Posted by: Jeff | September 28, 2009

What Underlies Polanski’s Arrest

I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to comment on the whole Roman Polanski business, but it seems to keep cropping up today.

My problem is that I simply can’t muster much enthusiasm for either side in this debacle. The generally pro-Polanski reaction in Europe – and, frankly, amongst the film community – has been pretty stunning for its level of fawning moral obtuseness. David Gritten flat out gets his facts wrong when he claims both Polanski and his victim agree the sex was consensual. Agnes Poirer’s suggestion that this is about prudery misses the fact that a prude has problems with, say, gay sex, or teenagers doing the backseat-fumbling thing that teenagers do, or with consenting adults who happen to enjoy sex toys or elaborate harness contraptions. Prudes don’t have a problem with drugging and raping a child. Sane people do. And what does Polanski being “a great talent” have to do with anything?

But here’s the thing. If it were solely up to me I’d have let the charges against Polanski drop a long time ago. He’s 76 and his victim has publicly given him her pardon. I don’t see the point of prosecuting him. The law is as much a living culture as it is an ideal, and there comes a point where the stout declaration that “the law is the law” must yield not only to practicality but to humanity.

As often as I find Polanski the man repugnant, I do not at all like or share the common American fixation on punishment for the sake of punishment. Nor do I like our tendency to use law enforcement as a mechanism for settling personal vendettas, for “making examples” or for purging “unwanted elements.” I will give the European critics this: It strikes me as obvious that these less noble motivations lie behind the determined pursuit of Polanski every bit as much as concern for the sanctity of the law. Perhaps even more so.

As an American myself, I have to say there is something particularly American and depressingly common about our failure to remember the distinction between the enforcement of the law and the indulgence of tribal emotionalism. It is difficult to not see a connection between the myopic zeal with which American law enforcement has pursued Polanski, and the myopic zeal with which it labels adolescents as sex offenders, imprisons more individuals than all of Europe combined, condemns the poor to decades in jail for stealing a VCR or for possessing a pound of marijuana, and still executes anyone at all.

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Responses

  1. I. Vill. Brweak. Vou.

    “He’s 76”
    -so what? a 76 yr old who rapes someone is a 76 yr old rapist. a 76 yr old who murders someone is a 76 yr old murderer. horrible argument. worse than “he has great talent.”

    “punishment for the sake of punishment”
    -its not punishment for the sake of punishment, its punishment because the guy is guilty as fuck.

    “making an example”
    -the celebrity of roman polanski is inextricably tied to the case. it went down in jack nicholson’s house! and its been reported in the media again and again for decades. its not “making an example”, its finally catching that rich as hell celebrity.

    “less noble motivations”
    -but isn’t that true of all crime and punishment in crime/arrests of ridiculous famous people? why white girls who go missing all over today show but other ethnicities aren’t? why paris hilton went to jail? why michael phelps dui is all over the internet? but do you also think all enforcement of law is noble? and roman polanski….is anything but “noble”.

    “…myopic zeal with which American law enforcement has pursued Polanski”
    -I would hardly call it “zeal” if the guy has been living in europe, married to a model, won an academy award during the last couple of decades. I mean, “zeal” implies that polanski has been underground in south america avoiding persecution. Hardly. The asshole lives in a villa.

    “….myopic zeal with which it labels adolescents as sex offenders”
    -Do not confuse that issue of sex offender labeling and Roman Polanski of being a sex offender. These are completely separate things. The labeling of sex-offenders is very complicated and sensitive, and also recent. Keep in mind that when Roman Polanski did give the 13 yr old a pill and a drink, and had sex with her while she was unconscious….there were no sex offender labeling at that time.

    “….condemns the poor to decades in jail for stealing a VCR”
    -whoa whoa whoa, way off base here. seriously. calm down. take a pill. Oh, ask Roman Polanski for one!

    “…still executes anyone at all”
    -wait, how did the death penalty get tossed into this???

    Sorry, Jeff. I love you, but you’re wrong. You are the OJ Simpson fan screaming “conspiracy” outside the courthouse. You are the MJ fan who are calling the kid and his family con artists. You are the Roger Clemens fan still defending all his major MLB stats. You are the religious nut who thinks the Passion is a good film. I understand that Roman Polanski is talented and gifted and backed by Miramax.

    But he also raped a 13 yr girl

    Admitted it.

    And fled the country.

    i dont think I am being “very American” in thinking that he deserves to be prosecuted for that.

