Matzn­eff flap a cau­tion­ary tale for cul­tural aris­to­crats

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Jonah Gold­berg Jonah Gold­berg holds the As­ness Chair in Ap­plied Lib­erty at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and is a colum­nist for the Los An­ge­les Times.

Gabriel Matzn­eff is not a good man, but it’s taken France a long time to re­al­ize it.

Norim­itsu Onishi of The New York Times re­ported an as­ton­ish­ing story this week. It be­gins:

“The French writer Gabriel Matzn­eff never hid the fact that he en­gaged in sex with girls and boys in their early teens or even younger. He wrote count­less books de­tail­ing his in­sa­tiable pur­suits and ap­peared on tele­vi­sion boast­ing about them. ‘Un­der 16 Years Old,’ was the ti­tle of an early book that left no am­bi­gu­ity.

Matzn­eff, now 83, spent decades as a French lit­er­ary darling. His work was sup­ported by lead­ing news­pa­pers and lit­er­ary pub­li­ca­tions. He’d ap­pear on high­brow TV shows where he’d re­gale in­ter­view­ers and au­di­ences with the sub­lime plea­sures of hav­ing sex with chil­dren in France and on sex tours of south­east Asia.

His over­due come­up­pance is the re­sult of a mem­oir by one of his vic­tims, Vanessa Springora, who was se­duced by a then-50-some­thing Matzn­eff when she was 14.

“He was not a good man,” Springora writes. “He was in fact what we’re taught to dread since child­hood: an ogre.”

In his book “Un­der 16 Years Old,” Matzn­eff writes, “To sleep with a child, it’s a holy ex­pe­ri­ence, a bap­tismal event, a sa­cred ad­ven­ture.” The book was first pub­lished in 1974 but was re­pub­lished, ap­par­ently with no con­tro­versy in 2005. In 2013, Met­z­naff re­ceived a ma­jor French lit­er­ary prize.

How could a coun­try that prides it­self on be­ing so en­light­ened cel­e­brate an ogre? Af­ter all, we’re not talk­ing about a Jef­frey Ep­stein, as hor­ri­ble as he was. The well-con­nected bil­lion­aire spent vast sums to keep his sex­ual abuses at least some­what se­cret. Matzn­eff not only con­fessed to his crimes, his con­fes­sions were cel­e­brated as lit­er­ary con­tri­bu­tions.

The an­swer stems in part from the fact that Matzn­eff was a “Child of ‘68” — i.e., a prod­uct of the left­wing “May 68” move­ment that shook France in the 1960s. These rad­i­cals sub­scribed to the idea that any­thing smack­ing of tra­di­tion­al­ism or bour­geois moral­ity was back­ward. Con­ven­tional sex­ual moral­ity was part of the same rot­ten ed­i­fice as im­pe­ri­al­ism and racism. True lib­er­a­tion meant not just free­dom from, say, cap­i­tal­ism, but also from the old-fash­ioned view that sex with kids was wrong. “It’s for­bid­den to for­bid” was a ral­ly­ing cry.

Some ar­gued, Onishi writes, “for abol­ish­ing age-of-con­sent laws, say­ing that do­ing so would lib­er­ate chil­dren from the dom­i­na­tion of their par­ents and al­low them to be full, sex­ual be­ings.”

A few years ago, Daniel CohnBen­dit, the fa­mous former rad­i­cal and leader of the Euro­pean Green move­ment, got in hot wa­ter for his ear­lier writ­ings and state­ments about “erotic” en­coun­ters with 5-year-olds. He dodged ma­jor con­se­quences by dis­avow­ing his own words, say­ing they were merely in­tended to pro­voke.

Matzn­eff can’t make such claims. His whole iden­tity was in­vested in the se­duc­tion of chil­dren and teenagers.

So­ci­ol­o­gist Pierre Ver­drager, the au­thor of “L’En­fant In­ter­dit,” or “For­bid­den Child,” which chron­i­cled the pol­i­tics of pe­dophilia in 1970s France, told Onishi: “There was an aris­toc­racy of sex­u­al­ity, an elite that was united in putting forth new at­ti­tudes and be­hav­ior toward sex. And they were also grounded in an ex­treme prej­u­dice toward or­di­nary peo­ple, whom they re­garded as idiots and fools.”

Amer­ica, so back­wardly bour­geois in the eyes of these aris­to­crats, doesn’t have France’s prob­lems, but it is hardly im­mune to such dy­nam­ics. Di­rec­tor Ro­man Polan­ski, who fled Amer­ica rather than face sen­tenc­ing for statu­tory rape, is rou­tinely de­fended by Hol­ly­wood roy­alty in part be­cause of a sim­i­lar aris­to­cratic at­ti­tude.

Matzn­eff is a good ex­am­ple of what can hap­pen when peo­ple who share a self-styled rad­i­cal world­view cap­ture the com­mand­ing heights of the cul­ture and con­sider them­selves above the rubes from whom they make their money.

There’s a rea­son Ricky Ger­vais struck such a chord at the Golden Globes on Sun­day when he told the as­sem­bled Hol­ly­wood roy­alty to get over them­selves.

“If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a plat­form to make a po­lit­i­cal speech,” Ger­vais said. “You’re in no po­si­tion to lec­ture the pub­lic about any­thing. You know noth­ing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thun­berg.”

This should be a cau­tion­ary tale for all cul­tural aris­to­crats. Not all rad­i­cal fads hold up well over time. Per­haps in 50 years, a mem­oir from some­one who as a child was sub­jected to hor­mone block­ers to change his or her gen­der will pro­voke sim­i­lar retroac­tive ou­trage.

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