Written for the New York Times‘ online “Room for Debate: The Polanski Uproar” on September 29, 2009, in response to the following question:
“The recent arrest of Roman Polanski, the film director who fled to France from the United States in 1978 on the eve of sentencing for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, has caused an international ruckus. The French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, and the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, both issued statements of support for Mr. Polanski. But many others in France have expressed outrage at that support and said he should face justice for the crime.
“While it’s clear that the film industry forgave Mr. Polanski long ago, should society separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior?”
I’m not at all in favor of giving artists free passes when it comes to their personal morality. But in the case of Roman Polanski, anyone who’s bothered to follow the history of his case in any detail is likely to conclude that (a) he’s already paid a great deal for his crime, (b) the interests of journalism and the entertainment industry in this matter usually have a lot more to do with puritanical hysteria and exploitation than any impartial pursuit of justice.
Considering the many crooks who continue to go unpunished (including Wall Street tycoons, prominent politicians, war profiteers, torturers of innocent people, and racist hatemongers) — most of whom continue to be rewarded and validated by the same press and the same self-righteous “moralists” who are now calling for Polanski’s head — it seems hypocritical to express so much outrage and bloodlust against Polanski at this point.
This would be true even if he weren’t famous — although it’s also true that if he weren’t famous, he wouldn’t have been arrested in Switzerland in the first place, so this is a sword that cuts two ways. It’s his fame that fuels this event and discussion, not the specifics or the morality of what he may or may not have done some 30-odd years ago.
This represents yet another way of evading the far more urgent issues that most of us are faced with on a daily basis. It’s not the news but a form of shouting, and this is mainly what the American public gets instead of any real form of news. But is this really what we want or need? If that’s what the press thinks, then it is arguably more nihilistic and cynical than anyone has ever accused Polanski of being.