by Alex Paquin
We are BACK yet again! This time to settle an old score! (And yes, it's the old misspelt logo!)
Ladies and gentlemen, the Court of Public Opinion is now in session, and what a trial this is gearing up to be. Standing in the dock, huddled together like a row of brisling sardines, are literally hundreds of individuals, many of them rich and famous. Needless to say, the courtroom is packed -- no, packed is not descriptive enough, it's overflowing. So let's move ahead with this before the fire inspector comes around, shall we? Judge Alex Paquin presiding.
THE ACCUSED: The vast collection of artists, politicians, intellectuals and Cultural Warriors defending Roman Polanski after his arrest.
THE CHARGES: Disregarding Polanski's criminal past in the name of his art, and, more insidiously, attempting to do away with equality before the law.
Note: Since this case is ongoing, this article will be updated sporadically.
I must say that I am quite surprised to find myself presiding over this tribunal. When I first heard of the case, I was in my study, nonchalantly turning the robust pages of a nineteenth-century book with the improbable title of Reasons for Being a Churchman ("Sixteenth Thousand"; evidently this was the Master's in Business Administration of the Victorian age) when the telephone rang. Picking up the receiver, I recognized at once the familiar voice of a fellow judge on the Court of Public Opinion: "Hey there," he panted, "you've heard about Polanski, right?"
I had not, so he explained that Roman Polanski, the well-known director and law fugitive, had been arrested, and that a group of more than a hundred filmmakers and other industry people had signed a petition demanding his release. This petition, for that matter, constitutes Exhibit A of the present case. Among its signatories are several prominent Hollywood and European film industry people, such as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.
I soon realized, however, that Mr. Polanski's supporters extended much beyond a small coterie of artists, to include politicians, intellectuals, and even the governments of France and Poland. This would be an uphill battle. I mean, the governments of France and Poland? What was I supposed to do if they were guilty, invade them?
Nonetheless, I agreed to take on the case, and promised to give it due diligence.
I began by going through some old files on another high-profile criminal, Conrad Black of Canada. Perhaps you don't know him by that name, as he stopped being Canadian to get an entry in Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage; now he is known as Lord Black of Crossharbour. Wherever Crossharbour is, it most probably is nowhere in the vicinity of his current residence, Coleman Federal Correctional Manor, in bucolic Florida. (This name, I should think, probably makes a mess of his calling card, especially if he went with a gold-embossed pattern.)
This Lord Black, as you can see, ran into some problems (of a financial nature) with the law in the United States, But as the man of impeccable taste that he was, he insisted on having the best of everything for his jury trial, including, naturally, the best jurors. To quote a news report from the time of his trial, "experts say his lawyers likely want him facing artists, writers and others who "see nuance," rather than blue-collar workers with a firm faith in the chain of command that prosecutors will likely favour." Ah, Lord Black, that man of true breeding.
I cannot avoid remarking that he would have particularly enjoyed a jury made up of those artists who signed the petition to release Polanski. Luckily, in Lord Black's case, they were nowhere to be found (probably because he was a mere financier, a species only useful when it comes to patronizing the arts but otherwise to be snubbed), but for Polanski, a glorious artist like themselves, they had to be by his side, no matter how horrendous his crime.
The specifics of Polanski's case are that in 1977, he was charged in California with "rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor", which is descriptive enough, before these were dropped and replaced with the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor (statutory rape), to which he pled guilty. In 1978, when it appeared that the judge's sentencing (which could lead to a maximum sentence of 50 years) would disregard Polanski's earlier plea bargaining , he fled to France. Having been a citizen of that country since 1976, he took full advantage of France's limited extradition agreement with the US, according to which the country can refuse to hand over its own nationals, and he has lived there ever since. However, he was arrested over a week ago in Switzerland, where he was planning to attend the Zurich Film Festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, and is now facing, at age 76, extradition to the United States.
That was the long, academic version. Short version: He committed a sex crime and when it appeared that the trial would not go his way, he bolted, over thirty years ago, and they finally nabbed him because he was brazen enough to think he could get away with attending a well-publicized event in a country where his citizenship did not protect him. If artists can see nuance in his case, they can see it anywhere.
