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A Teachable Moment on American-European Faultlines



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The full story is not out on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and he is innocent of forcible sexual battery until proven guilty, but already the case has exposed an ancient abyss between European elite and American popular cultures — accentuated by the differences between New York’s rough-and-tumble media and legal worlds on one hand and IMF technocracy and French privilege on the other. There are also questions of race and asymmetrical power in play, as well as the notion that an IMF head should adopt at least a façade of probity and sacrifice, given that his organization lectures tens of millions on fiscal sobriety and belt-tightening.

So far what confuses Americans the most, superficially at least, is that a man of the Left like socialist Strauss-Kahn should seem so comfortable with the elite tastes of the damnable aristocracy — the astronomically priced suits, the $3,000-a-night suite, the Air France privileges, and the medieval Norman baron’s sense of entitlement regarding an immigrant housecleaner — while the supposedly neanderthal, right-wing Americans and their primitive “accusatory” legal system (read the French press on all that) so far are treating the rights of a maid as equal to a Eurocrat’s.

The wonder about the French cultural furor over the incident is not that they consider us parochial and “hung up” on sex, but that the press and its op-ed writers are so blatant in their expressions of class snobbery and national chauvinism. For all the Euro-lectures about Western imperialist colonialism, this story (fairly or unfairly) casts the Americans as the everyman and the French as the haughty technocrat furious that rules of equality under the law apply to him — not to mention modern notions of feminism, about which one would have expected a sophisticated Frenchman to be sensitive.

One also might have thought the French press would have taken more note of the angle that a foreign national accused of committing several felonies is drawing on considerable power, influence, and money in his legal contest with an immigrant maid from Africa. Instead, in French press accounts, one distills a veritable caricature: “How dare those backward Americans do this? Do they have any idea of who Strauss-Kahn is and what he represents, or how we civilized and sophisticated Europeans deal with these dime-a-dozen sort of low-rent sexual accusations against men of culture from mere chambermaids?”

A book also needs to be written about the psychology that drives elites to push for socialism or statism for others even though it would eventually end the easy affluence that they assume as near birthrights for themselves. A Strauss-Kahn suit, a jaunt to Vail, Martha’s Vineyard, or Costa del Sol — these are not only at odds with the notion of a state-mandated equality of result, they are themselves just dessert fruits of capitalism that would wither on the vine if socialism were fully enacted.



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