Arimathea
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Philosophy
All wisdom begins in wonder, and this delight kindles a desire for truth that leads us on a quest for the really real -- the source of being itself. Hence, the philosophical impulse, albeit often manifested in atheistic and irreverent stumblings in the dark of human ignorance, begins and ultimately ends in theology -- communicating and communing with our origin and goal. We men are rational animals who seek to know. We are agents of truth who want correct answers to questions that we must ask. From the noblest objects of contemplation to the seemingly insignificant everyday trivialities of life, we attempt to unravel perplexing knots. Limited, blind, and distracted, we nevertheless struggle for wisdom. This is our lot, and it is also our glory.
Sunday, October 11, A.D. 2009
A Profile in Glendon

Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon made headlines throughout the prolife press earlier this year when she declined an award by the University of Notre Dame that would have put her on the podium with President Obama, whom the university awarded an honorary degree. Here is her letter to the school president, John Jenkins (from the Boston Globe):

Dear Father Jenkins,

When you informed me in December 2008 that I had been selected to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, I was profoundly moved. I treasure the memory of receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1996, and I have always felt honored that the commencement speech I gave that year was included in the anthology of Notre Dame’s most memorable commencement speeches. So I immediately began working on an acceptance speech that I hoped would be worthy of the occasion, of the honor of the medal, and of your students and faculty.

Last month, when you called to tell me that the commencement speech was to be given by President Obama, I mentioned to you that I would have to rewrite my speech. Over the ensuing weeks, the task that once seemed so delightful has been complicated by a number of factors.

First, as a longtime Consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I could not help but be dismayed by the news that Notre Dame also planned to award the President an honorary degree. This, as you must know, was in disregard of the U.S. Bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” and that such persons “should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” That request, which in no way seeks to control or interfere with an institution’s freedom to invite and engage in serious debate with whomever it wishes, seems to me so reasonable that I am at a loss to understand why a Catholic university should disrespect it.

Then I learned that “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:

“President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former US Ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”

“We think having the President come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the President and for the causes we care about.”

A commencement, however, is supposed to be a joyous day for the graduates and their families. It is not the right place, nor is a brief acceptance speech the right vehicle, for engagement with the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision—in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. Bishops—to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.

Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the Bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect.

It is with great sadness, therefore, that I have concluded that I cannot accept the Laetare Medal or participate in the May 17 graduation ceremony.

In order to avoid the inevitable speculation about the reasons for my decision, I will release this letter to the press, but I do not plan to make any further comment on the matter at this time.

Yours very truly,

Mary Ann Glendon

The National Right to Life Committee’s Educational Trust Fund honored Glendon at their Proudly Pro-life Awards dinner last week. Kathryn Jean Lopez covers the story in National Review.

Papists do turn out excellent legal minds. Harvard law students are fortunate to have such a principled and virtuous professor. How common can that be in academia?

Posted by Joseph on Sunday, October 11, Anno Domini 2009
EthicsPolitics • (1) CommentPermalink
Friday, October 9, A.D. 2009
Peace Prize?

After Yasser Arafat, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore, it is a wonder that any person still respects the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s judgment. Their latest selection simply confirms that their choices often have more to do with their ideology than with rewarding substantive achievements in securing world peace.

Arafat was a terrorist, and Annan was a corrupt United Nations bureaucrat who fleeced the organization (and therefore Western money). I’ll leave it to readers to assess how Brzezinski pal Carter and global warming apocalypsist Gore helped world peace, not to mention our freshman president who already has streets and schools named after him.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, October 9, Anno Domini 2009
Politics • (1) CommentPermalink
Wednesday, October 7, A.D. 2009
Rising of the Republic

For most of Western philosophy’s history, the learned considered Plato’s Timaeus to be his most important work. It is clear that the Republic figured prominently, as well. Consider its influence on Cicero with his De Re Publica. However, it was not until recently that the Republic passed the Timaeus in its received importance. I wonder why.

