Andrew Brown – Wednesday September 30 2009 – guardian.co.uk
There are some people ? Joan Smith, for example ? who think that it is right to punish any man in his forties who feeds a 13-year-old girl drink and drugs before having sex with her. They see nothing extenuating in his career as a film maker. For what it’s worth, I entirely agree with her. But much of the artistic establishment of Europe thinks that the rules should be different for great artists and that Polanski’s services to humanity outweigh any middle-aged indiscretions. The argument, though, is hardly ever put in that bald form. Instead, there are appeals to mercy, to forgetfulness, to the unclarity of the facts, and the distress that establishing clarity might cause to the victim. The illuminating question to ask, then, is what would have been the reaction had the criminal and fugitive in question been Father Polanski, a Roman Catholic priest.
The hypothetical Fr Polanski might have had defenders. He might have had protectors. But they would not (except, perhaps, in Poland) have been the same defenders and protectors as the film director has had. Yet the crime, ex hypothesi, would be the same. I would like to believe that most people would think that it is the crime, and not the criminal, which should in both cases determine the degree of guilt. There is an eloquent statement of this position in the Washington Post from the Jesuit Thomas Reese. But it’s obvious that for both Polanskis many people will make excuses if they think the criminal is “one of us”; also that most of them would vigorously deny that this is in fact the basis of their reasoning.
Given the role of the French government, and the French establishment, in protecting Polanski for all these years, it would be possible to write a furious column protesting against President Sarkozy’s next visit to England: French foreign policy has, after all, been partially responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Rwandan genocide; many French people collaborated with the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews; French governments brutally suppressed religious dissent for centuries ? and now they are sheltering paedophiles. Yet not even the Daily Mail has run such a thing, not even as a joke, and anyone who did argue like that would be regarded, quite rightly, as unpleasant and possibly deranged. That kind of argument only comes into play when the criminal is Father Polanski.
Outside of France the defence of Polanski has not been mounted on the grounds that he is a French citizen, but on the grounds that he is a great artist. Remembering Orwell’s essay on Salvador Dali, in which he argued that progressive opinion then (which is now of course mainstream orthodoxy) would allow artists too much licence:
If you say that Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you are looked upon as a savage. If you say that you don’t like rotting corpses, and that people who do like rotting corpses are mentally diseased, it is assumed that you lack the aesthetic sense.
If Shakespeare returned to the earth tomorrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.
Well, Polanski was not Shakespeare. But that is pretty much how the cultured establishment excused his crime. He should be kept out of jail because he was going to make more marvellous films. I know that Orwell sounds frightfully old-fashioned now that Dali reproductions hang in every school. His strictures, in other words, apply to us. They must have something wrong with them.
Many commenters have simply used the term ‘rape’ in relation to Roman Polanski’s 1977 conviction. The offence he pleaded guilty to is often described as ‘statutory rape’ but more precisely as ‘unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor’.