Rapists are from the 'hood', 'seducers' live in mansions
by Najate Zouggari, journalist and translator.
French journalists covering the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case—or at least those who didn't find themselves affected personally—have chosen over and over again to show 'restraint.’ As early as May 17, the Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel (CSA) urged television stations not to show images of the accused in handcuffs, respecting a presumption of innocence that accused from the suburbs very rarely enjoy. Depending on whether you are a young person from a black neighborhood or an old white politician, the media judges you as either a hateful rapist or—“showing restraint”—an unlucky seducer. In this racist analysis of sexual violence, it is understood that only men from the first category hate women innately (those people are like that) or through conditioning (by their culture or religion). Men raised in the dominant culture who commit violence, on the contrary, love women. It is often said that they can't control their love, or that they love their women too much. In this way, the dominant media systematically justifies the violence of elites.
Even as some politicians (and the media who serve them) dream of depriving members of the first group of their nationality, they take great pains to protect the second group from “Anglo-Saxon Puritanism” and the “American judicial system” in a whole range of very restrained opinion pieces and teary-eyed declarations—all written under the assumption that each of these authors knows the true face of DSK. Journalists have mobilized an army of psychologists and psychiatrists to acquit the accused, encouraging public compassion instead of an understanding of the facts. We find them especially in the pages of Le Monde (“The psychological factors of the DSK case”, June 3), and Le Figaro (“From the IMF to jail, the fall of DSK according to psychiatrists”, May 17).
The media reliance on these experts reveals its bias, transforming a (possibly) guilty accused into the poor victim of his own impulses and topping it off with a scientific rubber stamp. In other words, using the same brand of restraint as the dominant media, DSK was a victim of his own impulses as an inveterate womanizer. The question of journalistic prudence —their “desire to understand” the accused (and never the accuser), the lenience and partiality that are, at times, in clear evidence—stands in stark contrast to the tendency to condemn “ethnic gangs” and their spectacular collective rapes in the no less spectacular “dark depths of the suburbs.” In those cases, these journalists pull no punches. Thus, the severity of the sentence—at the same time moral and penal—that bears down upon the populations of working-class neighborhoods is directly proportional to the laxity shown when evaluating and punishing violence committed by socially and racially privileged classes.
The Sofitel room attendant, victim of the attempted rape, is presented as “plaintiff” in most newspaper articles, according to the pretensions of journalistic neutrality that predominate in the media. However, Nafissatou Diallo is described as “Dominique Strauss-Kahn's accuser” simultaneously by the editors of Paris-Match (“The woman that sank DSK”, May 17th), LCI and AFP (May 18). An article in Le Monde—moved by a curious desire to explain the crime in ethnological terms—offers another version of this pejorative remark, inquiring into the “Guinean life of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's accuser”. No one, on the contrary, would be interested in the North American life of the accused. A matter of restraint, perhaps—which, incidentally, does not apply to the “servant” in the previously noted appeal from the CSA. The “hotel maid”, as she is often called, exists only through the prism of her indecent accusation or of her confusing ethnic origin—Guinean or Senegalese, “African” in any case. What’s more, the concrete reasons for her appearance on the media stage, (the attempted rape and the courage to demand justice) are always addressed with euphemisms. Depending on the article, she has been painted as a “mysterious” plotter, accusing the harmless, libertine Dominique, or as an employee lacking a sense of humor and with a victimizing tendency. The fact is, for these opinion-makers, seeing a black or “darker than average” woman demanding justice is enough for them to immediately lament the insufferable tendency of non-whites towards “victimization.”
The media's defense of DSK, or, how to make light of a rape
For most Gaullist journalists and other 'qualified' pseudo-analysts of the day, the whole affair has been much ado about nothing. On May 16th, Jean-François Kahn declared on France Culture's morning radio program that “I am sure, practically sure, that there was no violent attempted rape. I don't believe it; I know the concerned party and I don't believe it. That there was some kind of...imprudent (“derisive” laughter, according to Rue89)...I don't know how to say it, that he crossed the line a little bit...”. After letting out laugh reminiscent of the awkward stage of adolescence, the no longer adolescent Alain-Gérard Slama remarked: “He called it a misunderstanding”. Very funny. But Jean-François Kahn, now showing restraint, gets the conversation back on track, this time in a serious tone: “That he overstepped his boundaries a bit...with an employee, well I would say that it certainly doesn't seem good to me but...I don't know, it's an impression”.
