I am delighted by the Roman Polanski controversy. Don't get me wrong: I am horrified and disgusted by what the acclaimed director did -- and admitted to -- but there is an upside.
Just to recap, Polanski drugged a child put in his care for the purposes of a photo shoot. He tried to bully her into sex. She said no. He raped her anyway. He pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse but fled the country before sentencing, allegedly for fear the judge wouldn't keep his end of the plea bargain. He spent the subsequent three decades living the life of a revered celebrity in Europe. He never returned to America because there was a warrant for his arrest. In a bit of ironic justice, he was apprehended en route to Zurich to receive a lifetime achievement award. That ceremony will apparently go on without him.
So what do I like about the controversy? Well, for starters, that there is one at all. I think it is fascinating beyond words that this is open to "debate."
If Roman Polanksi was the name of the world's greatest plumber or accountant, or even the director of "Weekend at Bernie's II," there would be no argument. Indeed, Polanski would have already paid his debt to society and would be a free man by now. No serious person can dispute this.
Now of course, reasonable people can disagree about all sorts of stuff. What sort of punishment does Polanski deserve? If he's sent back to the U.S., should the 76-year-old spend the rest of his life in jail? Does the fact that the understandably exhausted victim has forgiven him mitigate issues? How should we score allegations of judicial misconduct or the time Polanski already served in jail? All of these things are open to good-faith disagreement.
But there are also a few things, by my lights, no reasonable person can dispute. The first is that child rape is a very bad thing and no amount of blame-shifting to the 13-year-old or her mother can absolve Polanski of his culpability.
Giving a grown woman a "roofie" and having sex with her is a crime. How on earth can plying a 13-year-old with champagne and a Quaalude be seen as less heinous?
A second point beyond dispute is that whatever your crime, be it tax fraud or tearing the tags off your mattress, our system of justice cannot tolerate anyone pleading guilty only to buy time to flee the jurisdiction. Even if Polanski were wholly innocent of the charges, it would be necessary for us to seek extradition.
That brings us to the even more refreshing aspect of this controversy: It is not a left-right issue. I'm not normally one to celebrate bipartisan unity, but it's nice to know there are some things political or ideological opponents can agree on. Some of the most ardent and clear voices on the Polanski issue have been on the left.
Go into a bar or union hall and ask whether fat-cat directors should get special treatment when they rape 13-year-old girls and you'll discover that on this issue, the differences between "blue America" and "red America" are vanishingly small.
And yet, there is a controversy. Many of the international community's leading lights are rallying to the Free Polanski movement. A petition is circulating with such names as Harvey Weinstein, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen on it. (No surprise that Woody's on board, given that he married his adopted daughter.) The arguments in Polanski's defense range from lawyerly red herrings to intellectual piffle to horrendous affronts to human decency. Whoopi Goldberg (no relation) dismissed the allegations because she was sure whatever Polanski did, it didn't amount to "rape rape."
It all boils down to the fact that Polanski is famous and talented and an Olympian artist, living above the world of mortals. Indeed, if he didn't rape that girl -- and he did -- Polanski would still be considered a pig in most normal communities. This is the man who, after all, started dating Nastassja Kinski when she was only 15 and he was in his 40s. His taste for teenage girls is an established fact.
His defenders don't care. They are above and beyond bourgeois notions of morality, even legality.
And that's the main reason I am grateful for this controversy. It is a dye marker, "lighting up" a whole archipelago of morally wretched people. With their time, their money and their craft, these very people routinely lecture America about what is right and wrong. It's good to know that at the most fundamental level, they have no idea what they're talking about.