And what a fine selection of artists we have in the dock, beginning with the main one: Polanski. His case is already settled, and by his own admission: Guilty. I don't care a whit if the initial judge had ulterior motives in rejecting the plea bargain. Nor do I care if his arrest in Switzerland, where he had been known to spend time and where he even owned a house, was politically motivated. And the entire debate about whether Polanski paid off the victim's family and when is irrelevant. This is a criminal matter, not a civil one; a social, not private, affair, now out of the victim's hands. Polanski committed a crime, and he must pay for it as anybody else would.
This matter being out of the way, now standing for trial are all the signatories of the petition to set him free.
It may have started out with a hundred names, but it has swelled to far beyond my interest to count all of them. I will mention, however, a few of the organizations that also signed it: the Académie des César (the French Oscars), the Cannes Festival, the Cinémathèque française, Pathé, and various professional associations.
The artists were expected to come out in support of Polanski; after all, they're artists: important and always imperilled, and better than us anyway. Although maybe not Whoopi Goldberg, who made an utter fool of herself when she opined that "I know it wasn’t rape-rape. I think it was something else, but I don’t believe it was rape-rape." Despite what you might believe, Whoopi did not really do any damage; nobody pays any serious attention to the dame at this point in her career, or, as we should say, "career-career". So, as far as this Court goes, she's one of those petty criminals that just clutter up the justice system when all they need to be told is a blunt "shame on you". This being done, she's off the hook, and allowed to persevere in her steady progress towards obscurity.
I know what some of you will say: "This Court is going lenient. How could you miss Whoopi Goldberg?" The answer is this: The evidence I have seen, i.e., the relevant excerpt from The View (which I concede is not exactly in the same league as the Harvard Law Review, no matter how many potted ivies they could decide to strew around the set), demonstrates that at least she did not directly try to defend Polanski because he was an artist; perhaps that is because, as per Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, and it is just as well, really. It is to be noted, also, that her name does not appear on the petition; I suspect those involved would not let her within scribbling distance. So let me reassure you, she's small potatoes. It's the gratin on top, the artistes and the rest, that this Court is after.
As mentioned above, are also indicted by the Court of Public Opinion a few intellectuals and politicians, mostly French, who have distinguished themselves by their public interventions in favour of Polanski; the evidence disseminated through the French press is especially damning.
With such an assortment of people standing trial, does it not feel like the McCarthy era all over again? Actually, this is precisely what the signatories of the petition and other Polanski supporters want the public to believe regarding his fate. For instance, the wording of the petition is a masterpiece of paranoia and artistic arrogance. Here are a few paragraphs from Exhibit A (to which I have added emphasis):
"Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision. It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him.
By their extraterritorial nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely, even when certain States opposed this.
The arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country, where he assumed he could travel without hindrance, undermines this tradition: it opens the way for actions of which no one can know the effects.
Roman Polanski is a French citizen, a renown and international artist now facing extradition. This extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom."
First, let me first switch to the first person plural, to sound more legalish. Then let us address the question of extraterritoriality. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary informs us that extraterritoriality is "exemption from the application or jurisdiction of local law or tribunals". Further, West's Encyclopedia of American Law states that "in international law, extraterritoriality exempts certain diplomatic agencies and persons operating in a foreign country from the jurisdiction of the host country. Instead, the agency or individual remains accountable to the laws of the native country. The effects of extraterritoriality extend to troops in passage, passengers on war vessels, individuals on mission premises, and other agencies and persons." Although we have not consulted Swiss legal sources in this matter, we can assume the definition to be of a similar nature per international treaty.
We note, therefore, that those to whom extraterritoriality is applied are invariably officials of foreign governments serving in one function or another. Thus, Roman Polanski, as a private citizen rather than a representative of the French Government to Switzerland, could not have availed himself of extraterritoriality, or its byproduct, diplomatic immunity.
Likewise, we note that the main partners of the Zurich Film Festival are private enterprises such as the Crédit suisse and Audi, supported by the City of Zurich, the Canton of Zurich, and the Swiss Federal Office for Culture, the latter an administrative unit of the Swiss Federal Department of Home Affairs. Extraterritoriality being a matter of international law, beyond the purview of home affairs, this festival, as, it is to be suspected, all other festivals, cannot claim such a status for itself. Hence the use of "extraterritoriality" in this context is erroneous; no extraterritoriality is in place for any of the parties involved, and definitely not for the artists taking part. To claim otherwise is the pinnacle of arrogance. Therefore, the president of the Zurich Film Festival jury, Debra Winger, can hardly complain that "this fledgling festival has been unfairly exploited", let alone accuse Swiss authorities of "philistine collusion".