For journalist Jean-François Kahn, the facts of which DSK is accused are decidedly less important than his personal friendships, subjective beliefs, and even what he calls an “impression.” This vacuous radio interview displays a kind of reverent journalism, lacking in precision, that is soft on the powerful and hard on the weak; in other words, superficial journalism. The alleged rape is described with all sorts of precautions brimming with sexist language, the likes of which would not have been tolerated coming from the mouth of a “youth” from the suburbs. But we are on France Culture and not in machismo territory, pseudo-cultivated virile old men can do anything, including minimizing the extent of a crime. In effect, Jean François Kahn does not call the act a “rape” or an “attempted rape”, but rather a “violent attempted rape”, as if there was such a thing as non-violent rape. After Alain-Gérard Slama's intervention, and his complicit laughter, Jean-François Kahn suggests that the rape of an employee cannot be treated as a crime. After all, she is only a hotel maid. But the working class can take assurance from the fact that Jean-François Kahn and Dominique Strauss Kahn are both men of the left.
The comments from Jean-François Kahn, founder of Marianne1, are echoed by other stalwarts of the dominant French media. “Botulian” philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy2, whose view of rape was already made public during his support for Roman Polanski's cause, tried to evade the subject (May 16) with a ridiculous anaphora—“I don't know”—which means exactly the opposite of what it says. Lévy’s false modesty, pretending to know everything while saying that he knows nothing, echoes the spirit of journalistic restraint. “What I do know is that nothing in this world justifies throwing a man to the lions like that”. The rape didn’t happen. Nothing justifies the prosecution of a rich man, even when he is guilty of sexual aggression.
Former justice minister Robert Badinter is on the same wavelength, denouncing the “media execution” of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on France Inter (May 17) and describing with great sympathy an “unshaven man, his face visibly shaken, , on display for the public”; in other words, a cornered man in the hands, paradoxically, of the best defense lawyers in the world. Even with his shaken face, he can still afford them. In contrast to this exaggerated sob story, Elisabeth Badinter’s silence – she who is usually so quick to denounce the sexist tendencies of “Muslim mannerisms” – is deafening. The rape of a poor black employee doesn't even warrant the tiniest indignation by the President (and intermittent feminist) of board of the Publicis group. No open letters to Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the newspapers. In other words, a freely worn headscarf, or hijab, is a major scandal. An attempted rape, not so much.
“Poor DSK!” Isabelle Germain wrote satirically in the “Comment is Free” section (May 17th) of the daily British paper The Guardian. An article by Nick Cohen for the Spectator, titled “Rape and the French elite” (May 18), denounced Lévy’s bad faith even more firmly—and, by extension, that of his friends. Nick Cohen writes: “He doesn't have even the tiniest sympathy for the alleged victim, a poor immigrant from Africa who, according to the New York Times, had to be hospitalized after the alleged aggression.” The British journalist calls the Botulian ramblings a “hypocritical spiel”, ridiculing the use of hyperbole, biased commentary, and selective indignation: Lévy “cannot defend women's rights only in Tehran and Riyadh”.
Rapists are from the 'hood, but seducers live in mansions
A victim's class and rootedness in a specific geopolitical context, just as much as their race, appear to condition the possibility of defending themselves in the dominant media. Rapists only exist in the “depths of the suburbs”, which is to say working-class neighborhoods. Macho violence doesn't exist in affluent neighborhoods. The Arte journalists couldn't be bothered to make a single inquiry at the IMF, even though we find out there was an informal rule to “never let DSK be alone with a woman in his office” (Le nouvel Observateur, May 19). In this case, they didn't use any of their journalistic connections at the scene of the crime or pursue any investigation at all: restraint, please! “Seductive to the point of unconsciousness” for Le Parisien (May 16), “libertine”, “lady-killer”, “forward”, “tenacious seducer”, according to Alain Finkielkraut on RMC radio, “but not a rapist”. While sophists continue with their “theories”, the definition of rape does not just wash away in the flood of extenuating circumstances, and fortunately, the judicial investigation continues its course. According to the online edition of NBC New York (May 24), the DNA analyses confirm that the sperm on the victim's blouse was that of the “tenacious seducer.”