Along with most contemporaries, I share the view that the Republic is one of the finest, most well written, and profoundest works ever created. It is a landmark piece in the history of philosophy for most of its disciplines. Earlier this week, I linked to the web site of Dr. John Mark Reynolds from Biola University. In its list of recommended books, his site has the following:

The two years spent with this book and Al Geier were the most academically productive of my life. Since then, I have come to find almost every truth needed in the pages of this book, saving only the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I do not find such to be hyperbole. Granted, the Timaeus is brilliant, but it does not appear superior to the Republic. Why should our age’s estimation differ so from that of the past?

The Timaeus is basically a work on physics and metaphysics. It concerns the nature and order of creation. While the Republic touches on these topics, its concern is more worldly in its focus on man. I suspect that the nobler object of the Timaeus rendered it more esteemed than the Republic for the medieval world. Moreover, the central themes of the Republic became so accepted in the intellectual framework and world view of the Christian world that the dialogue perhaps did not seem as valuable. I am not sure. Yet, with the coming of modernity and with the peculiar experience of the modern democratic West that has entered into a state of decay, the Republic has come to present us with a formidable challenge to modern assumptions. For me, at least, it is a light in the darkness. In our postmodern, nominalist world, I might add that the darkness comprehendeth it not.

There were individual philosophical thinkers and teachers who helped to make the Republic better known. Leo Strauss and his intellectual progeny rehabilitated the Platonic political tradition. I wonder if we could detect a similar phenomenon among the Aristotelians. Like the Straussians with the Republic, the Laws, and the social and civic concerns of the dialogues, have the neo-Thomists reinvigorated the study of Aristotle’s Politics? I can imagine that similar political reflections in reaction to modernity would have led to a renewed interest in premodern thinking about man and his place in community.

If you have never read the Republic and if you have philosophical tendencies, I highly recommend reading it and rereading it. Like most of Plato’s works, it is a dialogue, not a treatise. The work invites you to participate in the discussions of Socrates and his interlocutors. Do not assume that the flow of the conversation is all that the dialogue suggests. For there are many roads not taken because of the interlocutors’ answers and choices. For example, it is up to you to think about why the “healthy city” is not as discussed as the feverish city. Furthermore, read carefully. The Straussians get a lot of grief from many folks in “the profession of philosophy,” but their recommendations of how one approaches Plato’s texts make excellent advice. Approach the works of great thinkers as a student willing to learn—a critical and questioning student, but one willing to invest much time and thinking to understand and to wrestle with the text. Having read the Republic several times, I realize with each new reading major insights that I never before saw. Yet, I am aware of how many bright people in academic philosophical fields fail to read the text. I read their articles and books and wonder how they can write what they write when the text so clearly contradicts their interpretation of it. I suspect that they just have not read it carefully. People project rather than listen. They do this in discussion and they do it in their reading. Perhaps, we should call such a hermeneutic of obstinate ignorance. Do not read that way. Rather, open your mind and enter into the dialogue. You will learn much.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, October 7, Anno Domini 2009
AestheticsAnthropologyEpistemologyEthicsMetaphysicsPhysicsPoliticsCommentsPermalink
Tuesday, October 6, A.D. 2009
Flogging a Dead Polanski

In two previous posts, “Polanski on the Run” and “Polanski Reloaded,” I have written on a variety of matters occasioned by the recent arrest of Roman Polanski. Commentator Dr. D. responded to both posts with provocative arguments that deserve a response. So, here is my third entry in the sordid affair. In Dr. D.‘s last comments, he wrote:

Joseph, it seem that the main point of your response is contained in your first paragraph, the one that begins, “Dr. D, you are correct ...” You appear to be very concerned about the continuing expenditure of effort to apprehend Polanski. Let me address that as one who worked for seven years in civil service. I think you should rejoice to know that someone, somewhere in our government is actually doing something to earn their salary. It is my understanding that the US did not send agents to Europe to track this man down, but rather simply sent requests that he be captured and returned. The writing of letters, which is all that is required to keep alive a request for extradition, requires very little effort at all. We have government offices full of people for just this sort of job, with perhaps 50 to 100 people available to to the work of no more than 2 people in many cases. Our government is the personification of inefficiency and waste, so the idea that someone actually did something that produced results is startlingly good news, not something to regret. Otherwise, that person would have simply spent that entire day drinking coffee and working crossword puzzles.