In addition, we want to emphasize Mr. Polanski's absence from the Academy Awards in 2003, when he won the Oscar for The Pianist, on account of not being guaranteed immunity from arrest. (We note in passing that when his win was announced, he received a standing ovation.) It is also important to mention that Mr. Polanski, in 2005, testified by video link at a trial held in the United Kingdom (a libel suit he launched), to avoid setting foot in that country for the same reason. Are we seriously to expect, if such guarantees could not be offered for a trial in a court of law, that a film festival can -- or indeed should -- be in a position to grant such an immunity?
In addition, Mr. Polanski has been arrested and will be extradited, need we remind it, on a charge of statutory rape. At no time did the crime involve the contents of one of Mr. Polanski's films, which can continue being screened while the director is incarcerated. The matter of his artistic freedom being imperilled as a result of the exercise of that artistic freedom is therefore moot. Whatever peril might come to Polanski's artistic freedom -- i.e., the ability to produce new works of art -- will result from serving his sentence for the crime of statutory rape, and nothing else.
Yet accepting this excuse would place Mr. Polanski above the law, purely on account of his status as an artist. This court, therefore, is left wondering what the reaction of the people suporting him would have been if the filmmaker in question had not been Polanski but the average Hollywood director -- or, for that matter, anyone else without renown as an artiste. A Canadian columnist offered the view that if this were considered a valid excuse, it could be extended, with disquieting ease, to every book exposition or university symposium, but that "if Mr. Polanski had been a plumber attending a meeting of the Knights of Columbus or a bowling tournament, he could have been arrested and brought back before a justice system from which he fled 32 years ago. But an artist, we are led to believe, must be above the law.".
We wish to quote the remarks of a lawyer, member of the Barreau de Paris, writing a well-regarded weblog under the pseudonym of Maître Eolas, who was interviewed by the French daily newspaper Le Monde regarding this controversy: "One of their own is attacked, the artists defend him: it's corporatism.... This deepens the separation between artists and public opinion. I am also angry because those who protest against this arrest are invoking bad arguments, they are juridically and morally wrong. For example, when the director Costa-Gavras claims that the victim "was 13 years old but looked 25", he nails (Mr.) Polanski more than he defends him." The law, he stated, was "the same for artists and citizens, there cannot be a double standard", a sentiment shared by Luc Besson, one of the few industry people who spoke out on the issue without siding with Polanski.
The French press also raised the case of a certain Sir Charles Chaplin, who also fled to Switzerland after being prevented from re-entering the United States for his "grave moral charges" as well as his politics, namely, his alleged leanings towards communism.
We take note, in particular, of Sir Charles's seeming infatuation, well into middle age, with girls still in their teens (indeed, the comparison with Mr. Polanski, who entered into a relationship with the actress Nastassja Kinski when she was 15 years of age, is striking). Nonetheless, we wish to point out that, despite the unfortunate circumstances which led to Sir Charles's departure, it was perfectly within the right of the United States to prevent his re-entry, as he remained a British subject throughout his life. Additionally, Switzerland was a popular destination among wealthy British expatriates because of its favourable taxation arrangements, viz. David Niven et al.; hence any hint at a coincidence, irony, etc., is, in the purest legalese, bullshit, and should immediately be disregarded.
It is our aim to reassert here that the right of the artist is subordinate to the laws of the country, especially in a case such as this, where is not at stake the violation of the First Amendment in the United States, or its Swiss equivalent. Thus all mentions of "a renown and international artist" and "one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers" are moot and a feeble attempt at circumventing the law. As much as we might hear in the news of the delays caused to Mr. Polanski's current film project, The Ghost, we cannot and will not condone any view which states that this work must take precedence over the application of the law. As for "taking away his freedom", we do believe that it is the general purpose of the law to do so, justly and in moderation, for the greater good of society.
Let us now ponder the particulars of the arrest. Mr. Polanski is a French citizen since 1976, and his citizenship prevented his extradition as long as he remained on French soil; Switzerland, however, has an extradition treaty with the United States. Thus, his arrest, no matter how often he had been visiting Switzerland in the past thirty years, is legal. It does not, a priori, harbour the potential for diplomatic deterioration between Switzerland and the United States, as opposed to the Argentine-Israeli complications which followed the abduction and extradition of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann, which took place in clear violation of Argentine law.
