The Perp Walk That Demeaned Us All
When Dominique Strauss-Kahn first mulled over the idea of running for President of France, he professed concern that his vulnerabilities in the coming election would be the trifecta of “money, women, his being Jewish.” In the week since a housekeeper at New York’s Sofitel Hotel alleged that he assaulted and attempted to rape her, all three of those elements have converged to render any thought of a political future for Strauss-Kahn entirely beside the point.
On the surface, Strauss-Kahn’s troubles are all about “women.” He has long had a reputation for salacious advances. On one hand, therefore, it’s tempting to assume the present accusations fit him as “in character.” On the other hand, given his prominence and the seismic stakes for the European Union, his well-advertised randiness, in the opinion of many, renders him the world’s easiest fall guy.
On the surface, furthermore, the case can be framed as one individual charging another with sexual crimes, period. Strauss-Kahn has been arrested, pleaded not guilty, released on bail, put under house detention. Ostensibly, he will be presumed innocent until a trial allows all the facts to be presented in an orderly fashion, witnesses to testify, motives to be assessed, credibility to be evaluated, irrelevant and extraneous information to be barred from consideration.
Unfortunately, what has unfolded is not that simple. The international media frenzy has all but obliterated any space for a presumption of innocence; and it has relentlessly impugned both Strauss-Kahn and his accuser in broad, vulgar stereotypes—not only about sex, but about wealth, Guinean colonials, socialism, fame, French masculinity, American Puritanism, Muslim women, Jewish identity and Africans as bearers of HIV. It will be very hard to see justice done against a backdrop of so much roiling passion, rumor-mongering and pure projection. The deliverance of due process requires restraint, not just in the media but among the citizens of America and of the world. So I would like to offer some modest caveats as this case proceeds through the digestive tract of a world obsessed with celebrity dirt.
First, we do not know what happened. We can choose to believe what we want, but it serves no civic purpose to allow one’s personal hunches to stand in the way of being open to the specific evidence-based possibilities that will be presented in a court of law. For example, French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy ’s publicly stated conviction that a proper first-class maid never cleans alone is spectacularly boneheaded. Even if it were true that housekeepers traveled only in “brigades,” it’s a generalization, a stereotype, irrelevant to whether DSK committed the crimes of which he is accused. At the same time, it is no less reflexively patronizing to conclude, as many women apparently have, that solely because the accuser is female or an immigrant or poor or Muslim or a widow that she could ever be anything other than truthful. And that is indeed all we know about her—that she is a poor Muslim widow from Guinea. Nor, of course, should we know much more about her identity, as a matter of due process. But, again, that process requires patience for victims’ stories to be played out in the appropriate place and time; it is not an invitation to plug the holes in our knowledge with bold imaginings.
Secondly, it is Dominique Strauss-Kahn who has been charged in this matter. It is not his wealth that is on trial, nor French effeteness or socialism or the International Monetary Fund. Rape and assault are committed by aggressors at every level of society—rich and poor—and on every continent. It is specious to opine, as did Ben Stein , that DSK couldn’t have done it because he’s a fat, old man and, besides, who ever heard of an economist being a rapist. It is just as specious to assume that he must have done it because all French men are supposedly sexist pigs. And it is nothing less than distressing to see racist speculation in the blogosphere that the accuser is “another Tawana Brawley”; or Ann Coulter’s twittered sneer that “DSK’s accuser is Muslim, he’s Jewish, so now DSK is claiming that he raped in self-defense.”
Thirdly, none of these observations preclude a clear, and clearly separate, analysis of misogyny in French or American political culture. Indeed, it’s well past time for French women to ratchet up the debate about their relative lack of representation in the highest echelons of power. The DSK affaire has elicited so much offensive commentary from prominent French personalities that an ironically nominated “marche des salopes” (or “slutwalk”) was organized in Paris to protest the prevalence of institutional gender bias. The casually medieval rationalizations for priapic behavior that have dropped from the mouths of the intelligensia are positively cringe-worthy: “le droit de jambage” (the right of the leg), “le droit de seigneur” (the right of the lord over his servant’s wife), “le troussage de domestique” (the right to fumble under the skirts of the help) and “un petit viol sympa” (a friendly little rape).
