If a rapist escapes justice for long enough, should the world hand him aget-out-of-jail-free card? If you're Roman Polanski, world-famousdirector, a lot of famous and gifted people think the answer is yes. Polanski, who drugged and anally raped a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977in Los Angeles, pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with aminor and fled to Europe before sentencing. Now, 32 years later, he'sbeen arrested in Switzerland on his way to the Zurich film Festival,prompting outrage from international culture stars: Salman Rushdie,Milan Kundera, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodavar, Woody Allen (insertyour own joke here), Isabelle Huppert, Diane von Furstenberg and many,many more. Bernard-Henri Levy, who's taken a leading role in roundingup support, has said that Polanski "perhaps had committed a youthfulerror " (he was 43). Debra Winger, president of the Zurich Film Festivaljury, wearing a red "Free Polanski" badge, called the Swiss authoritiesaction "philistine collusion." Frederic Mitterand, the French culturalminister, said it showed "the scary side of America" and describedPolanski as "thrown to the lions because of ancient history." Frenchforeign minister Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors WithoutBorders, called the whole thing "sinister."
Closer to home, Whoopi Goldberg explained on The View that hiscrime wasn't 'rape rape,' just, you know, rape. Oh, that! Conservativecolumnist Anne Applebaum minimized the crime in the WashingtonPost. First, she overlooks the true nature of the crime (drugs,forced anal sex, etc), and then claims "there is evidence Polanski didnot know her real age." Talk about a desperate argument. Polanski, whowent on to have an affair with 15-year old Nastassja Kinski, has spokenfrankly of his taste for very young girls. (Nationeditor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel, who tweeted her surprise atfinding herself on the same side as Applebaum, has had second thoughts:"I disavow my original tweet supporting Applebaum. I believe thatPolanski should not receive special treatment. Question now is how bestto ensure that justice is served. Should he return to serve time? Arethere other ways of seeing that justice is served? At same time, Ibelieve that prosecutorial misconduct in this case should beinvestigated.") On the New York Times op-ed page, schlocknovelist Robert Harris celebrated his great friendship with Polanski,who has just finished filming one of Harris' books: "His past did notbother me." This tells us something about Harris' nonchalant view ofsex crimes, but why is it an argument about what should happen inPolanski's legal case?
I just don't get this. I understand that Polanski has had numeroustragedies in his life, that he's made some terrific movies, that he's76, that a 2008 documentary raised questions about the fairness of thejudge (see Bill Wyman in Salon, though, for apersuasive dismantling of its case.). I also understand that hisvictim, now 44, says she has forgiven Polanski and wants the case to bedropped because every time it comes up she is dragged through the mudall over again. Certainly that is what is happening now. On theHuffington Post, Polanski fan Joan Z. Shore, who describes herself asco-founder of Women Overseas for Equality (Belgium), writes: " The13-year-old model 'seduced' by Polanski had been thrust onto him by hermother, who wanted her in the movies. The girl was just a few weeksshort of her 14th birthday, which was the age of consent in California.(It's probably 13 by now!)." Actually, in 1977 the age of consent inCalifornia was 16. Today it's 18, with exceptions for sex when oneperson is underage and the other is no more than three years older. Shore's view--that Polanski was the victim of a nymphet and her schemingmother--is all over the internet.
Fact: What happened was not some gray, vague he said/she saidKatie-Roiphe-style "bad sex." A 43-year-old man got a 13-year-old girl alone, got her drunk, gave her a quaalude, and, after checking the dateof her period, anally raped her, twice, while she protested; shesubmitted, she told the grand jury "because I was afraid." Those factsare not in dispute--except by Polanski, who has pooh-poohed the wholebusiness many times (You can read the grand jury transcripts here.) He was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, like manyaccused rapists, to spare the victim the trauma of a trial and mediahoopla. But that doesn't mean we should all pretend that what happenedwas some free-spirited Bohemian mix-up. The victim took years torecover.
Fact: In February 2008, LA Superior Court Judge Peter Espinosa ruled that Polanski can challenge his conviction. All he has to do iscome to the United States and subject himself to the rule of law. Whyis that unfair? Were he not a world-famous director with boatloads ofpowerful friends, but just a regular convicted sex criminal who had fledabroad, would anyone think it was asking too much that he should gothrough the same formal process as anyone else?
It's enraging that literary superstars who go on and on about humandignity, and human rights, and even women's rights (at least when thewomen are Muslim) either don't see what Polanski did as rape, or don'tcare, because he is, after all, Polanski--an artist like themselves.That some of his defenders are women is particularly disappointing.Don't they see how they are signing on to arguments that blame thevictim, minimize rape, and bend over backwards to exonerate theperpetrator? Error of youth, might have mistaken her age, teen slut,stage mother--is that what we want people to think when middle-aged menprey on ninth-graders?
The widespread support for Polanski shows the liberal cultural elite atits preening, fatuous worst. They may make great movies, write greatbooks, and design beautiful things, they may have lots of noblehumanitarian ideas and care, in the abstract, about all the rightprinciples: equality under the law, for example. But in this case,they're just the white culture-class counterpart of hip-hop fans whostood by R. Kelly and Chris Brown and of sports fans who automaticallysupport their favorite athletes when they're accused of beating theirwives and raping hotel workers.
No wonder Middle America hates them.
*****The Mind-Body Problem, poems by Katha Pollitt, is just out from Random House.