As for the application of the statutes of limitations, there is ample evidence that Mr. Polanski has already pled guilty to the charge of unlawful sex with a minor, and there is documented proof that the United States did pursue...
(Here the bailiff insisted on passing me a note. I took the sheet of paper with apprehension, and finally realized it was from my fellow judge of the Court of Public Opinion I mentioned earlier. Indeed, I looked up and now saw his familiar face in the back of the courtroom; he was livid. His memo read:
"You are not a real judge; you are not even a lawyer. It was fun to see you pretending you were one for maybe two minutes, but now you're getting lost on tangents. The guy raped a 13-year-old girl, he fled from the law, and he did so for thirty years. Now he gets arrested, and those windbags come out and say it isn't fair because he's an artist. They don't give a damn about the victim, they don't give a damn about the legal system, all that they give a damn about is that he makes art. This is the Court of Public Opinion. NOW NAIL THEM."
"Very well", I said to myself before speaking up again.)
I now want to deal with those who are all too eager to transform this debate over Polanski into another chapter of Ye Olde Culture War, and it's certainly gearing up to be just that, with the inevitable elitism and snobbery that one can expect. A sample:
"Virtually all the parties exhibit an ironic detachment from the public — the one constituency they all share, and the one that has consumed the Polanski story for decades now with a sort of prurient, insatiable bloodlust. Does it matter to them that his victim, whose family Polanski settled with out of court, forgave him years ago? No. Does it matter that Polanski is one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time? No. Really, the only closure that seems to matter among the hoi polloi is the one defined by a cell door clinking behind him. Even Polanski’s most impassioned and/or rational defenders are being shouted off their soapboxes, ill-equipped to tractably challenge the “child-raping fugitive” card. Indeed, as trumps go, it’s a hard one to surmount."
The term hoi polloi really gave it away, but let us nonetheless consider the argument. Should it matter that Polanski's victim forgave him? Should it matter that Polanski is one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time? The answer to both is no; he broke the law. He was meant to serve his sentence in 1978, but he fled. I am glad to know, too, that "child-raping fugitive" is just another trump to be surmounted in the Culture War Card Game instead of something impossible to justify on either side of the cultural divide.
In fact, George Orwell wrote on the quandary of admiring the art produced by a despicable human being. His example was Salvador Dali, but it could just as easily apply to Polanski. After noting that those who endorsed his art displayed the tendency to downplay his life, and that those who excoriated his actions could not reconcile themselves to the possibility that he could produce worthy art, Orwell suggested that the two could exist separately, and that art could not excuse every excess of character: "In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. 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."
What is at the heart of this matter, and what Polanski's supporters are nicely trying to circumvent, is equality before the law. They begin their specious reasoning by claiming that the law was unequal against Polanski, i.e., the judge was going to lock him away forever because he was a famous and respected artist. True, there is always the possibility of abuse, but even the most partisan judge cannot disregard the provisions of the law. And even if the law itself is unjust, until it is replaced with something more humane, it should be applied equally -- think here of all the other child rapists in California who served their sentences instead of being famous enough to flee. At any rate, Polanski could have appealed the sentence.
However, from this somewhat legitimate concern, we jump to a situation where the inequality is in Polanski's favour. He was a French national and took the opportunity to flee. To this day, he has not served his sentence, whatever it would have been. Yet suddenly it becomes acceptable not to serve it at all -- and now, ironically, his age is being invoked as another reason against incarceration. (It is worth recalling that the pretext of age and poor health was used in an attempt to stymie prosecution against the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; yet we have no evidence that Polanski is similarly afflicted.)
In this respect, it would be a shame to pass up on the opportunity to quote the bloviated absurdity of Harvey Weinstein's letter in The Independent, where he tells us that "whatever you think about the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time". "So-called crime"? We not only have the victim's testimony, where she mentions on numerous occasions how she was afraid of Polanski and wanted to get away from him, but also his guilty plea to a lesser but equally damning charge. Or is His Weinsteinishness arguing that Polanski pled guilty to a crime he did not commit just because... because of what? And what time did Polanski serve? He served none -- unless Weinstein wants to turn this into the heart-wrenching plight of an exiled man separated from his artistic brethren of the West Coast.
