In the aftermath of the Swiss decision to reject the American bid to extradite Roman Polanski, the predicatable indignant editorials are beginning to appear.
Eugene Robinson, in the Washington Post, is not at all satisfied with the outcome.
It’s relevant that Polanski has never shown remorse. He claimed in a 1979 interview that he was being hounded because “everyone wants to (have sex with) young girls.” It’s irrelevant that the victim, now a middle-aged woman, has no interest in pursuing the case and reliving a traumatic episode. What matters is what Polanski admitted doing to her 33 years ago — and the fact that Polanski decided to run away rather than face the music.
Swiss officials noted the obvious: that Polanski never would have visited Switzerland if he had thought he was putting himself in legal jeopardy. Since he’s not a legitimate candidate for kidnapping and rendition by the CIA, he’s now home free — unless he somehow makes another mistake. He’ll always have to look over his shoulder.
That’s punishment of a sort, but not nearly enough. How about this: As long as he steers clear of U.S. justice, why don’t we steer clear of his movies?
I strongly disagree with the majority of the journalistic community on this one, and since I’ve already explained why at considerable length, today I plan to take pleasure in quoting myself.
The most interesting aspect of all of this is the fact that Roman Polanskiâ€™s flight thirty one years ago was precipitated by precisely the same sort of journalistic feeding frenzy which has been replayed all over again recently. A firestorm of sensationalized accounts of Polanskiâ€™s misdeed alarmed the publicity-conscious judge who intended to set aside the conventional processes of justice and overrule a plea bargain already agreed to by both the prosecution and the defense.
Polanski did not escape justice. He had already served a 42 day term of imprisonment, which was supposed to constitute his actual sentence. Polanski also settled privately with the young lady, paying her a sum of money of a specific amount never publicly disclosed. What Polanski escaped was injustice.
He escaped a breach of the normal, impartial, and objective processes of justice, which were in the process of collapsing due to official cowardice and unwillingness to resist a wave of public indignation, mischievously created by irresponsible journalism.
Long-standing cultural restraints on sexual expression and activity have been dwindling away in America for all of the last century, but one powerful prohibition not only survives, but continues to be able to turn ordinary Americans into something very much resembling belligerent Muslims bent on wiping out any stain upon the chastity of their females in blood: the issue of age.
Underage sex is still a kind of priapic third rail. And like Nabokovâ€™s Humbert, Roman Polanski proved to be another sophisticated European gentilhomme dâ€™un certain Ã¢ge susceptible to the charms of the knowing nymphette. His sin happens to be relatively unique in being capable of getting Americans in general worked up into a lather of righteous indignation just as effectively in 2009 as in 1978 or in 1955 (the publication date of Lolita).
In exactly the same way that the idea of black sexual aggression directed at white women was once upon a time so horrifying an idea to the general community in certain American states that any close resemblance to that supreme phobia could suffice to set into motion the processes of storytelling which would fit the details of the actual case into the terrible archetype, frequently with lethal results, so too today is the idea of adult sexual aggression directed at children a compelling, and potentially dangerous, archetype.
Letâ€™s try another literary trope. Picture Roman Polanski, not as Humbert Humbert, but as Tom Robinson, the black defendant in To Kill a Mockingbird. Just like the Polanski case, To Kill a Mockingbird features a public frenzy of indignation at a defendant accused of being a sexual aggressor toward an innocent victim, who is supposed to be protected from the advances of anyone like the defendant by powerful social taboos. Just as in the Harper Lee novel, adjudication of the Roman Polanski case revolved around issues of just who was the actual initiator and whether female consent had been given. Fearful archetypes and framing narratives can work in exactly the same in either case, canâ€™t they?