Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bernard-Henri Levy, Roman Polanski, and child rape

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has made this petition, signed by him, Salman Rushdie, and others:

Apprehended like a common terrorist Saturday evening, September 26, as he came to receive a prize for his entire body of work, Roman Polanski now sleeps in prison.

He risks extradition to the United States for an episode that happened years ago and whose principal plaintiff repeatedly and emphatically declares she has put it behind her and abandoned any wish for legal proceedings.

Seventy-six years old, a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland, Roman Polanski risks spending the rest of his life in jail for deeds which would be beyond the statute-of-limitations in Europe.
This is in addition to a petition by over 70 major figures in the movie industry, including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Woody Allen.

Bernard-Henri Levy's petition has already been thoroughly dissected by my mom -- who asks Levy why he, as a philosopher, would take this position. Another philosopher, A.C. Grayling, shows the right way to address the Polanski case as a philosophical issue.

As my mom points out, Levy's use of the word "plaintiff" should be noted and resisted. He uses "principal plaintiff" as a synonym for "rape victim."

As Grayling points out, references to the "statute of limitations" are irrelevant. Even if it applied to rape, the statute of limitations can't possibly apply to someone who's already been convicted, which Polanski has. All a statute of limitations can ever do is bar a prosecution (or lawsuit) from being brought against someone in the first place. It's based on the delay between the illegal act and the initiation of the court case; it has nothing to do with when he's actually punished.

That legal point is aside from the inequity of suggesting that the long lapse of time since Polanski's crimes should weigh in his favor, considering that Polanski himself caused the lapse by hiding from justice.

This must be pretty well-tilled soil at this point, but of course Polanski's artistic accomplishments have no bearing on how the legal system should treat him. Yet the petition signed by Scorsese flatly states: "It seems inadmissible ... that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary film-makers, is used by police to apprehend him."

Polanski's defenders also point out that he's lost family members through the Holocaust and, unrelatedly, the Manson family. At least this observation, unlike the fact that he's made great movies, has some loose connection to a legal concept: some of his defenders have invoked "mitigating factors." But as with the statute of limitations, this argument is wrong both legally and morally. As a legal matter, mitigating factors can at most reduce a sentence; they don't transform a convicted felon to an innocent person.

Regardless, the fact that two very infamous groups of murderers have killed Polanski's loved ones is a horrible coincidence. But no one can explain why the notoriety of those killers should have any effect on what happens to Polanski now. All that's left, then, is that he's been extraordinarily burdened by traumatic deaths in his family. You could say the same of Vice President Joe Biden, but I don't think anyone wants to give him license to go on a crime spree.

I have a hard time fathoming what's going on in the minds of people like Bernard-Henri Levy. I assume they either don't have children or don't have empathy. What parents would accept leniency for a man who, at the age of 44, raped their 13-year-old daughter? (Or for that matter, their 13-year-old son, for it's hard to see how the gender could legitimately affect the legal outcome.)

Bernard-Henri Levy and Salman Rushdie might be considered top-tier public intellectuals, but they've failed to understand some basic facts about society. In order to have a functional society, we need for this to be the case: that if you rape a child, you are going to sleep in prison.


Jason (the commenter) said...

Bernard-Henri Levy and Salman Rushdie might be considered top-tier public intellectuals


I remember seeing Rushdie on a television panel telling an interviewer about how things worked in India. The other Indians on the panel openly mocked what he had to say, one of them telling him that he hadn't been in India in years and that things had changed.

Here is a fun article on Bernard-Henri Levy from a few years ago:

"...while BHL was running the company, numerous international bodies and a report from the Canadian government denounced it for keeping its African workers in penurious semi-slavery, which rather contradicts BHL’s pretensions to be an international humanitarian activist."

John Althouse Cohen said...

A great catch from that article, about a book he wrote after he took a trip to the US:

In an interview with New York magazine, BHL claimed his American “trip was under three shadows ... The shadow of the war in Iraq, the shadow of an election, and the shadow of Katrina.” When the interviewer pointed out that Katrina “hadn’t struck at the time he wrote the book,” BHL simply pirouetted: “The anticipated shadow of Katrina. I was in New Orleans four or five months before Katrina, and I more or less foresee what is going to happen.”

knox said...

if you rape a child, you are going to sleep in prison.

Thank you for this. I agree.

muddimo said...

Ditto what Knox quoted. Polanski thwarted the law and has not paid for a truly horrible crime. ABC News has a good write up of the crime. Chilling.

paul a'barge said...

Good for you, sir. Your momma raised you right.

slarrow said...

Nicely put. (Always like to see another philosophy grad make good.)

The last bit also makes me think of another aspect of this open disregard for the actual circumstances of the crime. In essence, these Polanski defenders are arguing for a version of "privilege" in its medieval sense: private law. That is, if you belong to group X, then action R has consequence set L for you. If you belong to group Y, however, then action R has consequence set H for you.

The bad philosophy comes in when this particular worldview is expressed as "democratic". The bad judgment stems from the fact that it leaves members of group Y with little confidence in the justice system. Consequently, rather than trust a system that will be lenient to a rapist who belongs to a certain class, those parents will simply mutilate and/or kill the rapist in their desire for revenge/justice. Too many of those episodes, and the superstructure of law breaks down.

Or, to put it pithily, if you rape a child and don't sleep in jail that night, then tomorrow, you sleep with the fishes.

Matt Brown said...

No one should be shocked by Woody Allen signing this. His signing is consistent with the choices he's made in life, specifically the choice he made to have a relationship with wife Mia Farrow's adopted daughter.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am not shocked at Woody Allen being behind Polansky, after all Allen groomed and married the adoptive daughter of his wife. So a phedophile will always be on the side of another phedophile. We have to say that what Polansky did is clearly an act of a phedophile.
He raped a 13 years old child anally, vaginally and orally by druggin her so these are the facts and anybody defending Polansky can be considered a person that condones phedophiles. I wonder if that had happened to any of their children, if they still would defend him, also if I was them I would not let Polansky near any of my children anyway.

Anonymous said...

Very well put. A criminal is a criminal, and in this case, Polanski's past misfortunes are no justification for an inexcusable act.