And inevitably, he makes mention of the Holocaust and the Manson gang. Extenuating circumstances by all means, but which cannot absolve a crime; if they did, Polanski would be recast as a victim rather than as a criminal. Even worse is the way Weinstein puts it: "How do you go from the Holocaust to the Manson family with any sort of dignity? In those circumstances, most people could not contribute to art and make the kind of beautiful movies he continues to make." Now come and tell me it's not all about Polanski as an artist.
Weinstein, predictably, vows to throw his weight around, and if that could work in Hollywood (after all, it used to), there is no indication that his grasp extends to the American justice system, no matter how much he may boast of not being afraid of Governor Schwarzenegger. If Weinstein's move succeeds, however, it will have achieved its aim -- a judicial decision just as political as the one he and his ilk are now complaining about.
If Harvey's "so-called crime" remark is particularly repulsive, it is not much more so than that of the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (interestingly, he was an early detractor of the Weinsteins' Miramax for its tendency to buy rights to foreign films only to cut them up or sit on them), who delivered an almost identical comment on the subject: "It’s his fame that fuels this event and discussion, not the specifics or the morality of what he may or may not have done some 30-odd years ago." Rosenbaum, it would appear, prefers his criminals artistically inept and on the right end of the political spectrum: "Considering the many crooks who continue to go unpunished (including Wall Street tycoons, prominent politicians, war profiteers, torturers of innocent people, and racist hatemongers) — most of whom continue to be rewarded and validated by the same press and the same self-righteous “moralists” who are now calling for Polanski’s head — it seems hypocritical to express so much outrage and bloodlust against Polanski at this point." What was it again about that Culture War?
After all, nobody should hesitate to ask the authorties to show clemency towards a man who said in a 1979 interview, recently unearthed by the British press: "If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But… f—ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f— young girls. Juries want to f— young girls. Everyone wants to f— young girls!” (Without them, what would little boys do?)
It's impossible, while reading this, to avoid recalling the O.J. Simpson case, which all but proved Polanski wrong, and which raises an interesting question: Where were all those artistic heavyweights when O.J. was arrested? Why did the artistic community not stand up for one of its own then? He was not important enough, I'd wager, and the event was too recent. Very well; then what about that other undeniable artist who had been embroiled in controversy decades before -- Elia Kazan?
After Kazan named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood community held a grudge against him for decades thereafter. When he was rewarded with an honorary Oscar in 1999 (aged 89, and ailing), the ceremony was marred by protests over what he had done in 1952. Despicable as what he did was, he only gave names because he was legally compelled to do it, and I can understand why those who had lived through that time chose to protest: they saw colleagues and friends fall prey to the blacklist, some of whom never recovered. But other younger industry people, who were not even born, also joined the protest against the award -- and wasn't it about celebrating his art, too?
So we get a case where a famous director obeyed a morally repulsive law and, forty-odd years later, people were still objecting to what he did, and chose to protest at an event where his artistic contribution was being rewarded. And we get a case where another famous director commits a criminal act -- not even a political one --, flees the country when he is about to be sentenced, and, thirty-one years later, the artistic community is urging us to forgive him -- in the name of art? The difference is that Kazan affected members of the Hollywood community, while Polanski just raped an outsider; nothing more.
The problem isn't so much that Weinstein and some major names of the industry are lined up in defense of Polanski; if so, we could just agree with the assessment of a blogger at The Nation that "widespread support for Polanski shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst." What is more difficult to fathom is why politicians and intellectuals, French for the most part, are also willing their risk their reputations for a man who is hardly deserving of their support.
Time Magazine took a stab at the issue in a way only Time Magazine would dare to attempt: by interviewing an American in Paris. "The French view Polanski as an artist and celebrity and feel he deserves a different kind of treatment than ordinary people, which just isn't an option in the U.S.," Ted Stanger, an American observer in Paris, told the magazine. So it would seem that what France objects to is equality under the law -- you know, equality, that middle word in the French motto? To quote the Guardian's Nick Cohen, "what is there left to say about that unfortunate country? It destroys the feudal order in the Revolution only to replace an aristocracy of nobles with an aristocracy of celebrities."
Stanger continued: "The French in particular, and Europeans in general, don't understand why it isn't possible for American officials to intervene and say, 'Hey, it's been over 30 years and things look a little different now. Let's just forget this thing.'" Duly noted. If we ever catch a nonagenarian Nazi war criminal and someone in France wants him, we'll keep that in mind and let him off the hook. After all, it's been twice as long; let's just forget this thing. (We'll come back to this later.)
