Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Like maggots to carrion

Ever find yourself in a position where you think most of the people who share your opinion on the proper course of action are utterly repulsive? Watching the response to the arrest of Roman Polanski, as his apologists rally to defend him against the unsophisticated flyover country types who think raping a 13 year-old kid is kind of a big deal, has been demoralizing.

There is one and only one argument advanced by people opposed to prosecuting Polanski to which I assign any relevance- his victim does not wish for him to be prosecuted. Crimes are committed against individuals, not the state or “society,” so I believe that the decision to demand restitution and/or vengeance rightfully belongs to the victim; if they no longer want the crime prosecuted, so be it. The idea that a crime committed against a particular person is a crime against all of us, merely by virtue of being part of the same society, carries the implicit claim that the victim in some sense belongs to the public and not herself, a noxious notion in general and perhaps especially objectionable in the case of sexual crimes. I’d like to see Polanski nailed to the wall, personally, but he didn’t rape me.

(This does raise the related question of what people are morally entitled to do about a known violent predator living in their midst if the victim does not demand restitution or retribution. If use of force is justified, it would have to be justified by something other then retaliation for the original crime, and whatever the answer, people would have no business compelling the victim to assist or participate.)

However, I don’t for a moment think that any significant number of Polanksi’s defenders believe that- anarchocapitalists being somewhat thin on the ground in the media- so that’s hardly a satisfactory explanation for their defense of Polanski. In any case, aside from libertarians and some feminists, arguments against prosecuting Polanski are not generally taking the form of, “Polanski is reprehensible and it would serve him right if he were made to pay for his crime, but if his victim prefers to drop the matter we should respect her wishes.” It's rarely even about alleged problems with his original trial and conviction. It goes further than that, much further.

Polanski’s arrest brought a stunning outpouring of support from figures on the political Left and in the entertainment industry. Not all, by any means, but it’s remarkable how many people have tried to defend Polanski in one way or another: Because his exile is punishment enough (being an acclaimed, prosperous filmmaker in Europe instead of America- its just like something out of Les Miserables!) Or because the victim was was asking for it, and/or the victim’s mom was asking for it by leaving her daughter with Polanski. Or because the crime happened so long ago, or because it’s wrong to do vengeful, unforgiving things like prosecute a man for raping a 13 year-old when by now he’s probably too old and frail to do it again. (I’d be curious to see how many of the people I’ve seen take this tack would say the same thing about a Catholic priest who molested a child three decades ago.) Or, in some of the more bizarre examples I’ve seen, because the intensity of some people’s disgust with Polanski is a symptom of how Americans are ridiculously uptight and fussy about sex, or because Polanski’s loudest detractors are mostly conservatives who didn’t complain about Bush invading Iraq and causing far more suffering than one measly rape, or because people are just condemning Polanski so they can feel self-righteous.

(In my experience, there is usually no one more self-satisfied and self-righteous, more certain of their moral superiority, more proudly and smugly judgmental, than the person who says that morality is relative, or that morality does not exist, or that we should not judge others.)

The support for Polanski is especially jarring when you consider the fact that Polanski is one of the most prominent and dramatic living examples of what most people consciously left-of-center supposedly regard as one of the great evils of the world. Polanski is a wealthy, prestigious man who has used his superior place in society to gravely harm and exploit someone far less powerful than himself and get away with it. Give him a monocle and he could be an allegorical character named Rich Privileged Oppressor in a left-wing version of a medieval morality play.

Also interesting, for similar reasons, is the existence of some feminists who have joined in. (And a great many of Polanksi’s apologists in general would almost certainly self-identify as feminists if asked.) Interesting, but not surprising; anyone who was politically aware during the Clinton years should have seen this coming. Polanski isn’t nearly as politically important as President Clinton was and isn’t getting the same sort of political firepower brought to his defense, but the basic phenomenon is familiar.

There really is no limit whatsoever to the depths to which some people will descend to defend a member of their tribe or someone they've elevated above the level of us mortals, is there? None. Polanski rapes a teenage girl, escapes justice to spend decades basking in luxury and adulation, and is shown more concern, support, and sympathy than genuinely innocent men falsely accused of rape can ever dream of. I feel like I need either a drink or a shower.

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Rod Freeman said...

Concise, reasoned, principled and brilliant. Great article.

The Beast said...

I agree absolutely with the content of this article. Your use of the word *tribe* is IMHO particularly appropriate.

It is disheartening to see how so many human beings will turn a blind eye to the suffering of others (even children) when the offender is a member of their own tribe.

I take solace in the fact, however, that despite external appearances, deep down they know that they are acting against their conscience by so doing and their conscience will punish them for doing so.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The only problem I see with your reasoning is how the victim came to her views. If we allow a scumbag like Polanski to get his friends to bully someone to lay off him where will it end? Having the powerful gang up on a victim in defense of their own is hardly edifying or right.

Neverfox said...

(This does raise the related question of what people are morally entitled to do about a known violent predator living in their midst if the victim does not demand restitution or retribution. If use of force is justified, it would have to be justified by something other then retaliation for the original crime, and whatever the answer, people would have no business compelling the victim to assist or participate.)

Thank you for mentioning this because it's part of the analysis that I think is too often overlooked when people try to make the point that the victim's wishes should be respected. I agree with the later with regard to "the original crime" and that "people would have no business compelling the victim to assist or participate".

But, with regard to whether Polanski should have force used against him comes down to what level of threat he represents to the rest of us. The answer could potentially run the gamut from imminent threat (in which case, he should be immediately and perhaps permanently detained, not for the original crime per se but simply for being a known rapist) to something like a stricter interpretation of future behavior for the rest of his life (e.g. a sort of de facto safe distance rule to all females when alone with them, violations of which would lower the threshold for defensive action).

So I'd like to ask you how you would approach the issue of a known rapist from the perspective of the question in your parenthetical. If we assume that threats are a form of aggression (and I think we must to make sense of our intuitions about self-defense, e.g. I can stop you before you pull the trigger). What do you think makes a good private legal response to a known rapist? Should they be treated like an immediate danger (in which case the response is likely to be no different from that of the original victim seeking retribution) or something less (even so much less that it amounts to handling on a case-by-case basis only)?

WorBlux said...

The Basis of criminal law or the though behind it is " An offense against any of the king's subject is an offense against the king himself."

And that is based on the definition of citizenship as a mutual obligation of loyalty for protection.

Under the Hammurabi code, city governors had to pay the victims of robbers a sum of gold.

Since modern governments have long abandoned any pretense of accepted a duty to protect, so to should they abandon the idea of a public tort and only allow comparable proceedings if the prosecutor is acting as the agent of a victim.