By keeping the request for extradition alive, Polanski was effectively exiled. If it were dropped, his exile might have ended and he could have returned to the USA. Would that be right? Would it be right that by simply eluding the law for X years he was a free man? How many criminals would jump at that deal? He could have returned at any time to face the judge and receive his sentence, thus bringing the whole matter to an end; he did not. No one, other than the judge, is empowered to act for society to address this matter. There is simply no place to draw the line and say, “well, now he is a free man” without saying that because he has eluded punishment for so long, he has escaped.

I certainly agree with your comments about foolish, shortsighted and contradictory laws made by morally bankrupt fools and demagogues. Hear, hear! But I don’t think that this has any bearing at all on the question at hand.

The question is a very fundamental question of the morality of child rape and sodomy and the need for proper punishment. You were unclear as to what the Scripture says about this, so let me give you the passage: Leviticus 19:15 Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor. This cuts both ways. We are not to rob the rich man by awarding an excessive judgment against him to the poor man, as is often done these days. Also, as in the case at hand, we are not to do any special favors for the mighty, in this case the “gifted artist” as many say (I really don’t think so, but that is neither here nor there). Righteousness is what is required, not favoritism for any man. To cut Polanski slack on any grounds whatsoever, for the rape and sodomy of a young child, is not righteousness. How can it be any more simple than that?

Without a doubt, there are other concerns of the nation that also require our attention, and you can argue why do we bother with Polanski when the Iranians are about to get the bomb, etc. The answer is because Polanski has fallen into our hands at this moment. We take these things as they come up, one by one. No one knew when Polanski would walk into a situation when he could be arrested and extradited, but it makes no sense to say, “Oh, we are busy with other things right now, we’ll pass.” We have more than enough people available to deal with this issue and still attend to other business if our dithering president would do his bit.

You say, “An unwavering allegiance to moral principle and nothing but moral principle would have us treat everyone the same, in that nothing matters in a given case except the deed done and the law broken. Such a principle is nice to say and to extol, but it is not how people actually behave, and I wonder if their unwillingness to enforce law blindly has its roots in intuitive wisdom rather than decadence. For other things besides morals count in human life, and it is not irrational to acknowledge such.” That sounds rather like you are willing to substitute the wisdom of man for the wisdom of God. God is a holy God, and transgression of the moral law is what makes us unfit to come into His presence. A society that condones such transgressions invites His destruction (as American society seems to be bent on doing today). This intuitive wisdom you think you see is, I am quite certain, what is called human weakness, sin, an unwillingness to follow the commandments of God. Man, at the urging of the devil, often thinks that he has a better idea than what God has said; this is as old as the hills. “Just do it this other way, and look at what you can have? You don’t have to do what God said!”  to paraphrase the early part of Genesis.

You are actually supporting a desire for quick revenge, but saying that you are opposed to justice when it takes a long time to accomplish. This is directly contrary to what God says, when He says, “vengeance is mine.” Joseph, I don’t want to stand too close to you at the Judgment.

Now, it is apparent that we’re dealing with different issues. So, it might be helpful to treat them separately.

First, I noted that conservatives were incensed that so many Hollywood Leftists were defending Polanski because he was one of them and because of his accomplishments that they admired. I argued that people normally excused the misdeeds of people in their own group whom they admired or found useful. This is not simply a Leftist phenomenon; one can see it everywhere. People are quick to notice the faults of their enemies and just as ready to excuse those whom they love. It is an extension of the old beam and mote argument.

