21 May 2011

Strauss-Kahn: My Take

I have been living in Paris, for some time now.

So, I heard first hand the collective gasp that followed the news that the Managing Director of IMF, the most charismatic current French politician and, prior to that moment, quite possibly the next President of France, was arrested for forcing oral sex on a hotel maid in New York.

After that gasp, their next collective thought was that the whole thing must have been a plot and Dominique Strauss-Kahn or DSK, as he is universally known here, must have been a victim of a dirty tricks campaign. In fact, some 57 percent of French people (and 70 percent of socialists) believe that he was done in by his opponents, quite possibly by President Sarkozy. 

It is not because French people are overly paranoid or cynical. There have been a number of spectacular dirty tricks cases and scandals in the last couple of decades. Clearstream and Bettencourt cases come to mind. Consequently, people here tend to see them as regular occurrences. And I think they are.

Conspiracy theories

This conspiratorial outlook was seen by some as an extension of a macho culture but I think it is mostly cynicism. While the predominant gender discourse is undoubtedly sexist (as it is everywhere, let's be honest), it is hardly macho in the more accepted Mediterranean or Latin American meaning of that term. Next to the puritanical Victorian discourse in North America, you could say that the French have a cavalier attitude towards sex. François Mitterand famous response to a journalist who asked about about his illegitimate daughter with "et alors?" perfectly illustrates that trait.

So what, indeed.

There are also interesting tidbits, as it is always the case with conspiracy theories, that could lend support to the prevailing public opinion, if you were already so oriented, that is. Some three weeks before this incident, DSK gave an interview to the French newspaper Liberation to suggest that he could become the victim of a "honey trap" or  more accurately translated, of someone claiming to have been raped by him. Obviously, when reports of a rape in New York surfaced, people immediately referred to that oddly prescient interview as proof that he was being set up.

Moreover, prominent friends of DSK like Bernard Henri-Levy (known as BHL) cited hotel policies to send two maids to such expensive suites. Others mentioned the fact that $3,000 suites are not like regular rooms where you knock on the door and enter right away. They claimed, such entries are always coordinated with the concierge. I am not sure why any of these facts would be relevant. 

Somewhat more interestingly, a big deal was made out of a twitter incident: a young French man, Jonathan Pinet, working for the President's party UMP, twitted one hour and 33 minutes before New York Post (who broke the story) that DSK was arrested at a NYC hotel. Within minutes, Arnaud Dassier, a collaborator of President Sarkozy, previously implicated in some dirty tricks campaign, echoed the tweet with the suggestion that the DSK incident was very serious. At about the same time, the agents of NY Port Authority were asking DSK to leave his first class cabin.

Was he set up?

I have to admit that none of these points convinced me that he was set up. 

If I were to take the political assassination theory seriously, I would venture to guess that the likely course of action would have been a time honored "honey trap", where they would take compromising pictures and threaten him with exposure. Even in France such pictures would cost him the elections. In my mind, a rape accusation by a single mother refugee from Guinea is not exactly the most expedient way to get rid of a political figure.   

More importantly, I tend to believe the victims of sexual assault in general, as I doubt that other than a few pathologically unbalanced human beings, any one in their right mind would make such an accusation lightly. Even when the accused is not as famous as DSK, rape trials are notoriously unpleasant for the accuser and I am sure many feel quite bitter and hurt in the process. Also, hotels are terrified of the bad press that would inevitably accompany such an accusation and regardless of the outcome of the juridical process, the accuser would almost certainly lose her job there. There is a reason why rape remains a vastly underreported crime.  I cannot imagine how and why a single mother from Guinea would put herself in that kind of situation if she was not actually raped.

Finally, if there were specific exculpatory elements, like a witness that placed him elsewhere or someone who saw the accuser an hour after the incident happily cleaning rooms, they would become known very quickly. The fact that almost a week after the incident the army of journalist pursuing this story found nothing makes the probability of finding a piece of exculpatory evidence later on rather small. 

In these cases, people's incredulity is usually due to the fact that the incident does not correspond to the mental image they have of the accused. When you start with "the guy I know could never have done it" you have no choice but to come up with alternative explanations. 

But these alternative explanations do not have to be "slut asked for it" variety, which I find abhorrent, nor do they have to be "poor man destroyed by his enemies." Human mind being what it is, there are many shades of grey in between. Based on his lawyer Benjamin Branfman's phrase that "there was nothing consistent with a forcible encounter," my guess is that they will claim that it was a consensual blow job. 

I don't know anything about this case but hypothetically there are situations where powerful men, used to dealing with largely deferential underlings, easily attribute meanings to people they meet. They don't usually look for confirmation of these attributions as they are sure they get it right. You smile and they know you want them. You praise them and they think you are in awe of them and that you would be delighted to sleep with such a superior human being. Ask any woman who worked for such a boss.  This is multiplied by a factor of ten in the hospitality industry where the guests are the king and they are rarely refused anything.