I do not care how many times the French feel like drawing parallels to Chaplin or Oscar Wilde, the first having been exiled for political reasons, the second going to jail for his homosexuality. Polanski committed an offense which is regarded as a crime both in France and the United States, and even pled guilty. Indeed, a most compelling letter to the editor, by a former French inmate who committed a crime identical to Polanski's and served his sentence without parole, was published in Le Monde, denouncing those who supported the director. He painstakingly pointed out that it was impossible for a minor to consent to a sexual relation, before adding: "Hence, Messieurs the ministers, the necessity of answering for one's actions before justice, before the victim, and contemplate them, chew on them, ruminate them, day after day, night after night. All of this of course in the pain, the tears, the constraints, the humiliation, the shame and the solitude of prison. Work which cannot in any way be achieved amid rhinestones and sequins. Work that you, Messieurs the ministers and all those who have been protecting Polanski for so long, have prevented him from doing."
Adding insult to injury, this former criminal, who had paid his debt to society, who candidly concluded that "even if I never had the right to a pardon, I nonetheless had the right to be forgotten", was now, after twenty years, being told he had to give notice of his whereabouts to police every six months. France is veering right, as demonstrated by the election of law-and-order proponent Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency. Yet Polanski, in the meantime, is steadfastly defended by influential French statesmen.
One of those statesmen is, tellingly enough, the Minister of Culture and Communications, Frédéric Mitterrand, nephew of a former President of the Republic. The minister remarked that "in the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face." The Foreign and European Affairs Minister, Bernard Kouchner, was hardly more distinguished: "A man of such talent recognised throughout the world… All this is not nice." Translation: American hicks can't recognize talent.
(In Mitterrand's case, however, the tide may be turning. From a New York Times dispatch: "France’s new culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, who has defended the filmmaker Roman Polanski against extradition charges for statutory rape, was attacked on Wednesday for his admission in a 2005 autobiography, “The Bad Life,” that he “got into the habit” of paying “young boys” for sex in Southeast Asia despite “the sordid details of this traffic.”" To my knowledge, the relevant passages from "The Bad Life" ("Mauvaise vie" in the original) have not yet been translated into English, so here is my own translation: "I got into the habit of paying for boys.... Obviously, I have read what has been written on the commerce of boys here.... I know what is true. The ambient poverty, the generalized pimping, the mountains of dollars this yields while the kids only get crumbs, the devastation of drugs, the illnesses, the sordid details of all this traffic. But that does not prevent me from returning there. All these rituals of ephebe bazaars, of slave markets, excite me enormously.... We could only judge such a spectacle as abominable from a moral viewpoint, but it pleases me beyond the limits of the reasonable.... The profusion of very attractive and immediately available young boys puts me in a state of desire that I have no further need to curb or hide. Money and sex, I am at the heart of my system, which functions in the end because I know I will not be refused." This quotation, with the same ellipses, has been propagated by the extreme-right Front National, which has been calling for Mitterrand's resignation. His response? "To be dragged through the mud by the Front National is an honour." If you say so, Freddy, I'll take your word for it.)
One could go on and give more examples of Polanski support: Jack Lang, a former French Minister of Culture ("Sometimes, the American justice system shows an excess of formalism, like an infernal machine that advances inexorably and blindly.”), and Bernard-Henri Lévy, a famous intellectual who played the role of a latter-day Tocqueville, travelling across America at the behest of the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago. In a lengthy text published in English at the Huffington Post, Lévy wrote that "arresting a man today about whom it was decided a long time ago, after 42 days in prison, that he wasn't a pedophile, tracking him like a terrorist, and extraditing him like a former Nazi is perhaps right according to the law, but not according to justice."
Perhaps Bernard-Henri Lévy can recall the case of Maurice Papon, the French civil servant who was found guilty, in the late 1990's, of crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of over 1,500 Jews during World War II. Before going to jail in 1999, aged 89, Papon had fled to, and had to be extradited from, Switzerland. Was his case right according to the law, but not according to justice?
