Bernard-Henri Lévy: Lessons of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair
The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair isn’t over. And won’t be until DSK’s honor is restored. By Bernard-Henri Lévy.
The Strauss-Kahn affair is not over.
For it to be over, the American system of justice must pursue its investigation and work to the very end.
If it’s truly to be over, Dominique Strauss-Kahn must be granted not only his freedom, but—even more importantly—restoration of his honor.
In other words, “the Strauss-Kahn affair” will continue to be regarded as such as long as it hasn’t been clearly established that there never was any affair at all—and that the plaintiff, not content to have lied about this or that aspect of her past, also lied in accusing the former head of the IMF of having raped her.
And yet, given recent revelations, we can already draw a few lessons from what will ultimately—no doubt very soon—be known as the Strauss-Kahn non-affair.
1. The cannibalisation of Justice by the Sideshow.
This cannibalisation is not exclusively an American phenomenon, of course, and we have witnessed myriad examples of it in Europe and France. But it must be said that, with this affair, it has reached the heights of obscenity. The improvised press conference by the woman’s lawyer on the steps of a courthouse normally dedicated to the sober discernment of the truth was obscene. The “shame on you’s” that greeted Dominique Strauss-Kahn as he arrived for the hearing on June 6th, shouted by battalions of hotel chambermaids who knew nothing of the actual case and whose protest had been orchestrated and scripted, were obscene. And so, too, though in another manner, was the famous “perp walk” which, I’m aware, is the lot of all those charged with a crime, but which, given the identity of the accused in question, could only degenerate into globally observed torture—high punishment for a crime, which no one, at that point, knew whether or not he had committed.
This vision of Dominique Strauss-Kahn humiliated in chains, dragged lower than the gutter—this degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched, was not just cruel, it was pornographic. And it was at least as pornographic (because, I repeat, it’s the same thing) as attorney Kenneth Thompson’s visible glee in expounding on the state of his client’s “vagina” [sic] before the entire world.
2. The Robespierrism of this judicial sideshow.
What is Robespierrism? It’s a word taken from the French Revolution, of course, one that describes the way those behind the terror at the time took hold of a man of flesh and blood and dehumanized him by transforming him into an abstract symbol, and, as the literal incarnation of that symbol, tailored his person to fit the skin of all they had decided to purge from society of the Ancien Régime.
Well, we are compelled to observe that, regarding the Strauss-Kahn affair, America the pragmatic, that rebels against ideologies, this country of habeas corpus that de Tocqueville claimed possessed the most democratic system of justice in the world, has pushed this French Robespierrism, unfortunately, to the extremes of its craziness.
In this case, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was no longer Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He was no longer a singular man gifted with a singular word, one whose version of the facts should have been carefully heard in order to compare it with that of his accuser. No. He was the symbol of arrogant France. He was the emblem of the world of the privileged, odiously sure of their own impunity. He was the mirror of this world of white global bankers that constitutes Wall Street—one that the other America, the Main Street of every city in the country, sees as the quintessential enemy.
And, similarly, this woman was the allegory of all women who are not only battered and humiliated but also poor and immigrant—their words, silenced too long, finally expressed through hers.
The sad thing is, that’s not what justice is. Justice doesn’t oppose symbols, but human beings. Unless we succumb once more to what Condorcet—one among many of Robespierre’s victims—called the “sympathetic zeal of the supposed friends of mankind,” and what I would call the “lynching, in sympathy with minorities, by their supposed friends.”
3. For in France, again, Robespierrism has always gotten on well with another -ism, apparently its opposite but in reality its twin, which is called Barrèsism. What is Barrèsism? It is a worldview that takes its name from the French nationalist writer, contemporary of the Dreyfus Affair, Maurice Barrès. And it is particularly and precisely in reference to Captain Alfred Dreyfus that he uttered the famous phrase, “That Dreyfus is guilty, I deduce not from the facts themselves, but from his race.” The Strauss-Kahn affair is obviously unrelated to the Dreyfus affair.
I must state, to be clear, that I don’t think it has much to do with this worldwide religion and delirium that is anti-Semitism. But what I do believe is that this is the appearance of a new variation on Maurice Barrès’s phrase that has become, “That X—in this case Dominique Strauss-Kahn—is guilty, I deduce not from his race, but from his class.”
