“It’s like a live action metaphor. The head of the IMF trying to **** an African. It’s like he’s posing for his own editorial cartoon”

— May 16, 2011, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

With questions about the alleged victim’s credibility, the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is falling apart, but in the beginning, Stewart nailed it. What a metaphor!

The story resonated with New Yorkers. It wasn’t just the IMF connection. It was about the privileged wealthy versus the poor and humble. New York has long been a city of economic contrasts, great — almost inconceivable wealth, tons of strivers, a struggling middle class, and of course the poor who we always have with us and even when some of them manage to lift themselves out of poverty within a generation or two, there are always new arrivals from third world slums.

Those of us born in this City who are well-educated and hold down good jobs — the teachers, the cops, the plumbers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, store owners, talk show hosts, financiers and so on, are often only a generation or two or three removed from poverty and oppression.

While the City does not have the kinds of gated community found in wealthy suburbs, there is often an invisible gate, hotels with suites costing several thousand dollars a day which an ordinary person may only enter through the service door, cooperatives with two laundry rooms — one for the tenants who rarely use them and another more crowded one for the servants.

There are millions of people at the lower rung who remain invisible to the wealthy or even the comfortably middle-class. These are the people that drive the taxis, work in the remaining (and sometimes secretly operating) factories, bus tables, wash dishes, and of course clean hotel rooms.

America prides itself on being, not a classless society, but a society where anyone with pluck and guts can arrive and thrive, a land of opportunity, freedom and upward mobility where the cab driver from Ghana, can dream of owning his own medallion and someday a fleet of cabs, where the bus boy may imagine opening up his own restaurant, where even a hotel housekeeper can plan a better life for herself and her daughter.

When the newspapers first reported that the head of the IMF had been taken off a plane, prevented from leaving the country and was arrested for sexually assaulting a hotel maid, New Yorkers weren’t just shocked, they were proud. The French may have been outraged watching Strauss-Kahn’s infamous perp-walk, but to New Yorkers it was a signal that there was equal justice, that even the most lowly could not be used like a toilet, and even the most powerful could not flout the law.

We were pleased that our prosecutors would pursue a case that could become politically messy. We admired our cops for believing the victim. Her story was and remains believable and supported by physical evidence. And most of all we admired the plucky maid herself, for coming forward, for standing up, for not allowing this to happen to someone else.

The newspapers didn’t create a hagiography of the victim. We did. All the elements were there — she was New York, a hard working immigrant, who came here for a better life. We didn’t know her name, but we knew her struggles. She’d come from far away. She’d seen some terrible things. We knew she was granted political asylum. She was a Muslim and wore hijab to work. Could she even do that in France? Her courage inspired us all.

And then we found out there was a lot we didn’t know. It shouldn’t surprise us. The poor can’t always afford to keep their hands clean. We know she lied to get political asylum, including a lie about having been gang raped. We’re told she claimed someone else’s child as a dependent on her taxes — though we are not told if there were any extenuating circumstances like whether or not she actually cared for her friend’s child, and spent her own money — a not unlikely scenario. We know that there were multiple phones and bank accounts in her name and this may (or may not) have something to do with her connection to a man now in jail facing drug charges.

While none of this means she wasn’t assaulted, all of it will be used by the defense if the case goes forward, a possibility less likely by the hour.

No one should be surprised that a poor woman would have a conversation with her boyfriend in jail wondering if there was any way she could cash in on pursuing charges. The bar for being a credible victim should not be perfection, but somehow we all feel a little duped, a bit conned because the maid isn’t the humble saint we created.

The whole episode I’m sure will be a movie someday. Probably one that like Reversal of Fortune or Bonfire of the Vanities explores issues of great wealth, masters of the universe who play by different rules, and lawyers who sell their services and maybe their souls. But the movie it reminds me of is the 1937 screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred. That’s the story of Hazel Flagg, a young woman from Vermont, who worked in a watch factory and was diagnosed with radium poisoning. A New York newspaper offers her a spree in New York and puts her up in a swell hotel. New Yorkers take her tragic story and courage to heart, celebrating her with girls’ clubs and many honors. But Hazel is not really dying. She found out she’d been misdiagnosed before she accepted the newspaper’s offer but she kept that secret and took what she could get. She hadn’t set out to lie, but she’s not who everyone thinks she is. She’s played by Carole Lombard, and we, the audience, are on her side the whole time. She was simply an opportunist, and what is more American than that?

Something happened between Strauss-Kahn and the housekeeper in that hotel room. No one is disputing that. It was either consensual or it wasn’t. There’s physical evidence that supports assault. We can ask ourselves which seems more likely, that Strauss-Kahn somehow “seduced” the housekeeper or that she was, as she has said attacked, My own belief is that it was more likely it happened the way the maid described it, but in Strauss-Kahn’s mind this may be a seduction. He may believe that he is irresistible, or that no means yes, or that certain kinds of woman are insatiable, or that all women are whores. That the alleged victim had a conversation about whether she could benefit financially from pursuing charges, does not make her less credible. Like Hazel Flagg, it makes her more American.