That does not mean that she invited him to have sex or gave subtle signals to that effect. It just means that it is conceivable that he convinced himself that this was the case. Just for the sake of the argument, we could imagine that her initial resistance might have been slow and less forceful, as she reasonably feared that she would lose her job if she resisted and made this public. And clearly that job was her life line. He might have taken this as further confirmation of his irresistible sexual aura.  But maybe after the initial shock and vacillation she decided she could not live with the idea to be forced to have sex with this man and found enough resolve to run away. 

That still makes it a rape and not consensual sex. 

But in the mind of one of our Galtian overlords the whole scene might have had a different meaning and now that he is accused of rape, he might actually be seeing this as a plot to destroy him. 

In other words, while I understand the dismay of his supporters and their desire to find an alternative causality, I believe her account. I will also understand where is coming from if and when he comes out with a sincere plea to persuade the world he did not force her and he knew with certainty that she desperately wanted to have sex with him. 

Sadly, this stems from the unequal gender and class structures in our societies. 

Justice: Really?

So far nothing contrarian.

Where I get off the beaten path is this: to me this case exposes the tensions inherent in the two-tier justice system that exist in America and the hypocritical discourse that makes this structure palatable to Americans.

Anyone who lived in the US for any length of time knows that American media creates a permanent echo chamber in which the country is presented to its citizens as the best country in the world and in history. Any and every aspect of the US, whether its health care, education or judicial system needs to be constantly exhorted as the best ever. This chanting gets especially loud and vigorous if a problem is found in any of these constituting elements. For instance, when Project Innocence exonerates hundreds of wrongly convicted people, many of whom on death row, this is usually presented, as "despite having the best judicial system ever conceived by mankind, rare mistakes sometimes happen." Moreover, the fact that Project Innocence reached those people (even though it was done despite huge resistance from the system) is immediately used as proof that the system is just an extraordinary edifice  with superb checks and balances that organically corrects every mistake.

Or the American education system which lags behind most of the developed country scores is still presented as the envy of the world. Same goes for health care which is about to bankrupt the US economy without providing adequate coverage to most Americans.

This is not a silly or jingoistic gesture. It stems from what is known as American exceptionalism. The term means this: if action X is done by America it is by definition good because America is inherently good and has good intentions. If Action X is done by someone else, it might be objectionable, wrong or even criminal.

So, if Japan or other countries waterboard someone that is torture and criminal behavior and the US will happily prosecute them. If the US waterboards people, this could not be seen in the same way as American intentions are noble: if they did it they must have had a very good reason.

That same exceptionalism is evident in the justice system. With a twist.

As Greenwald has been painstakingly documenting that if you are poor person or a minority in the US, you will get decades of prison sentence for relatively minor offenses but if you are a powerful Galtian overlord nothing you do will get you to jail.

If you are Angelo Mozillo, you could design and sell millions of liar loans, bringing the economy to its knees and no one will come after you. But if you are a regular guy who lied in one of those liar loans, the justice system will pursue you relentlessly and put you to jail. So Charlie Engel became the only person to get a prison sentence out of the entire mortgage debacle. He went to jail and that is it: not a single banker, broker or financier got punished.

Similarly, Bush and Cheney publicly admitted they ordered waterboarding suspects and even though this is a criminal offense according to both US laws and international treaties to which the US is signatory, no one attempted to prosecute them.

Which prompted Juan Cole to ask "Why was Strauss-Kahn arrested and W and Cheney went free?"

The question seems partially contradicting the two-tier justice theory but it is not the case. Within that powerful vs powerless separation there is a couple of cross cutting "us" and "them" divisions. 

It's OK If You Are White

If William Kennedy Smith is accused of rape, the narrative is ambivalent and wounded, with a lot of "I doubt that he would do such a thing" (like DSK's supporters) and a soupçon of "the slut must be out to get his money" type of innuendo. 

If a minority is accused of rape, including a rich athlete like Kobe Bryant,  the narrative is indignant and dubious "well, there is no smoke without fire" with a soupçon of racist "black athletes could be over-sexed" type of innuendo.  

Rich white people can get away with murder, rape and huge fraud but if a rich black person like O.J Simpson uses the same two-tiered justice system to get an acquittal that horrifies and shocks the producers of the narrative of the elite.

DSK who is also ethnically and nationally qualifies for that "other" position, was immediately branded a "Le Perv" (no link to New York Post from me) with no presumption of innocence, whereas Polanski who was convicted of raping and sodomizing a 13 year old girl was hailed as a victim, amid cries of "it wasn't rape rape."

It's OK If You Are Republican (IOKIYAR)

The other cross cutting divide is between the Right and the Left.