  2. Liz

    For background, I should back up and say that I am deeply, deeply skeptical about the wisdom, the efficacy, and frankly the moral legitimacy of our entire criminal justice system as it’s currently constructed and operated. I think that should be born in mind. I’m not criticizing what’s happened to Polanski as an aberration within a system of which I otherwise generally approve. I realize he may not be the most convenient example for critiquing that system, but if you can prove the hard cases then you’ve got a formidable argument.

    My concern isn’t with Polanski’s fate but with what this particular anecdote illustrates about our law-and-order culture. I don’t like the fact that we use law enforcement as a kind of ad-hoc morality play for identifying and punishing evil. And I think the intent in apprehending and prosecuting Polanski at this juncture is clearly to put on a morality play. That the play is at the expense of a pampered celebrity does not make it any less ugly than if it were at the expense of an anonymous member of the African-American poor.

    Nor is my objection to whether Polanski fits the “punishing evil” narrative. Of course he does. My objection is to the drive to create that narrative in the first place, how that drive shapes the justice system, and what that drive does to people less fortunate than Polanski. Namely, all the types of people I listed in the post, including those who spend decades in jail for minor violations due to mandatory minimums and three strikes laws. (And unless those laws all got repealed in the last year or two, I don’t think I’m “off base” with that one.) All those people are generally guilty as fuck, too. And that’s the thing. Even guilty isn’t really guilty. Not in the quasi-cosmic way we want it to be when we get that frisson of self-righteousness upon seeing someone we find despicable tossed behind bars. So yes, I really do think all those things are interrelated on a basic level.

    Now, some of those people, like many of the adolescent “sex offenders” and anyone in jail for possession of narcotics, are guilty of things which shouldn’t be illegal in the first place. But many of the people who are guilty of something which should be illegal, like stealing VCRs, are still dealt with atrociously. Obviously, rape should be illegal and I wouldn’t say Polanski is being dealt with atrociously. But stupidly and needlessly? Yes. When you’ve got a guy who raped a girl 30 years ago, when he’ll be dead in a decade, when he’s a narcissistic ass but otherwise innocent of any further crime, and when that girl has grown into a woman who has publicly stated she has no desire to see Polanski prosecuted, then yeah, I think the reasonable thing to do is let the matter drop. Insisting on going ahead with the prosecution anyway is, at best, really weird. And I think that insistence comes from the same cultural and psychological place that generates all the other issues I’ve been talking about.

    My problem isn’t that less noble motivations are applied to celebrities. My problem is that our criminal justice system, and the broader cultural temperament we’ve built up around it, is shot through with less noble motivations from top to bottom, at all levels of society. Given that Europeans don’t have anything near the prison population we do, or have the death penalty, I think you have to acknowledge there is something uniquely American about all this, and it ain’t pretty. And given that half your response is devoted to your personal disgust for Polanski (not to mention comparing me to an OJ defender) I think you’ve gone a long way towards proving my points by example.

    PS I don’t recall bringing up Polanski’s talents, or his gifts, or his backing by Miramax as having anything to do with the matter at hand.

  3. BRING. IT. ON. AGAIN.

    “My concern isn’t with Polanski’s fate but with what this particular anecdote illustrates about our law-and-order culture. I don’t like the fact that we use law enforcement as a kind of ad-hoc morality play for identifying and punishing evil.”
    –see, I kinda agree with you here…except the opposite. I am also concerned about what Polanski illustrates about our law-and-order culture. I don’t like the fact that celebrities and rich people can afford better lawyers and escape justice. Which is what has happened for the last 30 years.

    “And I think the intent in apprehending and prosecuting Polanski at this juncture is clearly to put on a morality play”
    –Its not so much a morality play, as it is catching a “fugitive”. Thats what he is. Again, the celebrity factor is definitely part of this crime. And has been from the beginning.

    “Even guilty isn’t really guilty. Not in the quasi-cosmic way we want it to be when we get that frisson of self-righteousness upon seeing someone we find despicable tossed behind bars.”
    –Except that he pled guilty, so he is guilty.

    I understand that crime and people breaking laws is never as black-and-white, good vs evil, joker vs batman as people(me) want to believe. I do get that. Really. And some laws are bullshit. I get that too. (We can talk later about Sacco and Vanzetti, Chicago Seven or Duke lacrosse case) But our society functions upon the fundamental premise that when someone breaks the law, they go to jail/prison. Crime & Punishment. Law & Order. Even when its misunderstood and hypocritical and wrong.

