In her blog for The Nation, Katha Pollitt leads the condemnation team with a rallying question: "If a rapist escapes justice for long enough, should the world hand him a get-out-of-jail-free card?" She concludes:
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.But if Toobin's reporting is right, then Pollitt's analysis is wrong. She goes awry in her first question. Polanski, according to Toobin, did not escape justice and did not (and cannot) get out of jail free. Rather, Polanski was incarcerated for about a month-and-a-half, during which he was psychologically examined. The psychological report recommended that any further punishment should be limited to probation.
At the outset, Judge Rittenband had assured Polanski's attorneys that the psychological examination would serve as Polanski's punishment (despite Polanski's lawyer's objection that such a use was an improper deployment of psychological testing). After Polanski's release, however, Rittenband toyed with the idea of sending Polanski back to prison for another month-and-a-half and then deporting him - a punishment that Rittenband (as a state judge) had no authority to impose (deportation being the jurisdiction of the federal government).
Polanski therefore chose to flee - not from the imposition of punishment in accordance with the American criminal justice system - but from the fickle and illegal abuse of judicial power. For a man who'd shown resilience in the face of blows of fate unseen since Greek tragedy - including surviving Hitler, his mother's death in Aushwitz, and the murder of his wife and child by the Manson gang - a reluctance to submit to the corrupt whims of a civil servant strikes me as understandable.
Thus, Pollitt's opening question should have been: "If a rapist is punished much more leniently than satisfies modern sensibilities, and further takes matters into his own hands when his punisher proves to be corrupt, is extradition more than thirty years later, with the aim of imposing a stricter sentence, consistent with our system of justice?"
The answer is no.
Pollitt is simply incorrect that "literary superstars" and other Polanski supporters don't see what happened as rape. Without question, Polanski raped a child and caused her tremendous pain, both physical and emotional.
Pollitt is similarly wrong when she complains that Polanski's supporters "don't care" that he raped a girl because he's an artist. Polanski's supporters do care that he raped a girl (and the fact that he's an artist is irrelevant to his status as a rapist); but they also care that, in a Judeo-Christian system of ethics, even rapists (and even artist-rapists) get to serve their time and move on: it's called redemption - or paying one's debt to society - and it's the bedrock of the Western system of justice.
Pollitt's disregard of the basic ethics of Western justice seems to result from the reflexiveness and unexamined quality of her response. To the extent that Pollitt's knee-jerk objection has merit, it's that Polanski was allowed to repay his debt to society at unfairly favorable interest rates. But public mores about sentencing in rape cases have changed radically in the last thirty years. And, while I agree that Polanski's behavior merited more strenuous legal repercussions, the fact that we in 2009 don't accept as sufficient Polanski's punishment in 1978 doesn't give us license (morally or legally) for a "do over" - which is as it should be.
"Do overs" are dirty tricks, the kind of stunts that mobs demand, and that authorities provide when they cowardly capitulate to a tyrannical public. Western systems of justice, and the American system in particular, are rightly and wisely designed to resist the vagaries of popular feeling and to protect those most likely to be its targets, no matter how unsavory - e.g., child rapists.
This policy is good, not just for the health of a nation's system of justice, but also for its literature. Katha Pollitt would do well to mark Henry James' concern for his friend Edmund Gosse, who was swept along in the flotsam of the public's outrage about Oscar Wilde's sodomy:
Henry studied Gosse and paid attention to his tone. Suddenly, his old friend had become a rabid supporter of the stamping out of indecency. He wished there were someone French in the room to calm Gosse down, his friend having joined forces, apparently, with the English public in one of their moments of self-righteousness. He wanted to warn him that this would not help his prose style.Colm Toíbín, The Master (71-72).
If Katha Pollitt's writing about Polanski is any example, she can't afford any further diminishment in the quality of her prose.
(Photo from The Guardian)