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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
Philosophy | Politics • (3) Comments
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