Fourthly, while it is better not to indulge in conspiracy theorizing, it is also good not to rule it out as impossible. Politics is a complicated, dirty business, as the impeachment hearings of President Clinton ought to have instructed us. (Who guessed back then that Newt Gingrich, while skewering Clinton’s morals, was cheating on his then-wife with his present wife?) For Americans, who by and large have never heard of DSK, the possibility of his arrest being a set-up is inconceivable. But in the immediate aftermath of his detention, a majority of French citizens believe he has been purposely brought down. Why? Dominique Strauss-Kahn was well on track not just to become France’s president but its first Jewish president. As head of the IMF, he led that institution in a distinctly progressive manner. He sharply critiqued corrupt American bankers and banking practices and, early on, predicted the collapse of the mortgage market. As a center-left Socialist party member, he was close to negotiating a European Union bailout for Greece. And his elimination from the election empowers the candidacy of Marine LePen, head of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic National Front party, whose popularity, alarmingly enough, currently polls higher than that of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Finally, we should curtail the unseemly expressions of glee many American commentators have found in DSK’s lowered status. Rather than just condemning the crimes for which he has been indicted, the media condemns him for his wife’s inheritance; for his Porsche; for being a limousine liberal or a caviar socialist; for “pretending” to “spread the wealth” while wearing “$35,000 suits”; for flying first class; for having large and multiple homes; for owning more than one cell phone; and for being effetely French (Bon Dieu, we seem to hate the French!). A columnist in the Daily News derided  DSK’s very bearing because he “swung his arms as if he were striding down a corridor of power.” The New York Post went on to describe him as a “whiney fat cat,” the “jet-setting” “darling of the French left” who exudes “pompous arrogance.” According to the Post’s sources, “Cops ‘are not thrilled by the French idiot…’ ”
There’s an element of sadism in this sort of reporting that is troubling—rather like the partying at Osama bin Laden’s death. One doesn’t have to defend Strauss-Kahn’s alleged actions to reflect upon what reveling in his humiliation—the exuberant fun some people are having—says about us. While imprisoned on Riker’s Island, for example, there was a good bit of gloating about DSK’s having been “forced to cool his heels in the lockup,” as the NY Post put it. “The dingy digs, where prisoners are allotted $1.80 per meal, were a far cry from the $3,000-a-night luxury suite….”
No doubt. But that gap in accommodations says nothing about individual guilt or innocence. It does, however, reveal a deep resentment about class. At the same time, that bit of datum both highlights and obscures the alarming conditions in our jails and prisons, to say nothing of the way that class is also a cipher for race. Riker’s Island, one of the largest penal colonies in New York—or the world—has a daily population somewhere between 13,000 and 14,000. Most of those are pre-trial detainees, and 92 percent are black or non-white Latinos. In other words, the inmates at Riker’s Island are not convicts for the most part: they are arrestees waiting for trial. But because they are poor and cannot afford bail, the average length of their stay is fifty-one days .
The public mockery of DSK’s having to endure, for a couple of nights, the wretched toilets, the meager food, the “dingy” surroundings misses a deeper point: that there are thousands of other presumptively innocent-until-proved guilty people languishing in Riker’s stinking conditions whom we are also mocking, rendering invisible or summarily deeming deserving thereof. The too-easy revulsion at their poverty or race is in perfect counterpoint to the infuriated huffing about DSK’s fortune and nationality.
This concern is most efficiently symbolized in the indignities of the so-called “perp walk.” To American audiences, it’s become an unthinking ritual of police practice—parade the deliciously dastardly defendants. See Lindsay Lohan without her makeup! Mel Gibson with his eyes crossed! Charlie Sheen with a manic film of sweat! The French press was deeply unsettled to see their former finance minister dragged through a forest of photographers, rumpled, handcuffed and red-eyed. Some French analysts saw it as a kind of democratizing gesture, a bracing reminder that elites need to be taught that they’re just like everyone else. But I think the perp walk—a relatively recent product of voyeuristic reality TV shows like Cops—is undignified and humiliating for all defendants.
We should remember the great mistakes made in the name of perp walks: the Innocence Project has exonerated hundreds of defendants who “looked” guilty based on questionable metrics like “shiftiness.” When the prosecutor called DSK’s exit from the hotel the behavior of a man in a hurry, for example, NY Daily News columnist Michael Daly mused, “This is what you would expect your basic sex criminal to do.” For those of us old enough to remember the Central Park Jogger case, this is very close to the kind of generic categorization that allowed the jury to convict despite the thinnest of circumstantial evidence; and it was nearly two decades before those young men were finally exonerated by DNA evidence.
Hence, the perp walk is a social equalizer all right, but not in a good way. It’s a shaming ritual, rarely performed upon middle-class arrestees, and much more often upon the extremes of the class spectrum: either highly visible figures whose images may be sold at platinum prices to the likes of People magazine, or poor non-white denizens whose dark unhappy images evoke shock and horror in service to what author Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow.”
Given the fact that the United States—with more than 2 million bodies behind bars—leads the entire world in rates of incarceration, the perp walk is hardly the greatest icon of equal rights. It might be a wiser course if we think seriously about whether such habitual indignities might not endlessly and further instantiate a downwardly corkscrewed presumption of guilt that ultimately indicts us all.