping bail. Applebaum’s concentration on the flight is an argument slight-of-hand: she’s changing the subject. Even if we forgive the flight (and come on—you don’t flee the country in a “panic”—its a complex, premeditated act. AA was just making excuses, and not very good ones.), that doesn’t mitigat the rape in any way. Whatever punishment he would suffer would be 90% rape and 10% flight, at most.

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