If a rapist escapes justice for long enough, should the world hand him a get-out-of-jail-free card? If you’re Roman Polanski, world-famous director, a lot of famous and gifted people think the answer is yes. Polanski, who drugged and anally raped a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977 in Los Angeles, pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor and fled to Europe before sentencing. Now, 32 years later, he’s been 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 (insert your own joke here), Isabelle Huppert, Diane von Furstenberg and many, many more. Bernard-Henri Levy, who’s taken a leading role in rounding up support, has said that Polanski "perhaps had committed a youthful error " (he was 43). Debra Winger, president of the Zurich Film Festival jury, wearing a red "Free Polanski" badge, called the Swiss authorities action "philistine collusion." Frederic Mitterand, the French cultural minister, said it showed "the scary side of America" and described Polanski as "thrown to the lions because of ancient history." French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, called the whole thing "sinister."
Closer to home, Whoopi Goldberg explained on The View that his crime wasn’t ‘rape rape,’ just, you know, rape. Oh, that! Conservative columnist Anne Applebaum minimized the crime in the Washington Post. First, she overlooks the true nature of the crime (drugs, forced anal sex, etc), and then claims "there is evidence Polanski did not know her real age." Talk about a desperate argument. Polanski, who went on to have an affair with 15-year old Nastassja Kinski, has spoken frankly of his taste for very young girls. (Nation editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel, who tweeted her surprise at finding herself on the same side as Applebaum, has had second thoughts: "I disavow my original tweet supporting Applebaum. I believe that Polanski should not receive special treatment. Question now is how best to ensure that justice is served. Should he return to serve time? Are there other ways of seeing that justice is served? At same time, I believe that prosecutorial misconduct in this case should be investigated.") On the New York Times op-ed page, schlock novelist Robert Harris celebrated his great friendship with Polanski, who has just finished filming one of Harris’ books: "His past did not bother me." This tells us something about Harris’ nonchalant view of sex crimes, but why is it an argument about what should happen in Polanski’s legal case?
I just don’t get this. I understand that Polanski has had numerous tragedies in his life, that he’s made some terrific movies, that he’s 76, that a 2008 documentary raised questions about the fairness of the judge (see Bill Wyman in Salon, though, for a persuasive dismantling of its case.). I also understand that his victim, now 44, says she has forgiven Polanski and wants the case to be dropped because every time it comes up she is dragged through the mud all over again. Certainly that is what is happening now. On the Huffington Post, Polanski fan Joan Z. Shore, who describes herself as co-founder of Women Overseas for Equality (Belgium), writes: " The 13-year-old model ‘seduced’ by Polanski had been thrust onto him by her mother, who wanted her in the movies. The girl was just a few weeks short 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 in California was 16. Today it’s 18, with exceptions for sex when one person 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 scheming mother–is all over the internet.
Fact: What happened was not some gray, vague he said/she said Katie-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 date of her period, anally raped her, twice, while she protested; she submitted, she told the grand jury "because I was afraid." Those facts are not in dispute–except by Polanski, who has pooh-poohed the whole business many times (You can read the grand jury transcripts here.) He was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, like many accused rapists, to spare the victim the trauma of a trial and media hoopla. But that doesn’t mean we should all pretend that what happened was some free-spirited Bohemian mix-up. The victim took years to recover.
Fact: In February 2008, LA Superior Court Judge Peter Espinosa ruled that Polanski can challenge his conviction. All he has to do is come to the United States and subject himself to the rule of law. Why is that unfair? Were he not a world-famous director with boatloads of powerful friends, but just a regular convicted sex criminal who had fled abroad, would anyone think it was asking too much that he should go through the same formal process as anyone else?
It’s enraging that literary superstars who go on and on about human dignity, and human rights, and even women’s rights (at least when the women are Muslim) either don’t see what Polanski did as rape, or don’t care, 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 the victim, minimize rape, and bend over backwards to exonerate the perpetrator? Error of youth, might have mistaken her age, teen slut, stage mother–is that what we want people to think when middle-aged men prey on ninth-graders?
The widespread support for Polanski shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst. They may make great movies, write great books, and design beautiful things, they may have lots of noble humanitarian ideas and care, in the abstract, about all the right principles: equality under the law, for example. But in this case, they’re just the white culture-class counterpart of hip-hop fans who stood by R. Kelly and Chris Brown and of sports fans who automatically support their favorite athletes when they’re accused of beating their wives and raping hotel workers.
No wonder Middle America hates them.