Extremes of Craziness

Bernard-Henri Lévy explains why you’re wrong about Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Bernard-Henri Lévy 

How will Dominique Strauss-Kahn ever recover his honor? His friend and staunch defender, the celebrity-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, celebrated Strauss-Kahn’s release on bail—during the brief interlude before he went from being singly accused of a sex crime to being doubly accused —by once more taking Americans to task for their vicious treatment of an exemplary gentleman.

In a flurry of Continental spelling and capitalization on the Daily Beast, Lévy wrote that Strauss-Kahn’s case—which will “ultimately be known as the Strauss-Kahn non affair”—demonstrates a “cannibalisation of Justice by the Sideshow” that “has reached the heights of obscenity.” The philosopher is perhaps unfamiliar with the Casey Anthony trial, or the entire career of Nancy Grace.

But Strauss-Kahn’s case is a special one. So special that Lévy has now tried to educate the public about it twice, less than successfully. It is, for the philosopher, all about “the identity of the accused” and the “degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched.” What’s unbearable is the contrast between the brutality of the justice system and the spotlessness of its target as he was dragged through the rituals of prosecution and press coverage like a common criminal.

Lévy is not alone in having those qualms. His fellow globe-hopping plutocrat, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, told reporters that he has “always thought that the perp walks were outrageous. … They’re not guilty until they’re convicted, and yet we vilify them for the benefit of theater, for the circus.” The mayor—whose police force stops and frisks half a million innocent people on the street every year—had not expressed this concern before, he said, because “Nobody’s asked me.” (In fact, when Strauss-Kahn was first arrested, he had said the opposite.)

Anything to bring attention to defendants’ rights, I guess. To mock the international elite’s sudden discomfort about the treatment of the accused would be to indulge what Lévy calls “a class justice in reverse, no less problematic nor, ultimately, less criminal than the former.” Let Dominique Strauss-Kahn be judged on the merits of his case.

And what was that case again? The past week has brought so much new and damaging information about Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, it might help to reconstruct the timeline, using the facts that are not in dispute.

1. A hotel maid enters a suite occupied by Strauss-Kahn. The two have never met. 2. [Something happens.]3. Strauss-Kahn, in the presence of the maid, emits DNA.4. [Something happens.]5. The maid reports a sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn tries to leave the country.

Now we learn, according to law-enforcement sources, that the maid apparently lied to immigration officials when she applied for asylum in the United States. The deceptions specifically dealt with her claims of having been raped in her home country, or her claims about the manner in which she may have been raped. She also reportedly misrepresented her income and falsely claimed an extra dependent for the sake of getting government benefits.

These are all bad-sounding things, but they all happened before step No. 1. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was not even party to them. There were also inconsistencies around the maid’s account in step No. 4—where she went after the DNA was spilled, and what she did, and how soon. And the officials now say she was deceptive after step No. 5, when she gave them bad information about, among other things, how many different cell phones she keeps.

But these are problems with the credibility of the narrator, not with the narrative. The crime, if there was a crime, happened at step No. 2. None of the new information—not evidence but descriptions of potential evidence—directly addresses that part of the timeline, the part where some sort of sexual incident did happen between strangers. Calling the whole thing a “non-affair” is what a philosopher should recognize as begging the question.

The whole situation, in fact, would seem to call for epistemological caution. Consider the worst-sounding piece of evidence, a phone call that Strauss-Kahn’s accuser made to a man in immigration jail, as reported by the New York Times:

“She says words to the effect of, ‘Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing,’ ” the [well-placed law enforcement] official said.

This is a report of an anonymous paraphrase of a translation of one part of one side of a conversation, which took place in a “unique dialect of Fulani,” according to the Times. There is no indication that the official who spoke to the Times personally understood the dialect. So the reader is free to construct nearly any context:

Man: Why are you bringing this false accusation against this man? We are both habitual criminals, and we have a steady business in fraud and deception. Now your fake-rape scam means the police will be involved. What made you take the risk? Woman: Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing.


Man: This animal who did this disgusting thing to you—do not let the police handle him. Jail is too good for the old pervert. I know someone who will kill him, slowly, with a knife. Maybe I will break out and go kill him myself. Woman: Calm down. This guy is rich and powerful. I know what I’m doing.

It could be that Bernard-Henri Lévy is fluent in Fulani, and that is the source of his confidence. But the only authority he has offered so far, in his counter-prosecution, is that of his friendship and class-fellowship with Strauss-Kahn, a man of blinding integrity, who is self-evidently incapable of the vile acts attributed to him. Perhaps this greater-than-human nobility—joined with Strauss-Kahn’s charisma and potency—has caused at least two women, from wildly different cultural backgrounds, to invent oddly similar fantasies of debasement at his hands.

“He pulled me toward him, we came down, and we fought on the ground for several minutes,” the French writer Tristane Banon reportedly told L’Express. She had described the alleged assault back in 2007 on television, but with the assailant’s name bleeped out. It’s possible that the hotel maid watched French television and is a lip reader.

Or it’s possible that Lévy is blowing smoke. The New York case, he writes, demonstrates American “Robespierrism”:

It’s a word taken from the French Revolution, of course, one that describes the way those behind the terror at the time took hold of a man of flesh and blood and dehumanized him by transforming him into an abstract symbol, and, as the literal incarnation of that symbol, tailored his person to fit the skin of all they had decided to purge from society of the Ancien Régime.Well, we are compelled to observe that, regarding the Strauss-Kahn affair, America the pragmatic, that rebels against ideologies, this country of habeas corpus that de Tocqueville claimed possessed the most democratic system of justice in the world, has pushed this French Robespierrism, unfortunately, to the extremes of its craziness.

The extremes of its craziness, the French intellectual writes. I must have missed the part of the coverage where, when Strauss-Kahn marked his first night out of jail with a $700 meal at a restaurant, the food went in his mouth and trickled out his severed esophagus, because the crazy Americans had cut off his head. That’s what actual Robespierrism involved—mass guillotining in lieu of justice. Strauss-Kahn got called bad things in the newspapers. If he’s so concerned about his honor, he can always sue them. That’s what his accuser is doing.