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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
Philosophy | EthicsPoliticsComments
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