The Guardian carries a curious comment piece by Mark Lawson today. It responds the recent suggestions that the late writer, Gore Vidal, was a paedophile and argues that whether true or not, we should not discard the valuable cultural legacy of Vidal because it becomes ‘toxic’ by association. Lawson similarly suggests that to reject the films of Roman Polanski because he previously admitted guilt in having sex with a thirteen year old girl would similarly be wrong.
The piece – from what I can tell – has not caused a social media storm. Middle class Guardian readers have not marched on branches of their local Waitrose demanding that stores should stop providing the paper for free to My Waitrose card holders (provided you spend £5). No, liberal middle – England seems untroubled by liberal middle-class artists and thinkers and this viewpoint seems broadly accepted. If the tabloids did run pieces on these individuals, would their readers know who they are? Would they find it all that easy to ramp up the shock and horror? Contrast with the once-popular figures of Gary Glitter or Jimmy Savile. Glitter was convicted of paedophile offences, and Savile – like Vidal – was never brought to trial for his alleged offences whilst alive. We have not had Mark Lawson or others in the media elite defending the Glam Rock legacy of Glitter (a significant cultural contribution surely) or the iconic contribution to public messages that Savile once made (think ‘This is the Age of the Train’ or ‘Clunk, Click’) or the extraordinary success of ‘Jimmy Fixed it For Me’. Despite the fact that these cultural moments probably directly impacted upon far more people than the work of Vidal or Polanski, we appear to collectively be quite happy to banish this legacy to the trash-can of media archives.
I will not of course be burning my copy of Gore Vidal’s ‘Sexually Speaking’ or ‘The City and the Pillar’ in any great hurry. Nor, will I be hiding them on my bookshelves for fear of what a visitor might think. yet, how comfortable would we be now watching Savile’s show’s or listening to Glitter’s music. Our response to what might be termed ‘cultural contamination’ is arguably a reflection of ‘guilt by association’. To subscribe to a cultural artefact is to in some way be contaminated by that thing. In much the same way that a toilet used by Elisabeth Windsor might be seen as somehow gaining majestic qualities, we fear the contamination that might come from a negative power-legacy from a particular figure.
Yet whilst we might quarantine the majestic toilet bowl in order to prevent our use reducing/contaminating that power, we believe that rather than reducing the power of a negative object – even a cultural artefact such as film or music – to touch or possess that thing is to gain that ‘power’, to take on that negative attribute. Like the peadophile television show or music, and we must – by reason of cultural contamination – also be in some way a sex offender too, or at the very least, a conspiratorial supporter of abuse. This is a curious contradiction, suggesting that this negative power can not be reduced, only transferred or reproduced.
To challenge this notion is to advance the argument that Lawson makes in the Guardian. Lawson concludes: ‘If Vidal’s published sentences on his sexuality are as precise about words as he liked to be, then he almost certainly did have sexual interests or encounters we now consider unacceptable. But if his books were to be metaphorically or literally pulped because of this, then Polanski DVDs must be pulled from stores and productions of Alice in Wonderland banned. Faced with a “pansexual”, culture must not become pan-hysterical.’ He’s right of course, but I am fascinated by the apparent ease with which we respond to sexual revelations i markedly different ways.
This is more than a Gandhian interpretation of St Augustine (‘hate the sin and not the sinner’), for Lawson does not use the piece to condemn the ‘sin’ of sex offending, going as far as to describe Vidal as ‘prissy’. Of the illicit sexual encounter – imagined or real – which Lawson describes, he describes (boys, presumably) ‘pleasuring the author of Myra Breckinrdige’. This is hardly a fierce condemnation of a paedophile. Could it be that for some individuals, our culture is happy to make some form of distinction between the pedarist and the paedophile? To do so, would be to assume that consent could be granted by a child, or that even where the consent is not provided, ‘harm’ – such as it might be – is minimal. Are we to accept that Vidal’s critique of post-war America was so important, that the occasional boy buggering – perhaps regrettable – is not sufficient to condemn him. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby so disturbing and such cultural landmark what we can forget an apparent sexual offence, but Glitter’s ‘Do You Want to be in My Gang’ on the other hand does not quite cut the cultural mustard.