The Strauss-Kahn Madness

However inexcusable his private behavior, the former IMF chairman launched desperately-needed reform at the Fund

In the two weeks since IMF Chairman Dominique Strauss-Kahn was charged with the attempted rape of a chambermaid at his New York City hotel room and marched in handcuffs before the media, debate has been heated, with hard feelings ricocheting off every side.

The French have been outraged, I think fairly, over Strauss-Kahn’s humiliation at the hands of a brutish U.S. legal system and the presumption of guilt without due process – what they see as yet another example of the frightening suspension of civil liberties that characterizes contemporary American life.

Even before the Grand Jury had decided whether or not there was enough evidence to try the case, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had joined in the jeering:

“It is humiliating, but if you don’t want to do the ‘perp walk,’ don’t do the crime,” Bloomberg said. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that.”

Which was particularly ironic, given that Bloomberg himself had faced similar charges back in 1997, which he was able to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum in 2000, before being elected mayor the following year.

On the other hand, many women have rejoiced that at last a powerful man has faced real consequences for his casual disregard of a women’s right to say no.

A number of women have stepped forward to say they too were the victims of DSK’s unwanted sexual advances – among the most damning, French journalist Tristane Banon, the god daughter of Strauss-Kahn’s second wife, who claims he attempted to force her into sex during an interview a decade ago, and the self-styled “Manhattan Madame” Kristin Davis, whose service Strauss-Kahn employed, who says one escort refused to see him again because he had been “aggressive.”

In fact, for French women, the case seems to have opened up a Pandora’s box of grievances. The website “Osez le Feminisme” (Dare to be Feminist) has been flooded with accounts of workplace harassment. The levity with which the chamber maid’s allegations were treated, wrote organizer Magali le Haas, showed “to what extent violence against women is still underestimated.” Of the some 75,000 women who are raped in France each year, researchers guess that only 10% file an official complaint with the police.

There have even been some words of praise for the U.S. justice system, including from French lawyer Gisèle Halimi, who said it had protected women’s dignity. “I am convinced that if this affair had taken place in France, we would never have heard anything about it,” she told Le Parisien.

But Dominique Strauss Kahn is also an enormously able and progressive politician, a man described by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz as a “sagacious leader” of the IMF.

Rather than furthering the campaign for free market capitalism, as the institution has done for decades – to appalling results in Eastern Europe and South East Asia – he believes that regulation is essential for markets to work and cross-border capital flows particularly dangerous.

“Ultimately, employment and equity are building blocks of economic stability and prosperity, of political stability and peace,” Strauss-Kahn said in a recent speech at the Brookings Institution. “This goes to the heart of the IMF’s mandate. It must be placed at the heart of the policy agenda.”

This is also the man who was brave enough to pull back the curtain on leading U.S. bankers in the Oscar-winning documentary on the financial crisis Inside Job: The CEOs had admitted at a gathering at the home of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that they bore part of the responsibility for the crisis.

The government “ ‘should regulate more, because we are too greedy. We can’t avoid it,’ ” Strauss-Kahn quoted the bankers. His own take: “At the end of the day, the poorest – as always – pay the most.”

In a broader perspective, Strauss-Kahn’s ill-advised, tasteless behavior, offensive as it is (particularly on the receiving end), is hardly deserving of the 25-year prison sentence he is threatened with. A reprimand, certainly. A sanction, also possible. A compensation of some kind, absolutely.

But removing this man – who is helping restructure the financial system to the benefit of the disadvantaged – from public life is madness. What are we doing?  Are Americans so paralyzingly uncomfortable with sex that they can’t keep any of this in perspective?

Strauss-Kahn shouldn’t go after women like this; if he did it to me I would slap him across the face, or knee him in the groin. But he likes women, which is a good thing, and smart ones at that. So why can’t we women just tell people like Strauss-Kahn to back off, or laugh at them.

A ham-fisted advance is hardly the worst thing a man can do; abandoning a pregnant woman or new mother is far worse. But rarely called to account.

If Strauss-Kahn is convicted of the most serious of the charges, he does, in fact, face  25 years in prison. He is 62 years old. However boorish his behavior, it is hard to imagine why this makes any sense.

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