And what I believe is that this utterance, along with the transformation (compliments of the Terror) of the “individual” Strauss-Kahn into “the suspect” delivered to the media guillotine, has been enough to fuel the fatal mechanism and make it run full throttle.
In a letter by Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, that I received May 20 and that I have no scruples about making public since publication was its purpose (it appeared in his commentary in The New York Times Magazine), he said he was “struck” and “puzzled” by the fact that “57 percent of the French public” and, in particular, “70 percent of the Socialists” seemed to embrace the cause of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whereas “one might expect” them “to be ideologically empathetic to an African hotel maid.”
I’m not saying that Keller was among those who found the powerful and white banker antipathetic. And I would say so even less since the Times ultimately provided the first elements of truth leading to the spectacular turnaround we are witnessing.
But I maintain that formulating the problem in these terms—bringing up political categories in a debate in which they are not relevant, in a word, introducing ideological considerations in an area with which they have nothing to do—is, in itself, very disturbing.
And I maintain—as I have said and repeated here and elsewhere—that the very fact of admitting that empathies of this sort can enter into the realm of justice amounts to inventing a class justice in reverse, no less problematic nor, ultimately, less criminal than the former.
It’s no longer, as it once was, “bastard poor, the rich are always right,” but rather, “rich bastards, it’s the poor and the injured who are always, and inevitably, right.”
4. Another temptation typical of our era is the sacralisation of the victim’s word.
Let me make it clear. If there is a lifelong combat I have led of which I am proud, it is that which consists of giving voice to the humble and to those who have no voice. It is a combat I have fought in Bosnia, in the confines of Asia, in the forgotten wars of Africa but also, and as much or nearly so, in our officially democratic world where it took decades of struggle so that “equality of rights” wouldn’t be empty words, and so that rape, for example, would be recognized as a crime.
But giving voice to the lowly is one thing. Considering this voice as Gospel is quite another—which can be the source of new and dreadful injustices. Yet this is exactly what has happened with his accuser’s charges.
And I am still asking myself how so many editorialists, so many great consciences and, by the way, so many feminists could take it as a given that the word of this woman—of whom we knew only what filtered through the incomplete language of justice—was necessarily infallible.
The truth is that we have passed from one extreme to the other. The era when the word of the System’s victims was, on principle, discredited has given way to one in which it is—also on principle—attributed all prestige.
Yet I repeat: To be a victim of society is one thing, and no one doubts that the alleged victim of the supposed rape is at least the victim of a social order that pays its hotel maids peanuts and treats them like livestock.
But to be the victim of aggression is another thing entirely and of an entirely different nature. It must be established methodically, scrupulously, and with discretion, by comparing evidence, viewpoints and witness accounts and by avoiding the interference of emotion, even when justified, that may motivate one and another. This is a question of principle.
5. Finally, as I immediately emphasized, there is already a victim in this case and that is the very principle, in the United States, of the presumption of innocence. Soon there will be another, I mean another victim, should it be verified that the accuser also lied about what actually happened in this now-legendary suite at the Sofitel, and that will be Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself. But from now on, there is an established disaster, that being the destruction, in a country of which it was one of the pillars, of the sacrosanct principle that, even in an accusatory system, a man has the right to the respect of his honor and his integrity as long as his guilt has not been established.
In the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, this principle was flouted by the tabloids (The New York Post, The Daily News, etc.) whose competitions in humiliation transformed him, from the first moment, into a monster. He was trampled on by that part of the "serious" press, which, like Time magazine, with its astounding cover illustrating the “lies” and “arrogances” of the “powerful” with a photo of a pig, committed what the worst of the tabloids did not dare to.
And he was crushed, then, by that fraction of the American judicial apparatus that, by putting Dominique Strauss-Kahn in stocks, by humiliating him before the entire world, by ruthlessly pursuing him, has probably ruined his life. That is what I wished to say when I wrote that, after George W. Bush’s invention of the concept of “pre-emptive war,” America, under Cyrus Vance, Jr., has perhaps begun to invent the idea, scarcely less horrifying, of “pre-emptive penalty.”
And please allow a friend of this country to repeat, here, what he has said in his own country, when media-judicial tornadoes of the same kind have swept the land: that all this calls, at the least, for serious, honest, and substantial soul-searching.