If the Governator had an affair and fathered an illegitimate child and hid that fact from the electorate, this is nothing to get excited about, to pursue in detail or to report extensively. Even though this is almost certainly political malpractice as this would have changed recent California history and the direction of its economy.

If John Edwards had an affair and fathered an illegitimate child, this is something to pursue zealously even years after he quit active political life. And this is justifiable even though his affair and lies did not harm anyone other than himself and his family.

If Papa Bush was accused of having an affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald, it would be irresponsible to talk about it.

If Bill Clinton had a BJ in the oval office, it needed to be investigated relentlessly to the near exclusion of everything else.

If Republican Senator David Vitter is caught frequenting prostitutes (allegedly wearing a diaper), this triggers a collective yawn, even though he is a family-values conservative.

If Elliot Spitzer frequents prostitutes, it requires an FBI under cover operation and major investigation and a 24/7 media coverage for weeks if not months, even though his acts were not prosecutable.

I can add the complete indifference to Republican Senator Ensign who had an affair with the wife of a member of his staff. He then apologized to him, fired him, gave him hush money (which he borrowed from his parents) and got his a lobbying job to ensure his silence.

The media was never interested, the Justice Department couldn't care less. They eventually indicted...wait for it...the cuckolded husband for accepting the lobbying job. It was only the Senate Ethics investigation forced by CREW that finally got him to resign.

So, I have very little sympathy for the tales of horror in the American media (as cataloged by Le Monde) about BHL's aforementioned defense of his friend DSK. When it is about one of the members of the ruling classes for which the American justice system was structured, presumption of innocence is paramount, when it is about one of those "others" then anyone coming to his defense is a"narcissist millionaire shirt-unbuttoner."

At least the French journalists that everyone is making fun of did not distinguished between the Left and the Right. They were circumspect about Mitterand as they were about Chirac, a notorious womanizer.

Rape for Deserving Criminals

One last point about hypocrisy: DSK is accused of rape, a crime everyone agrees is horrible. Yet, almost every source I read had wink-wink-nudge-nudge comments about how DSK might be gang-raped at Riker's Island penitentiary. Every paper or website had scary fables about the conditions at Riker's, the rampant violence in prison and how "famous people were preyed upon." Here and here and here and here.

In case you feel that this is an exaggeration or aberration, it s not. Prison rape is both a reality and very common reference point within American mainstream discourse. Most cop shows on US television have multiple references to prison rape. Typically, during interrogation scenes, cop characters would comment that the suspect would be "very popular in jail" or that he would be the bitch of a big burly black guy (somehow it is almost always the "brothers" possibly showing deep sexual insecurity of white males). There are countless movies or TV shows that can be cited, the most blatant being the TV show Oz with many scenes of rape and plot lines revolving around rape. 

As for prison rape being a reality, take a look at this quote:
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 140,000 inmates are raped each year,[1] and there is a significant variation in the rates of prison rape by race. Stop Prisoner Rape, Inc. statistics indicate that there are more men raped in U.S. prisons than non-incarcerated women similarly assaulted.
Since prisons are, by definition, very controlled environments, the fact that not only is this not stopped but allowed to affect such a large number of people is very telling.  On top of that, the practice of using prison rape commonly in the context of TV shows seems to indicate that it is seen as an important part of the punishment system. In fact, it has been used as a peculiar deterrent through shows like Scared Straight where tattooed convicts tell teenagers that if they end up in prison with them they will be raped. 

Despite the prevalence of prison rape and the accompanying rape discourse no one is scandalized by this. That is because of the implicit understanding that the harsh sentences and horrible punishments are for the others only. Not for us.  

If it is one of my people, don't go after them, be lenient, give them a second, a third, a fiftieth chance. If it is a poor, black, Hispanic, Jewish and nowadays, heaven forbid a Muslim person, send them to prison for decades and if they are gang raped frequently, "well, they asked for it."

So my sympathies are with the victim first and foremost. There is no good outcome for her. If she is vindicated it will not be easy to find a comparable job in the hospitality industry. If she takes the Kobe Bryant option (settlement) her lawyers will get richer and she will have a small sum, probably not enough to support her. And the Monica-Lewinski type notoriety she might acquire during the trial means that she will never have a normal life.

I also feel badly for DSK's political supporters in France who find themselves unable to understand the situation and feel let down and disappointed. 

I get my Jewish friends who fret that somehow the alleged actions of one individual will one day be used against them as a community. I get it because, as they remind me, historically, this has always been the case and most of the time, alleged actions of an individual wasn't even needed: the Jews of Norwich could have told you way back when, in 12th century.

Conversely, I have zero sympathy for hypocritical media people in the US who decry rape while suggesting it as a punishment for the accused.

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