Actually, I looked around for an answer, and I found this text by Lévy, published in Le Point in 2007, discussing a law passed by that same Kouchner to allow for the release of ill prisoners (which by that time Papon was): "From where comes the anger which, as for three-quarters of the French population, has not left me since eight days? There is first the fact that, if pardon is a beautiful thing, we can only forgive one who asks for it. Yet Papon asks for nothing. He expressed, throughout his trial, neither remorse nor regret. He justifies Vichy. He legitimizes collaboration. Far from asking for mercy, he perseveres, in other words, in the crime and, towards his victims, or the sons and daughters of his victims, adds outrage to pain." The entirety of the article is worth reading, and I include the link as a further exhibit , but I will quote an additional passage from it: "For things to not go this way, for the application of the law to not signify a denial of justice and law, we would like to ask, if not of Papon, at least of his lawyers, to have the decency to shut up."
In another article, Lévy wrote: "If I am hostile to all this, if I say "yes to the freedom of Papon if, and only if, he finds but one word of compassion for his silent victims of yore", it is neither out of stubbornness nor out of insensitivity to the fate of a jailed old man, but because it would be, without it, immunity, impunity, in brief, amnesia which would triumph." An immunity, impunity, and amnesia which have applied, for thirty years, to Polanski's "so-called crime" which he "may or may not have done"; the revisionism which Lévy feared so much with Papon is ongoing with Polanski. Additionally, Lévy was prepared to forgive Polanski his "youthful error" (committed, need we remind it, at age 44), while Papon was in his mid-thirties by the time the war ended.
Papon, by the way, had been freed in 2002, and died less than a month after Lévy's comment was published; Polanski, on the other hand, is evidently still healthy enough to be directing. In other words, Lévy was still arguing, four years after Papon was released, that we should let a 96-year-old World War II criminal die in jail, while now suggesting that a man twenty years younger, who likewise never expressed remorse or regret over his crime, should be forgiven. And lest it be mistaken for compassion, throwing money at the victim doesn't count.
Polanski's crime is by no means of the same magnitude as Papon's, but it is a crime nonetheless. And there is a thorny question just around the corner, but one worth addressing: Lévy, like Polanski, is Jewish, as was Alfred Dreyfus. Could the French, beyond seeing Polanski as an artist worthy of preferential treatment, be acting out of a collective sense of guilt over the Dreyfus Affair? If so, nothing could be more misguided: Dreyfus, despite evidence of his innocence, was condemned because he was Jewish, and posterity has rehabilitated him; Polanski confessed to his crime, and demonstrated how much remorse and regret he harbored by escaping justice to France. No need, therefore, for a litany of ersatz "J'accuse" from the French high and mighty.
It is impossible to comprehend why the French object so loudly to Polanski's arrest. The director went to Switzerland of his own free will, in full knowledge of the possible consequences. Likewise, his arrest was legitimate, hence the intervention of the French government in the matter ought to be limited to what it would be in the case of a normal French citizen arrested abroad. So far, with public interventions by French ministers in Polanski's favour, there is little evidence that such has been the case.
It is equally unfortunate to see the debate over his extradition being framed as yet another battle in the Culture War, between the Enlightened and the Philistines. If Polanski does not pay for his crime, in what way is it going to be a victory for the Enlightened? They will merely have succeeded in asserting their belief that not everyone ought to be equal under the law; in which case, would it not excuse every artist who commits a crime, every dishonest self-proclaimed intellectual, every excess by elites (of which Lord Black was another example)? A society with no reason to believe in the just application of the law is a society with no reason to uphold it; and if elites are not punished for the crimes they commit, how could any social order placing them at the top be justified?
THE VERDICT: Equality before the law is a cornerstone of society; do away with it at your peril, and anti-intellectualism can hardly be blamed for any adverse consequences. Therefore, I find the accused, the supporters of Roman Polanski, for arguing that the law should not be equally applied, guilty as charged.
THE SENTENCE: For Polanski, whatever sentence he might obtain, it is to be hoped that the judge will be of a mind, if reminded of the director's advanced age, to cite the immensely wise words of Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, later the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, when he was confronted with a similar situation: "You do the best you can."
As for his supporters, I have considered several options, including forcing the signatories of the petition for freeing Polanski to ask the leader of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi, who is also known to have a beef with Switzerland these days, for his signature -- with cameras rolling. However, I changed my mind, and now condemn the accused to read the testimony of the victim, easily available, and to consider what Polanski supporter Bernard-Henri Lévy suggested to Papon's attorneys in 2007: the decency to shut up.
(Many thanks to fellow judge Slyder for his suggestions and his pictorial selections.)
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2840
originally posted: 10/06/09 14:56:47
last updated: 04/21/12 03:12:30