Alain Finkielkraut does not spare any effort in his defense: what he labels a “tragic horror” is not the way that crime committed by the lower classes is mercilessly condemned, but rather the possibility that the elites could be the object of a similar accusation. When he speaks of that “life which has turned into a nightmare”, he is not referring to the woman allegedly assaulted; instead, the alleged rape is reduced to a “mistake” or “slip-up”.
Where Jean-François Kahn had an “impression”, Alain Finkielkraut has a “sense.” Nonetheless, what RMC's listeners probably want, just as France Culture's audience wants, is to understand the facts and not to explore the deceptive and profoundly tedious little bourgeois worlds of this or that journalist. Contrary to Jean-François Kahn, who does not disguise his friendship with Strauss-Kahn, the conniving Alain Finkielkraut paints himself with much subtler strokes. He is very careful to clarify that he does not frequent the luxurious palaces of Marrakesh (which Strauss-Kahn, Lévy, and a whole sector of Parisian intellectuals do) and to signal his political disagreements with the head of the IMF. However, he says he feels “compassion” for the accused: a clear class-based alliance is in evidence. This is about the “fall from grace” of a member of the elite, and anyone in his orbit feels empathy for him. A fall from grace moves people more than the sufferings of a hotel maid who carries with her the triple stigma of being poor, black, and female.
Alain Finkielkraut—taken as the aggregate of media defenders that surround Strauss-Kahn with their obliging, protective mantle—invokes the “presumption of innocence” here where for others he would appeal for “zero tolerance”.
In the 2004 RER D case, when a young girl who wasn't Jewish claimed to have suffered an anti-Semitic attack carried out by horrible ghetto Arabs and blacks, neither Alain Finkielkraut nor Strauss-Kahn himself judged it appropriate to defend the “presumption of innocence” of the accused. The speed with which the political elite (and the journalists who serve them) opened a media assault on the youth of the suburbs, the poor, Arabs, blacks, and Muslims, stands in contrast to the restraint and refusal to judge that they display in the “Strauss-Kahn case.” On France 2 radio, avoiding any kind of presumption of innocence for those accused in RER D case without evidence, Dominique Strauss-Kahn made the following commentary: “If it is a set-up, evidently it would be open to critique as such—but that would not change in any way the fact that it is the tenth or twentieth attack of this kind”. To be valid and relevant, this judgment should be applied in his own case.
But this judgment—like the other media judgments handed down for sexual crimes—does not resist the moral relativism of the dominant classes, who adjust their compassion and their supposedly universal sense of justice based on the class, religious affiliation, and race of the accused. Proof of this is the effort to keep Strauss-Kahn's family out of the affair, inversely proportional to the public exhibition of the “African” family of Nafissatou Diallo.
Exotic immersion in the “community of Strauss-Kahn's accuser”
The media thrusts the victim and her family into the spotlight, yet another contrast to the “restraint”, the “decency”, and the “respect” offered to the accused. The journalists carefully comb through the accuser's world. The weekly JDD (May 22) offers “an immersion experience in the community that accuses Strauss-Kahn.” Needless to say, they do not offer readers a similar immersion in the other party's community. The following introduction to an article by Marie-Christine Tabet is virtually an imitation of a colonial postcard—steeped in nostalgia: “She keeps her head straight. Her dark hair is combed elegantly, smooth at the roots and wavy on the side. The portrait evokes a stencil from the 1950s with retouched colors. This beautiful African, with the airs of a princess, is the most wanted woman on the planet”.