Then, I suggested that there might be something rational and defensible about this form of moral evaluation. We tend to weigh the faults of a man with his good when we determine whether he should remain in our life. Society does this, as well, and it seems quite willing to excuse misdeeds if a man’s benefits outweigh them. We evaluate men on more than just moral principle, noting that other things matter in life, as well. Morality is one of many goods, and I do not consider it an absolute good. It seems that only God is such an absolute good. With every lower good, life is about trade offs.

This position annoys Dr. D., who upholds morality as an absolute good. Though I am not an amoralist, I think that Dr. D. is wrong.

It is worth noting that I never made a trade off judgment about Polanski, though I suspect that Dr. D. assumes that I did, as my posts dealt with several matters that I did not delineate clearly. It appears that Hollywood Leftists have weighed Polanski’s merits with his actions and judged that his merits outweigh his misdeeds. After all, he did not commit “rape rape,” as Whoopi pronounced. I did not concur with their judgment; I simply noted that what they were doing is what almost all men do, and such is not necessarily irrational. However, if we actually look at this principle in the Polanski affair, I think that it is sensible to say that Hollywood has misjudged. Mark Steyn argues this point most memorably in “Beyond Transgression.”

What he did wouldn’t be justified if Polanski were Johann Sebastian Bach. But is this résumé really “great art” to go to the wall for? Why, Harvey, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Bitter Moon?

My argument is that a society or community is justified in weighing pros and cons when it determines how to treat people who transgress its norms and laws. My argument is not that society should employ perverse scales in such weighing. For example, many of the greatest artists in the West have been social deviants. I would argue that a society would be justified in embracing figures such as Stendhal, Tchaikovsky, Proust, and, well, most influential artists and intellectuals in the Western canon even though they defied the moral norms of their society. With Polanski, however, we have to weigh some decent films with what appears to be hebephilic or ephebophilic rape (It is obnoxiously dishonest when people misuse the term paedophilia; they become no better than the shrill moron Nancy Grace.) Hollywood has misjudged.

Dr D. pulls out the scriptures to condemn my argument, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” This appears to be sound advice in civil suits, where favoritism would endanger the social order. It also makes sense in deciding guilt or innocence. Such are matters of truth. However, what a society does to a convicted criminal is another matter, and here, I repeat that it is rational for a society to weigh the costs and benefits of how it treats beneficial transgressors. Even in the scriptures, we have David, whom I mentioned in my initial post. David repented, of course, but he did not face what pure justice would have demanded. Rather, he was blessed, praised, and remembered fondly. He was the ancestor of Jesus himself. How strictly was the Mosaic law applied to him? He lost a son but kept his own life and his kingdom. For Israel needed him. Sometimes, other concerns trump the desire for pure justice. That seems obvious to me, as Dr. D.‘s positions seem obvious to him.

If we were a band of stranded men on an island populated by cannibals, I think that we would have to expand the limits of social tolerability in order to maintain a strong enough defense against the savages. It might be just to punish or maim members of the party for various misdeeds that might occur, but we would have to weigh the demands of justice with other concerns, like staying alive by having additional defenders against the man eating islanders. Practical matters matter.

That is not flawed human wisdom (which is not wisdom at all). That is simply the nature of the world. Bringing up the wisdom of man versus the wisdom of God is an unpleasant defensive play by the pietist crowd who like their religion irrationally unaccountable. In the gospel, Christ is the logos of God. I find that significant.

When we look at the stories about the kings, we see a good depiction of Dr. D.‘s warning, where the Hebrews misjudged. They put their stock in kings who were willing to revert to heathenism. They tolerated misdeeds for the sake of expected gains. Yet, in this, they erred. For what gains can be more important than worshipping the living God in spirit and in truth? Yet, the men who stayed loyal to David did not err, noting how his virtues and positive qualities far outweighed his misdeeds, for which he showed real repentance. The circumstances are important, but the principle remains that we must consider other goods in addition to morality. Morality is not the highest good, though righteousness is important.

