Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest reveals the underside of the discreet French approach to the private lives of public figures. But the Arnold Schwarzenegger scandal shows Americans don’t know how to deal with the messy confluence of sex and politics either, says Michelle Goldberg. Plus, Bernard-Henri Levy defends Strauss-Kahn and the latest news updates on DSK.
So this is the dark side of the famed French sexual sophistication. For decades now, American liberals, myself included, have bought into the notion that the discreet French approach to the private lives of public figures is superior to America’s tabloid Puritanism. Often, after all, the same qualities that make men effective leaders—ambition, grandiosity, love of power, and an unquenchable hunger for affection—make them bad husbands. The French system of accommodating this complexity seemed admirable, especially during the years when Bill Clinton was nearly hounded out of office for a seedy but consensual affair.
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But the aftermath of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest puts the French approach in a rather different light. Rather than evidence of liberality, the silence that protected Strauss-Kahn seems like a conspiracy allowing a powerful man to prey on powerless women. And the apologists for Strauss-Kahn, like the egregious Bernard-Henri Levy, reveal themselves not as worldly humanists, but as members of a narcissistic clique with a monstrous sense of entitlement.
In a piece published, alas, in The Daily Beast, Levy, erstwhile defender of admitted rapist Roman Polanski, declared himself outraged by the treatment his friend Strauss-Kahn was subjected to after his arrest on charges of attempted rape, sexual abuse, and unlawful imprisonment. “[N]othing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs,” he wrote. If Levy wanted to argue that the American justice system is brutal to all those caught up in it, that it treats people in a way at odds with the presumption of innocence, he’d have a point. But his argument wasn’t so universal. Instead, he raged at “the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other.” As opposed to what? If our criminal justice system is indeed refusing to accord special treatment to a rich and powerful foreign official accused of attacking a maid, surely that is to its immense credit. That Levy believes otherwise should forever disqualify him as a credible champion of democracy.
Levy insists that Strauss-Kahn cannot be guilty of the crimes he is accused of, because, well, he knows him. “[O]bviously no, it’s absurd,” he writes. The Guardian quoted Socialist MP Jean-Marie Le Guen making a similar argument: “Seduction, yes, but no way would he use constraint or violence.” Yet we’ve now learned that Strauss-Kahn has been accused of constraint and violence before, and that in certain circles, his penchant for harassment was an open secret. A young journalist claims he attempted to rape her, though at the time her politically connected mother convinced her not to press charges. And The New York Times reported that a previous lover of his, one of his subordinates, felt coerced into their affair. “I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t,” she wrote in a letter to IMF investigators, describing her boss as “a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command.”
Strauss-Kahn, it is true, has not been convicted of anything. His friends have every right to hope that facts will emerge to clear him. But Levy’s protestations against public smearing are pretty hollow, given that he is casting aspersions on Strauss-Kahn’s accusers. First he insinuates that there’s something suspicious about the maid’s story. “I do not know—but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay—how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a ‘cleaning brigade’ of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet,” he writes. This claim is not true, as approximately five minutes of research would have revealed. “[E]ven at luxury hotels, it’s extremely rare that two people would clean a room at once,” says Annemarie Strassel of UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union.
Bernard-Henri Levy insists that Strauss-Kahn cannot be guilty of the crimes he is accused of, because he knows him. “[O]bviously no, it’s absurd,” he writes.
Levy then attacks Strauss-Kahn’s other alleged victim, the journalist “who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape, who has shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television.” What Levy objects to, then, is not people prejudging the figures in a scandal. It is people prejudging those he personally esteems when they are figures in a scandal.
One cannot (entirely) blame France for Bernard-Henri Levy, of course. But numerous reports suggest his stance is not anomalous. As the French journalist Isabelle Germain wrote in The Guardian, “[T]he media reaction to the attempted rape charge confirms that when a rape or sexual assault is reported, the alleged perpetrator quickly morphs into victim—and vice versa…DSK’s behavior towards women is talked about as if it wasn't harassment, but a game of seduction. And if we finally start talking about his alleged victim, it’s to suggest she was a honeytrap.”
It is tempting, given all this, to feel a bit smug about the relative forthrightness of the American media regarding the sex lives of politicians. But the new Arnold Schwarzenegger scandal should put that to rest. Schwarzenegger, of course, has a history of sexual harassment. In 2003, The Los Angeles Times published the stories of 16 women who’d been “sexually mistreated and humiliated” by the actor, stories he tried to minimize but never denied. That same year, he waxed rhapsodic about the fun of making Terminator 3: “How many times do you get away with this—to take a woman, grab her upside down and bury her face in a toilet bowl?”
Yet somehow none of this discredited Schwarzenegger in Hollywood or politics. He barely even had to answer for it. Now his divorce and out-of-wedlock child are getting more attention than those accusations ever did. Some people even seem shocked by his behavior. The whole thing combines a French disregard for sexual predation with our own culture of uptight sensationalism.
There has got to be a better way to deal with the messy confluence of sex and politics. It shouldn’t be complicated: sexual peccadilloes should be private, but sexual violence and coercion should not. Somehow, though, we can hardly ever get it right. And neither, it seems, can the French.
Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.