Look, I get that when someone you know/admire/respect comes under public fire, there’s a natural instinct to take their side, to look for exculpatory evidence, to give credence to conspiratorial imaginings and to look for someone else to blame. I saw plenty of this during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and (less forgivably) during the more recent dustups over Roman Polanski and Julian Assange. There’s a bit of “say it ain’t so Joe” in all of us, no doubt magnified when the political consequences of a scandal have measurable effects on the lives of millions of actual people. It’s part of being human and imperfect and having connections and affinities with other people who are human and imperfect.
So I’ve attempted to read Bernard-Henri Levy’s reaction to the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn with a measure of charity and understanding. Mr. Levy makes that exceedingly difficult. He engages in damn near every victim-blaming, rape apologist trope that he can find. Presumption of innocence! What was this woman doing cleaning a hotel room by herself? The American justice system is barbaric! They were allowed to take his picture looking like that; the poor man. Mr. Strauss-Kahn has indeed been “thrown to the dogs.” Think of his wife and her exposure to the “slime of a public opinion drunk on salacious gossip and driven by who knows what obscure vengeance.” And this other woman who “pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape” is clearly just piling on the lies. Most of all, he’s a good man. He just wouldn’t do this! It’s simply “absurd.”
I’m sorry, but no. Mr. Strauss-Kahn is entitled to legal presumption of innocence and a public that’s willing, within reason, to reserve final judgment. False accusations of sexual assault do happen. Ask anyone who plays Lacrosse for Duke. Mr. Strauss-Kahn, though, has been credibly accused of a very serious crime. The fact that he’s a big deal in France (and in the U.S. for that matter) doesn’t entitle him to sexually assault people without consequence. It doesn’t entitle him to be spared the indignities of a perp walk like any other criminal (and for what it’s worth, as Matt Yglesias points out on twitter, accused criminals actually have more robust rights in the United States than they do in France). Commentators are free to lament the political consequences of the situation. They’re free to request that people reserve judgment. They’re free to point out that, in other aspects of his life, Mr. Strauss-Kahn maybe isn’t such a bad guy.
They ought not, though, diminish the severity of the crime of which he’s accused. They ought not search for some reason why maybe it’s the victim’s fault. They ought not dismiss previous accusations as outright lies without reason. They ought not hold up Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s wife as a trophy to demonstrate that, really, they care about women. They ought not reach for conspiracies or try to deflect blame or unreasonably defame law enforcement for doing their jobs. They ought not, in other words, join the still-too-large, still-too-loud chorus of people who reflexively diminish the horrific realities of sexual assault in the name of protecting its perpetrators. Mr. Levy counted himself among that chorus today, and he ought to be ashamed.