I think that the disconnect between Dr. D. and myself might be due to the relationship between ethics and politics. When we consider ethics itself—the way that we ought to act as individuals, morality plays an fundamental role. We ought always to do what is right. We cannot justify bad actions by their potential to reap good consequences. In doing such, we corrupt our practical reason and harm ourselves. However, we must sometimes choose evil not for its own sake but as the lesser of all the evil choices that we face. Sometimes, we are forced to do wicked things in order to avoid worse things. As long as we do not do wicked things wickedly—as long as we do not choose to do them as wicked and for their wickedness—when we are forced to choose the lesser of evils that force themselves upon us, we achieve the best that is possible. Naturally, we would harm ourselves and risk corruption by acting so even of necessity, but sometimes, such necessity befalls us. That is the world.

It seems to me that most of these necessary evils come upon us because of our responsibilities to other people. Self-sacrifice to avoid violence might be a saintly and commendable act in the face of aggression, but when it entails the eventual destruction of those in one’s care, such sacrifice becomes irresponsible. For instance, a Christian might choose to allow a hostile barbarian to kill him rather than killing the barbarian in self-defense. However, if his death results in the barbarian’s proceeding to kill the Christian’s family and neighbors, then the Christian no longer has the luxury of purity. He must act to defend his wards, even if such action tarnishes him by its evil. Justified killing remains evil; it is simply an evil that we excuse because it is the lesser of evils that have forced themselves as choices on a man.

As you can see, this ethical problem is really a political problem; it arises from man’s place in a community, which necessarily rearranges his goals and limits his freedom. If this sort of dilemma exists for the individual in a community, you can see how much more complex such problems are for the community itself as a community. In politics, human beings must weigh many courses of action to achieve their ends in the best manner. As I wrote before, this always involves less than ideal trade offs. We live in a fallen world with limited resources and barbarians ever at the gates. Pure justice is rarely worth it. Plato’s Republic presents the argument in a much finer way than I could ever do so. Human messiness does not lend itself to ideal incarnations of absolutes.

Second, my post dealt with the propriety of spending resources to go after Polanski. Here, I think that Dr. D. makes a good point. If all that was necessary for nabbing Polanski was a few letters by bureaucrats who rarely earn their wages anyway, then I have no problem with that. However, if it were that simple, I imagine that we could have extradited Polanski long ago. I wonder what sort of deals were made with Switzerland.

Still, if Polanski ever dared our criminal justice system by flying into LAX, it would be scandalous for the police not to apprehend him. Dr. D.‘s point, I think, is that is all that happened in this case. Polanski went to Switzerland and tempted fate a step too far. Now, he waits in the slammer.

However, I must confess an additional emotional reaction to this situation of which I was initially ignorant. I reflexively abhor illustrations of the government’s long arms of law and power. Interpol may be a wonderful cooperative effort to fight multinational crime, but it troubles me, nonetheless. As I wrote in my second post, the wickedness of our political leaders and of our laws makes me skeptical about the state’s claim or ability to execute justice. I thus worry about the state’s considerable power. If a criminal cannot escape to anonymous safety in our globalized, technocratically controlled world, then neither can the political refugee. Currently, only conspiracy theorists worry that the American government might wield its awesome power to hunt down folks for thought crimes. Yet, I wonder how much longer such will remain the case. My liberal streak reacted violently to Polanski’s arrest not because he did not deserve it but because it was another reminder that “they” can get anyone anywhere. I find that fact disturbing. Such has nothing to do with Polanski. Such may even transgress the borders of rationality. However, I now realize that this feeling influenced my reaction to the Polanski arrest.

