There is a complicated old joke, not worth telling, but to partially paraphrase the punch line: The difference between heaven and hell is that in hell, the Swiss are the lovers and the French run everything, and in heaven, the French are the lovers and the Swiss run everything.
Obviously, this conclusion has been thrown into question by the botched Polanski pick-up, proving that the Swiss are not really the best stewards of swift order and that the French have some very odd ideas about the art of love, or whatever you want to call it. The joke does not make mention of the United States, but I have a suggestion: In heaven, the Americans are the keepers of justice, and in hell, the Americans are … the keepers of justice. Because if you are hauled into court in this country, as the Polanski brouhaha displays, it is both the best of times and the worst of times. Right now I cannot even imagine how it will all turn out, but since justice is meted out so unevenly anyway, I wonder if inherent in Scorsese et al.’s defense of Polanski isn’t the suggestion that there ought to be a genius exception to the rule of law-that is, if you are a great artist, what’s a little rape on the side?
Notwithstanding the due process concerns that the Polanski case raises-which are for legal scholars, not Hollywood directors, to quibble with-if we excuse Polanski from punishment, aren’t we really saying that his life is more valuable than the life of a 13-year-old girl’s just because he happened to direct Rosemary’s Baby ? Taking that to its logical extreme, we have to assume that Bob Dylan can never go to jail, even if he rapes a teenager or two, and that Picasso could not have served time for whatever felonies he might have committed in his brazen lifetime, and-well, I could go on. Where would we draw the line? Does Leonard Cohen qualify? Neil Diamond?
In fairness, comparing apples to apples, as they say, the life of a great director is probably more valuable than that of a 13-year-old girl-young ladies that age are really irritating. But if we follow this modest proposal to its logical conclusion and valorize some life over other life, then we are creating a society that was last tried out on a large and (highly) organized scale by the Nazis, who are the bogeymen in Polanski’s closet. After all, to say that Aryans are better than everyone else is not much different than saying talented people are better than everyone else. And if we make this ruling for Roman Polanski, we pretty much have to do it for everybody.