Woody Allen. Credit: Francois Guillot / AFP via Getty

March 9, 2020   4 mins

Who remembers that Woody Allen was a stand-up comic? He told the moose joke. It was a good one. Now he is involved in something unfunny: his memoir A Propos of Nothing, which the US publisher Hachette announced they would publish next month, has been cancelled after staff walked out.

“We take our relationships with authors very seriously” said a spokeswoman, “and do not cancel books lightly. We have published and will continue to publish many challenging books. As publishers, we make sure every day in our work that different voices and conflicting points of views can be heard.”

She did not address the true cause of the drama: in 1992 Allen was accused of sexually assaulting his seven-year-old daughter Dylan at her mother Mia Farrow’s house in Connecticut. And Dylan’s brother Ronan, a Hachette author who has written on #MeToo, led the protests against A Propos of Nothing. The accusation was a grave one, but there were two investigations, and Allen was neither charged nor convicted. I will not detail the claims and counter claims because this column — like Twitter, like the Hachette offices — is not a court of law.

“Everybody has a right to respond to allegations against them,” said a Hachette employee, “but do we have to pay them God knows how much to do that? Everybody should take responsibility for their actions.”

That is true. I would ask Hachette staff to take responsibility for eroding the presumption of innocence, which is more precious than any empathy, however deeply imagined, because it is the active instrument of empathy. I am surprised presumption of innocence is something these obviously progressive people – they work in publishing, in New York City, after all — would wish away, and so glibly, but there you are. The law is slow to give justice, and often it fails. Twitter, of course, is not.

Allen’s critics say they do not seek to erode the presumption of innocence. They are merely seeking to deny him “a platform”. They probably think that eroding liberal institutions is something for the Trump supporters they despise. They say rather that Allen left his former partner Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, to whom he is now married, and so he should not be published, even though this behaviour, though very cruel, was not illegal.  Or they say that his films — Manhattan, Husbands and Wives — sexually objectify very young women, although they seem able to tolerate this in the rest of cinema, which is no stranger to it.

But if you read Allen by his films alone, you could argue that Crimes and Misdemeanours is a call to murder your mistress and Play It Again Sam is a manifesto for only having relationships in which you consult a Humphrey Bogart impersonator for advice. You could say he wants to fill the world with giant walking breasts, as he did in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

I do not extend this presumption of innocence to Roman Polanski, because he was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 in America and fled to Europe. He should be in prison, not making films about the Dreyfus Affair (An Officer and a Spy) or demonic books (The Ninth Gate).

Allen’s critics also say that not publishing a book does not amount to censorship, as Allen could run off a few dozen copies of A Propos of Nothing on his printer and distribute them on the streets of Manhattan. I agree it is not censorship, but something as bad: conviction by rumour.

These Hachette employees believe he is guilty of assaulting his daughter. They said so: “We stand in solidarity with Ronan Farrow, Dylan Farrow, and survivors of sexual abuse.” It is interesting that they put the celebrity journalist before the alleged victim. It is insensitive. But they believe it and they seem to believe that they have the right to punish him by destroying what remains of his reputation. Of what this illiberal tendency might do to their own future security they seem not to have considered. The best way to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual abuse is not to debase the law which is the instrument of that solidarity. Without it, we are left with screaming.

At times like this, I like to quote a passage from Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. It was published in 1960, so I doubt the Hachette staff have read it, but it is the best defence of law in the face of insufferable people I have read. It is an imagined conversation between the lawyer Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law William Roper, who, in his idealism and stupidity, could easily work for Hachette in 2020. Here, Woody Allen stands in for the Devil.

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil [Woody Allen] benefit of law?
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil [Woody Allen]?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil [Woody Allen] turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and, if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil [Woody Allen] benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

This neatly states the problem that arises when you replace law with rage. You destroy your own protections. Your intentions may be noble, but your actions are not. I am less interested in the arguments that bad people make great art, but it’s true, and Hachette staff should remember it, being publishers. Freud likely fucked his sister-in-law. Marx definitely fucked the maid. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the greatest painter of the Baroque period, was convicted of murder. But they go on, illiberal liberals, summoning, in their foolishness, everything they should fear.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.