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6 Responses to “Nothing Sacred — The DSK Case Falls Apart”

  1. Ian Martin says:

    This is an outsider’s perception from a remote neck of the woods. DSK raped the maid – no shadow of a doubt. She reported it. He was arrested. His money and influence immediately went to work to get him out of a tight spot. The maid has been bought off and DSK will walk free. That makes the maid a whore. But so what, the us is a nation of whores, willing to sell their asses and souls for a quick buck. And the way this French creep is allowed to slither out of his sordid predicament only goes to show that there ain’t no justice in this world, and there’s no profit in worrying your head about right and wrong.
    Rather just admire the clever opportunism of a Smashwords author who has already written a fictionalised version (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/61465) of the tawdry incident and has helped to show that EVERYTHING is irredeemably trivial.

  2. A chambermaid is surprised by a rich guest, who asks her for sex. She, of course, says ‘yes please’ and adds that she likes it rough – will he please treat her so violently that her vagina is thoroughly bruised, and perhaps pull a few ligaments in her shoulder too? It’s all consensual sado-masochism. When she later complains of rape, the DA’s office is not deceived – they shout and browbeat her, and try to get her to confess to lying. They are so busy investigating her credibility, they neglect to question DSK until the next day.

    The press conference held by the woman’s defence lawyer (which we saw in its entirety on Italian TV) blew the lid off the DA’s attempt to drop this case. It looks like DSK (a man who ‘loves women’ and ‘sees no need to apologise for that’) will walk away without a stain on his character, just as he always has done. Maybe someone will find a way to send his victim to prison. Then he would be vindicated, and could still run for President.

    • Marion says:

      Wow. I will say Larry, in the prosecutor’s defense, they did set a high bail with a lot of conditions. DSK first tried to claim diplomatic immunity and then they were waiting for him to lawyer up, so it might make sense that they wanted to make sure they had a case AND that he spent a night in jail before they questioned him. They haven’t dropped the charges yet, and politically the new district attorney is now in a lot of trouble — he’ll probably lose if it goes to trial and the defense goes to town on the victim and that won’t look good. It’s a disaster for the district attorney’s officer coming on the heels of their having lost another notorious sexual assault case in which a police officer was alleged to have raped an intoxicated woman. They haven’t dropped the charges against DSK yet. One hopes they’ll still go forward.

      • Pretty compelling forensic evidence in this case – unless the chambermaid assaulted herself after having sex with DSK. It’s true about the bail, but odd that DSK was allowed to go so many hours before he contacted a lawyer, and no one tried to ask him anything informally. After he’d spoken to a lawyer he was advised to say nothing whatsoever, of course. Also odd that the DA did not warn anyone in his office not to talk about the case to his third in command (?), who is married to one of DSK’s lawyers. Aren’t you supposed to tell people if you have a conflict of interests? But it could all be cock-up rather than conspiracy.

        The good news is that it isn’t all going his way: annoyed at photos of DSK and supporters celebrating in a top NY restaurant, Tristane Banon decided she would sue him for attempted rape in Paris in 2002. She had been persuaded to let it go by her mother, who was one of DSK’s political allies. (What a Mum to have in your corner!) DSK’s lawyers have threatened Banon with a charge of ‘slanderous denunciation’, but other women may come forward, angry at way French men have championed DSK.

        • Marion says:

          Larry,
          I don’t want to be in the position of defending the DA’s office, but in their defense, if you’ve ever seen a US cop show — it’s an extremely big deal — once someone says they want their lawyer, you really can’t ask them anything because their answers may get thrown out. The waiting till the next way would not be uncommon and isn’t special treatment. I also think once it was clear who the lawyers were and that there was a conflict the lawyer married to opposing counsel was off the case. I still wonder about the taped conversation with the man in jail — why was it taped and if it was part of an immigration/terrorism/security thing, why would the information that’s not about that get back to anyone? But once they had information they really did have to tell the other side — that’s also part of the legal system here, and they would have been in big trouble if the other side found the info and found it had been kept from them.

          Honestly, I think if he had been an ordinary businessman from out of town or tourist and this had happened, and the stuff about her credibility came up, they would probably be talking about a deal for a lesser charge. It stinks but I don’t think it has to do with who DSK is.

          What I find despicable is the way in which people like Bernard Henri-Levi keep defending DSK. It reveals not just an attitude about women and rape, but about class as well and whose story deserves to be listened to.

  3. Yes, you’re probably right – I was very influenced by her lawyer, who is an extremely good advocate and had me spitting blood on her behalf.

    I totally agree about whose story gets listened to.

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