Third, Dr. D. faults my defense of thumos. I’ll try to explain my point better. I did not mean to defend shotgun justice. Legal systems exist for the good of society, lest revenge answer harm with further harm. Rather, I defend as psychologically useful and healthy the thirst for “cosmic revenge”—that desire in the soul for justice that does not spring from pride, vanity, or self-interest. The Greeks called this aspect of the soul thumos. Sometimes, it is translated as spiritedness. As such, Dr. D.‘s comments fall way off the mark. I am not opposed to justice when it takes a long time. I simply think that the zealous desire for justice, when prolonged in such a manner, becomes destructive. The motivation for justice over the long haul must come from intellectually apprehended principle rather than thumos. For folks who maintain fevered thumotic vengeance in a permanent state are dysfunctional, unpleasant people. You might know some. They are the Javerts of the world, and society should not accommodate their perverse dedication to ideals by its actions. Life must go on, and it cannot do so when the only good that you accept is moral perfection.

Fourth, though I do not agree with Dr. D. on this issue, I acknowledge his eschatological advice as quite sound, though for other reasons than that given.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, October 6, Anno Domini 2009
EthicsPoliticsCommentsPermalink
Saturday, October 3, A.D. 2009
Polanski Reloaded

Dr. D. has taken me to task for my position on the Polanski affair. Knowing well that my position is highly unwelcome and disturbing to good, God fearing folk, I offer my heretical response in fear and trembling. Dr. D. wrote:

Joseph, the logical conclusion to your reasoning seems to be that a person should not be punished if he can evade punishment long enough. That is sheer nonsense.

In this case, the facts of the case are well established, and the accused himself does not contest them. He plead guilty and was awaiting sentencing. Thus he has added flight to his previous crime which was both rape and sodomy. He must be punished appropriately for the protection of society, to send the proper message to one and all that society says that this is not acceptable. To do otherwise says that, at least if you are a talented film maker, you can do these things and it is accepted. That we cannot have; it is immoral and against both God and man.

Actually his skill as a film maker, his suffering in life, etc. are all truly irrelevant to the case. He raped and sodomized a 7th grader after giving her drugs and alcohol. Then he fled before he could be sentenced. That is the case, and it is for that that he must be punished, with the same justice as if he were a simple hobo. It is wrong to have a different justice for one type of person compared to another (the Bible is quite clear on this).

Dr. D., you are correct giving the logical conclusion, but I don’t think that it’s nonsense. I just don’t think that it’s worth it to pursue such criminals around the world because I think that the cost outweighs the benefit. As I wrote, I don’t really see the penal system as a system of real justice. It has a practical role for the protection of society. Real retributive justice, if it is to be had, is only doled out by one judge.

I do not state this happily or as a battle cry for nihilism. In a good regime, I would hope to have legislators who made just laws with wisdom and judges who meted out justice to the wicked and to the wronged. I would happily see the rise of a society with virtuous citizens who understood their existence as an opportunity to manifest the splendor of human excellence—in virtue, in wisdom, and in beauty. Would that we lived in a real theocracy, where divine law truly ruled.

However, such is not the case. We live in a regime of foolish, shortsighted, and contradictory laws. Our legislators are morally bankrupt fools and demagogues. Our judges are often no better than the legislators, and the few virtuous judges must work within the idiotic framework that modern legislation and jurisprudence [sic] have constructed. In such a regime—in most if not all human regimes—I have deep suspicions about claims of state enforced retributive justice. Given this skepticism, I interpret the penal system not as a system for retributive justice but as a practical tool to protect society. That was my argument in “Polanski on the Run.”

In the earlier part of my post, I did not excuse Polanski due to his film making. I did not excuse him at all, in fact. I simply pointed out the universal human tendency to forgive or to be lenient with a person whom you highly value. Conservatives are outraged by the “morally wretched people” (Goldberg‘s term) who are defending Polanski, but I think that Hollywood is doing nothing other than what people always do. (Of course, I consider the entertainment establishment morally wretched for many other reasons; I do not dispute Goldberg’s charge.) Consider the Kennedys, M.L.K., Mandela, and Roosevelt from the last century. They all were morally questionable folks, but they were all likewise revered. History is full of such men. Rather, history is made by such men.