    “When you’ve got a guy who raped a girl 30 years ago, when he’ll be dead in a decade, when he’s a narcissistic ass but otherwise innocent of any further crime, and when that girl has grown into a woman who has publicly stated she has no desire to see Polanski prosecuted, then yeah, I think the reasonable thing to do is let the matter drop.”
    –Errrrr. I disagree. I don’t think we should let it drop. At all. I think he should be held responsible for his crime/rape/abuse of the girl.

    “…not to mention comparing me to an OJ defender”
    –the reason I did that, besides that it is funny, is I actually do see a lot of parallels between OJ and Polanski, aside from celebrity. When OJ got arrested and the trial of the century began…the dialogue changed from talking about this brutal double homicide to talking about racism and problems of the justice system. Many many talk shows, court shows, newscasters, newspapers defended OJ by criticizing the justice system and the actual persecutors of OJ. Now that we look back on the actual facts of the case and the transcripts of what his defenders said, its ridiculous. And embarrassing.

    Yes, cops in the LA police department are racist.
    Yes, african americans are prosecuted more so than white people.
    Yes, the justice system and the american public are hypocritical, fickel and easily manipulated to be on certain sides of a case. But he was still guilty. And at the time of all the hoopla people lost sight of that.

    (I swear I am now done with OJ comparison and will cease and desist this. Want to clarify that I am not calling Polanski a murderer.)

    I understand your criticisms of how the public views “justice” and the elements of hypocrisy in the legal system and American public.

    But it difficult for me to understand your argument that Polanski should not be arrested. He drugged and raped a 13 yr old girl. And even as high and drunk as she was, she cried and begged him to stop as he was doing it. He admitted to the rape and pled guilty. Then fled to Europe before the sentencing. I mean…..I really don’t know what else to say.

    Sooooo, I don’t think we are going to agree on this. Polanski’s arrest has become one of “those topics” that ruins dinner parties, divides brother and sister (hey joe!), and dominates e! news and the today show.

    PS
    I believe not arresting Polanski is moral relativism.

    PS PART DEUX
    Miramax sucks more than the Ninth Gate. SNAP!

  4. I’ll have to second that emotion.

    Whatever flaws in the criminal justice system aside, Polanski’s not a case in point for anything. He’s not Saccho or Vanzetti, he’s not John Scopes. Guy’s guilty. Case closed.

    Frankly, I’m glad we live in a country that doesn’t have an expiration date on the criminal justice system, where you can just get too old or too nice to really be a bad person. That feeds on the idea that jail is for bad people as opposed to people who violate the law, which itself feeds on the idea that right and wrong is decided by people as opposed to courts, that some crimes are good and only some are bad. We cannot have a functioning legal system that governs 300 million plus people if exceptions ruled the day.

    I understand why people want to see Polanski in jail–he’s a coward. He ran away and survived on the coattails of “The Artist.” Luckily, guilty is guilty. Felony offenses are felony offenses. Rape is rape.

    Throw his ass in jail.

  5. Agree with Kat…rape is rape and the fact that he’s been a fugitive for all these years only makes it worse. The fact that it’s still in the news speaks more to the failing of international reciprocity than to some draconian desire to make an example of the guy.

  6. But Kobe was framed right Peter? :)

  7. You know what, I try to take the high road on something and you have to bring the Lakers into it. Shame on you.

    For the record: she was not a minor; there were no drugs involved; there was not enough evidence to merit a trial, let alone a conviction.

    Note that I don’t particularly care for Kobe personally…but I don’t think he should be denigrated on this matter beyond the adultery issue.

  8. There is no excuse for the rape of a child. Period. Ever. He pled guilty after exhaustive collaberation with the best defense attorneys money could buy at that time. Sentencing is what follows a guilty plea. It’s past due.

  9. Ok,
    Now for an expert opinion. He pled guilty and was awaiting sentencing when he got cold feet. The judge was wallowing in all the publicity and although assured the defense counsel of leniency was exparted by the DA and changed his mind to meet with the public demands. Very similar to the OJ case where the the judge became enamored with himself and let the dream team run away with the trial.
    In Texas, having consensual sex with a 13 year old is a first degree felony and is not eligible for probation. It is five to 99 years or life. They are required to be registered as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
    This is a typical LA california bungling of a criminal case involving a celebrity. If I ever take up a life of crime I am moving to LA. Because in Texas if you are rich you can hire Racehorse Haynes and get off with murder, but in LA you can get away with murder as long as you have a press agent.

  10. To be fair, I suspect if you’ve done whatever fame-attracting thing it is you need to do in L.A. in order to get a good press agent, you’ve probably also already gotten the money you’d need to hire the likes of Racehorse Haynes. (Of course, I could be wrong.)


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