The text continues, tracing Nafissatou Diallo's trajectory—but not without a proliferation of ellipses that accent the absurd melodrama of the account. “She is a Fulbe Muslim woman,” we discover from the journalist, and, referring to her meeting with the victim's sister: “it is her husband who serves as intermediary.” The article closes with a word about the difficulties the victim faces, particularly the “eagerness of the media”, but “above all the implacable gaze of her community”. As if her community of origin cannot, on the contrary, offer her any support: in the postcolonial imaginary, certain communities can only cause harm to their members, and especially to women. In keeping with this genre of reports that remind one of Tintin in the Congo, we find an article in Le Figaro (May 24) titled: “Tchiakoullé in Guinea, village of Strauss-Kahn's accuser.” To date there has been no attempt to make an anthropological study of “Neuilly-sur-Seine in France, village of the alleged rapist of Nafissatou Diallo”.
In an article dated June 8 that reads like the failed dissertation of a philology student, a Marianne journalist highlights the allegorical character of the prosecution, its “allegorical fiber”, its “allegoricization”... Nothing could be further from reality: the prosecution cannot be reduced to the clash between an “innocent allegory” and a “guilty allegory,” as the author cryptically concludes with vapid reasoning.
It is the real prosecution of a man accused of real sexual assault. But this journalist, enamored by rhetorical figures, falls into an idealistic trap when she adds that “we can make a slogan, a book, a philosophy” out of the class struggle. Only journalists of the dominant media still fall for their own illusion that anyone can make of the class struggle whatever they like, that it is an old-fashioned philosophical idea and that, in short, reality and social phenomena depend on their own perceptions of them. Therein lies the arrogance of nearsighted neoliberals: myopic and stupid but sure of their lucidity and intelligence, always ready to impose their subjective representations of a reality that they don't even bother examining.
Nafissatou Diallo is black. But instead of examining that fact within the context of the condition of blacks in a white society, French journalists, in the best of cases, have given an exotic treatment to that fact—and in the worst, diluted it in a critique that allegorizes allegory. Angela Davis underlines in her book, Women, Race, and Class, the following social reality, which has nothing to do with an abstract idea: “In the United States and in other capitalist countries, rape laws as a rule were framed originally for the protection of men of the upper classes, whose daughters and wives might be assaulted. What happens to working-class women has usually been of little interest to the courts; as a result, remarkably few white men have been prosecuted for the sexual violence they have inflicted on these women...One of racism's salient historical features has always been the assumption that white men—especially those who wield economic power—possess an incontestable right of access to Black women's bodies”3.
In the end, the media's defense of Strauss-Kahn—nothing more than a reflection of the material basis on which it rests—refuses to admit the reality of the intersection of sexism and racism. This voluntary blindness about the privileges of race and class is nothing surprising: recognizing their existence would put in danger the material and symbolic benefits that come with a social injustice that is anything but an allegory. This moral relativism—part and parcel of the negation of race and class as factors—could be fatal for the society that applies it with impunity, as Aimé Césaire underlined in his Discourse on Colonialism: “Every time a head is cut off or an eye put out and in France they accept it, every time a woman is raped and in France they accept it, , every time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept it, a bit of civilization crumbles, a universal regression takes place, gangrene sets in.”
To describe the facts as a light-hearted act of daring, to refer to them with reservations or the kind of derisive laughter that minimizes the rape of a black hotel maid, is indicative of France's new support for a humanist mythology where neither classes nor races exist, but where, at the same time, the dominant media takes care always to protect race and class interests from danger.
Translated by Alex Cachinero-Gorman.
Revised by Najate Zouggari and Karen Wirsig.
1 Translator's note: Marianne is a weekly Paris-based French news magazine created in 1997 by Jean-François Kahn.
2 Translator's note: The term “botulian” references the fictional philosopher Jean-Baptiste Botul that Bernard-Henri Lévy tends to cite in his works. See HYPERLINK "http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Baptiste_Botul"http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Baptiste_Botul or, in English, HYPERLINK "http://www.insidehighered.com/views/mclemee/mclemee276"http://www.insidehighered.com/views/mclemee/mclemee276
3 Angela Davis, “Woman, Race and Class”, New York, Vintage, 1983.