I suspect that a trade off is what is at work in these cases. People look at the scales and counter weigh moral shortcomings with qualities and accomplishments that they esteem and appreciate. In our official “equal before the law” system, we cannot openly acknowledge the legitimacy of such give and take, but I do think that it explains these common human assessments of behavior. As I wrote, this is perhaps morally scandalous. According to you (and the holy writ, evidently, though I am not sure where), “It is wrong to have a different justice for one type of person compared to another.” Justice might be the same, but the way that individuals and groups deal with lawbreakers need not be the same. An unwavering allegiance to moral principle and nothing but moral principle would have us treat everyone the same, in that nothing matters in a given case except the deed done and the law broken. Such a principle is nice to say and to extol, but it is not how people actually behave, and I wonder if their unwillingness to enforce law blindly has its roots in intuitive wisdom rather than decadence. For other things besides morals count in human life, and it is not irrational to acknowledge such. Life, alone and in community, is about trade offs. This is what underlies the Polanski defenders and all such excusers in human affairs.

Concerning Polanski in particular, I think that the strongest argument for such a pursuit “of justice” would be that it accomplishes the goals of a criminal justice system. I wrote:

The penal system protects society by teaching people what is acceptable behavior, wherein punishment provides a vivid instruction of the society’s values. The penal system also protects by striking fear in the hearts of potential criminals. If such men cannot be constrained by their own character, they might be held in check by fear. This is the “deterrent” factor in punishment. Lastly, the penal system protects society by removing harmful agents from society, through incarceration, exile, or death.

With each of these, a society must decide how many resources it will allocate to achieve the desired goal. With Polanski, who is old, well watched, and in exile, I do not think that he is worth the effort. If he lived in Los Angeles and was ignored, then the negligence of the police would encourage criminals to flout the law. However, he has been officially pursued overseas with extradition requests for over thirty years. I think that such is enough to make a statement about our values and as an instruction to potential criminals. He has removed himself from our society with his exile. Thus, we have achieved our legitimate goals with respect to Polanski.

Yet, the recent arrest in Switzerland suggests that the United States government had renewed its effort to bring him “to justice.” This is what I find obnoxious, as I find Israeli Nazi hunters obnoxious—perverse, even. I am extremely wary of the “Javert” commitment to human retribution, where the criminal must be hunted forever so that justice might be done. Several commentators on the Polanski affair invoke the Nazi hunters as support for their argument. They assume that no one but Jew haters would object to the endless hunt for Nazis. Well, I am not a Jew hater, and yet I find the Israeli obsession with Nazi hunting quite vile and reminiscent of anti-Semitic caricature of vengeful, bloodthirsty Jews.

When people want blood immediately for wrongs, I have no problem with that. The human desire for retribution is a fine thumotic characteristic; men without it are deficient in their love of justice. They are Lewis’ men without chests, who lack the lion in their souls. Here, I speak of psychology rather than political policy. I am skeptical of policy concerning justice, but I harbor no suspicions about the psychological decency of loving what is right and hating what is wrong. I want citizens to love the good and to abhor evil. However, when people maintain that level of thumotic indignation over decades, its utility wanes. The thirst for “cosmic revenge” (as opposed to revenge springing from vanity or pride) is quite useful to mobilize men to do what is necessary to protect society. When such a thirst extends incessantly, then the desire for pure justice—at any cost—becomes neurotic rather than useful. When the danger is long past, the desire for retribution loses its practical advantages and becomes a liability. People should live rather than harboring ill will for ancient grievances.

Update: This train of thoughts continues with “Flogging a Dead Polanski.”

Posted by Joseph on Saturday, October 3, Anno Domini 2009
Politics • (3) CommentsPermalink
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