Thursday, October 01, 2009

L'Affaire Polanski: Artistic Privilege?

"If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear."

George Orwell, "Notes on Dali"
When the great film maker Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for a crime he committed three decades ago (he pled to sex with a minor, but the victim's grand jury testimony would indicate it was coerced -- ie., plain, ordinary rape) my first reaction was to think that the case ought to be dismissed, for a number of reasons.

But everyone I respect among the people who have taken a stand on the issue (including Eugene Volokh, Megan Mcardle, and Nick Gillespie) have taken the "do the crime, do the time" position. I have only found one person on the other side for whose legal and moral judgment I have much respect, and that is Anne Applebaum. (Sorry, but the French Minister of Culture, along with novelists and Hollywood glitterati who are solidly backing Polanski do not count. And Applebaum's judgment is tainted in this case by the fact that she is married to a Polish politician who is actively lobbying for the Polanski, who is of course of Polish ancestry.) This gives me pause.

Let me comment on just one of the issues involved here. Should Polanski get some special consideration because he has created some cinematic masterpieces? Artsy cognac-sipping Europeans say yes. Prudish American Philistines say no. I guess I have to agree with the Philistines on this one.

Beethoven's friends, it is true, put up with his making potty jokes over dinner, along with much worse behavior, because they loved his music and loved him for creating it. On the other hand, it was still true that he was a jerk. (To see him at his worst, read this.) The jerky behavior and the sublime music were traits of the same person. He was both of these people, and many others besides. That's what human beings are like: complicated.

If you are deciding whether to accept a dinner invitation, or buy a ticket to a concert or a movie, you have to weigh the good and the bad and make your own decision. On this issue I side with the artsy types. I love the arts and creative people in general. I would give up a lot to have dinner with Beethoven, fart jokes and all.

But that's only relevant when I am spending my own time or money. If the legal system is involved, that is a completely different matter.

Here it is not a matter of disposing of what rightfully belongs to me, but of the rights of the weak and the innocent. We have no right to dispose of that because we think Chinatown was a great movie.

If Richard Wagner, not satisfied with writing insane anti-Semitic rants like Das Judentum in der Musik, had attacked a Jewish girl, I would have said (though very regretfully, I admit), "do the time," even if it meant he would never complete The Ring.

We knew all along that we would have to give up something in order to have a world where basic rights are protected. Like freedom, justice isn't free.
Breaking news: The French government seems to be turning around on this issue.


Ann said...

I've wondered about something for a while, and it may relate to this case - I confess I know nothing of the details of Polanski's case, the specifics of the context. If it was pure sexual coercion, that seems like rape, and it would be so if the woman had been the same age as he was. He should go to jail for that, I think, if that is what happened.

But here's what I'm wondering about. Puberty is a natural part of biological growth, and in our society boys and girls reach sexual maturity long before they reach legal majority. Other societies adhere to different ages for marriage (like twelve in some places?) and I believe even among U.S. states you can get married at different ages. To me, anyway, there is a huge difference between an adult male or female who would engage in sexual activity with a prepubescent child (this seems just perverse, the child's biology should not be triggering signals to anyone yet), and one who might feel attracted to a post-pubescent individual, whose biological form is now giving off reproductive signals. It may still be a bad idea to indulge such feelings of attraction for all sorts of reasons, (I'm not defending that it's a good thing), but it doesn't seem -perverse- like the first case. There is a slippery slope; as a female I remember at age 15 on the beach that older guys would be looking at me (and other girls my age), and it was flattering and I wasn't always trying to discourage it, either. As you say, humans are complicated. But the law has a hard line according to age, and even if a young woman 'teases' an older guy, the guy takes all the risk. And many fifteen year olds don't always know what they are getting themselves into, but they aren't completely without a role as a free agent. Maybe none of this applies to Polanski's case. I personally wish our own society had more than one classification for sex offenses with minors, they don't all fit neatly into the truly perverse category. (I'm thinking now of a national story of a pretty 30-something New Hampshire school teacher that became involved with a 15-year-old male student. Maybe he was 17, but still a minor. She went to prison as a sex offender, they had a child together and continued seeing each other. When I saw photos in the paper of the boy at the time of the original story, he looked biologically mature. Sorry for the ramble, just got thinking about this issue again with the Polanski story.

Lester Hunt said...

I've never figured out what I think of age of consent laws. Probably the strongest argument for having an age requirement of some sort rests in the huge power differential between an adult and a child. Even if it looks like consent, a child giving in to an adult often might still be coercive nonetheless.

Of course, this reasoning would fail to justify making it illegal for a kid to have sex with a same-age kid, which is exactly what age of consent laws do.

Then too there is the seeming arbitrariness of picking out one age -- and not a day less -- as the cutoff point. I just noticed that the age of consent in your state is two years earlier than in mine. But that seems inescapable, unless we replace age limits altogether with a requirement that courts try to figure out whether a child "really" consented in a given case -- which seems like a really bad idea.

Then too the age of consent in some jurisdictions just seems too high. In Wisconsin it is 18!

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks for those links. The one by Alison Benedict was seriously funny. Where has she been all my life?

Another really great one is by Brendan O'Neill, editor of Spiked:

(Sorry, no time to do the link-thingy. Have to run off to class!)

He argues that the Polanski story is the focus of two great cultural divides. One is the one you mention, and the other is America v. Europe.

Ruchira said...

Yes, Alison Benedikt hits the nail on the head regarding the narcissistic clap-trap emanating from Polanski's artiste friends. The funniest is: you would surely understand how artistically narrow-minded it is to treat him like a rapist just because he raped someone.

As for the cultural divide between America and Europe, it may not be so clear cut this time. I think raping a child disgusts everyone across all cultures. The divide may be more political. It appears that it was really the politicians in France and Poland who went to bat for the film maker. The public, at least in France, is pretty turned off both by Polanski and his cheer leaders. See here and here. The America bashing officials are now back tracking somewhat.