Paul Nitze: A teachable moment
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Just as this week has seen the Mississippi hit and then surpass the high water marks of 1927 and ’37, we’ve surpassed any previous flood tide in our long-running tryst with French culture. Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest last weekend on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape released a torrent of trans-Atlantic social criticism. It’s a race to stack hypocrisies one on top of the other, the likes of which I haven’t seen before.
Well, maybe that’s not quite right. I lived in Paris during the fall of 1998, and had a front row seat to the Clinton impeachment trial as seen through French eyes. My friends thought the whole thing was absurd – an orgy, pun intended, of hypocrisy, political gamesmanship, and sexual Puritanism. When I tried to explain my sense of betrayal at the president’s abuse of power and outright lies (and that it wasn’t about the sex), they looked at me like a pathetic moral Mohican.
At least the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was an evenly matched fight between the two countries. Certainly the antics of Ken Starr and the House Republicans gave the French good reason to question America’s penchant for political moralizing. In “l’affaire DSK” there is no such parity.
Polls suggest many, maybe a majority, of the French think this was a set-up. This despite Strauss-Kahn’s history of sexual harassment, and despite the convincing story of a French journalist, Tristine Banon, who says Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her in 2002. Lost in French outrage at the “violence” of the American criminal-justice system is the sorry fact that if Strauss-Kahn had committed the same offense in a Paris hotel, he would have gotten away with it. Justice is not blind in this country, but our police are slower to bow to privilege than those in France. National pride on that point is not misplaced.
Bernard Henri Levy, France’s premiere consumer of media oxygen (and self-styled liberator of the Libyan people), has written an asinine defense of his friend for the Daily Beast. Levy traffics in the worst and most-tired chauvinism. He seems to think this is another case of America “burning vices and vanities at the stake” (to quote from his book American Vertigo), instead of calling it what it is – sexual predation.
Worse, he suggests that the alleged victim (and also Banon) are in it for the money. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with a well-defended rape case knows that it is a brutal ordeal for the victim. Rest assured that if the defense is consent (and there are reports that’s where the defense team is headed), a team of investigators will work around the clock to undermine the alleged victim’s credibility. Her life will be turned inside out. Those who denigrate Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers are way off base – that is their job – but have no illusions about how the next year will play out for her.
Levy and other defenders of Gallic privilege have obscured a more complicated range of responses in France. For every clown and chauvinist there are more who think this is a good time for self-reflection (and who are disgusted by Strauss-Kahn’s behavior). I hope this might also be what my father would call a “teachable moment” in the U.S. Christopher Hitchens continues to amaze by his output, and he’s weighed in on this scandal in Slate to essentially call for a ceasefire. He thinks we’re engaged in a useless effort to stake out enduring moral differences between the two cultures.
I don’t quite agree with Hitch. I wonder at the ease with which some commentators move between the topics of sexual violence and promiscuity – they are vastly different. The former should be disqualifying anywhere. But so long as the private conduct of our politicians is up for debate, we might take a couple of lessons from the French.
The French understand that great political talent is a rare thing, and they’ll tolerate all sorts of private misconduct if it benefits governance. Strauss-Kahn is that kind of talent. He’s been a superior director of the International Monetary Fund, and before this bout of self-destruction he was the best hope to pull France out of its political malaise. One aspect of the French reaction to the Clinton impeachment was bafflement that we’d hobble a once-in-a-generation talent.
We might also learn a thing or two from the French attitude toward privacy. Some of that has manifested itself in a self-serving defense of the lifestyles of the French political elite. But the cultural and legal protections for personal privacy in France seem relevant to a world in which everything is on camera and on line, and the Web never forgets.
I had these thoughts running through my head as I watched Newt Gingrich make the rounds of the talk shows last Sunday. On the one hand I loved it as he was skewered over marital infidelities and complete contradictions in his policy positions. On the other, I wonder if Gingrich wouldn’t have had an easier time reinventing himself a generation ago. Second and third lives are the norm in American politics, and that’s not a bad thing.
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