Sunday, July 3, 2011

DSK, or how sex can be the downfall of us all.

In the last two evenings NBC evening news opened on the ex-IMF Chief Strauss-Kahn case. Of course, the stranger-than-fiction turn of event (- the lack of credibility of the alleged victim and DSK’s subsequent release from house arrest, even if the charges still stand as of now) was bombshell news in France on Friday . Experts say that there is now a great chance the case will collapse entirely. 

In France this is not merely treated as criminal but also as political news. There have been speculations by some that DSK might be back in politics, and why not in the French presidential race, should he be acquitted. He was after all France’s most popular potential candidate for next year's presidency. Well, he may benefit from the sympathy over his ordeal but I find it hard to believe he could ever run as president of France.
  • First, for practical reasons: the deadline for Socialists to declare their candidacy is July 13.  (the Socialist Party will hold open primaries  to choose its candidate for the first time in France history).
  • Then and more importantly, because a collection of stories have surfaced out in the open: not only his womanizing or his libertine life but accusations of harassment, and even one alleged sexual assault. Even his friends admit that there is a dark side to his character (see this Le Monde article for instance), and this why the rape story was believable. He had sex with that woman, even though he knew this could be his downfall.
Yes, the French can be very forgiving of personal matters, including extra-marital affairs, but having an - even admittedly consensual - sexual relationship with a maid in his position shows very poor judgment at best, recklessness and self-indulgence, if not sexual addiction. Plus, even if the case is legally dismissed, there will always be a cloud of suspicion since if the alleged victim continues to claim she was rape.
Finally, this case was an opportunity for all to see his wealth - not be the best promotion campaign when you represent the French socialist party. 

This case has nonetheless been a great opportunity to engage discussions on gender relations in France, on the law and the presumption of innocence.
And it can also be an opportunity for a reflection on the role of the media and how they propagate clich├ęs about other countries.

Here's a great example from political observer Arthur Goldhammer who explains on his blog from his own enlightening experience why the media can be pimps that turn their "guest experts" (in his case an academic) into prostitutes - a very appropriate, albeit scary metaphor in the context of the DSK sex scandal :

The DSK affair has forced me to take a fresh look at how changes in the technology of news reporting have influenced the practice of democracy. The fourth estate, which Tocqueville thought to be an essential bulwark of democracy owing to its ability to "implant the same idea in many minds at once," has become something of a monster. The "idea" that it implants is often a lurid one, which appeals to our most perverse imagination and worst instincts, yet we cannot avert our eyes.

The cable news networks are the worst offenders. My experience yesterday on CNBC, a network I never watch, was revelatory. Forced to sit in the studio for an hour while awaiting my few minutes of air time, I was treated to inanity after inanity, as reporters, who knew little more about the breaking news than their viewers, dutifully filled their air time with vapid speculations. When my own turn came, I had little to no opportunity to develop the slightest argument about the way in which the French presidential campaign had been affected by criminal charges in a foreign land--a historically unprecedented situation, as far as I know. As usual, the subject I had been asked by the producer to discuss--how sex scandals are handled in the US and France--was ignored by anchor people spouting nonsense about how "the French hate us" and DSK's impending elevation to the status of "folk hero" by the libertine Gauls.

Of course, when one lends oneself to this circus, one shouldn't be surprised at being turned into a prostitute (except that of course I wasn't paid for my degrading service). The only honorable course is to refuse such invitations in the future, and yet I accept, again and again, despite having made resolutions not to in the past, in the hope that what little knowledge I possess might actually be passed on to viewers interested in hearing it. But the very format of these "news/opinion shows" is designed to prevent thoughtful dialogue: there is no discussion whatsoever between guests and anchors (who are often separated by thousands of miles) before the cameras roll, so there is no opportunity to map out a coherent outline for discussion or even an informative set of topics. The "guest expert" is merely a body recruited to lend an aura of authority to the incessant yammering of the "news." And yet this instrument actually does shape public opinion by saturating the atmosphere with unvetted, unfiltered, unedited "infotainment." Its audience is far larger than that of any "serious" journal of opinion.

The whole business is a scandalous waste of time and money. There's nothing quite comparable to American cable news in France, and so much the better. But even the "legitimate" media are guilty of this reductio ad absurdum of their institutional role. "Who will educate the educator?" Marx asked. The question remains as pertinent as ever, now that vast numbers of people are "educated" by "media" that impede rather than facilitate the flow of information and ideas.

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