Power, patriarchy, and hubris

It is hard to imagine—and I am assuming that a hotel maid’s sexual assault allegations against International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn are true—a better example to support an analysis of rape as an expression of patriarchy. A very powerful white man assaults a very vulnerable woman of color and, faced with hospital tests confirming at least some of the victim’s story, claims any act that may have occurred was consensual.[1]

But this was no acquaintance rape. The maid picked Strauss-Kahn out of a police line-up; the police removed him from a plane and arrested him as he was about to fly out of the country. She is 32 years old; he is thirty years older.[2]

“She is extremely quiet. She only smiles at certain people,” said neighbor Mark Gangadeen, adding that she wears a head scarf.

Another neighbor, Assetou Kamara, 33, said the woman is a devout Muslim.[3]

For Strauss-Kahn to actually believe the maid consented seems an odd conceit. More likely, he considered himself, an influential white male at the pinnacle of the financial industry, beyond challenge from a Muslim woman of color in New York City—a financial center and an iconic site of the 9/11 attacks.

As Juan Cole put it, “This quick action against a wealthy and powerful individual, seeking justice for a person at the bottom rung of the American social hierarchy, is praiseworthy.”[4] Yet there is another, rather disturbing narrative, comparing Strauss-Kahn to Elliot Spitzer. Mike Whitney writes for Information Clearing House:

I have no way of knowing whether the 32-year-old maid who claims she was attacked and forced to perform oral sex on IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is telling the truth or not. I’ll leave that to the braying hounds in the media who have already assumed the role of judge, jury and Lord High Executioner. But I will say, the whole matter smells rather fishy, just like the Eliot Spitzer story smelled fishy. Spitzer, you may recall, was Wall Street’s biggest adversary and a likely candidate to head the SEC, a position at which he would have excelled. In fact, there’s no doubt in my mind that if Spitzer had been appointed to lead the SEC, most of the top investment bankers on Wall Street would presently be making license plates and rope-soled shoes at the federal penitentiary. So, there was plenty of reason to shadow Spitzer’s every move and see what bit of dirt could be dug up on him. As it turns out, the ex-Governor of New York made it easy for his enemies by engaging a high-priced hooker named Ashley Dupre for sex at the Mayflower Hotel. When the news broke, the media descended on Spitzer like a swarm of locusts poring over every salacious detail with the ebullient fervor of a randy 6th-grader. Meanwhile, the crooks on Wall Street were able to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to doing what they do best; fleecing investors and cheating people out of the life savings.

Strauss-Kahn had enemies in high places, too, which is why this whole matter stinks to high-Heaven. First of all, Strauss-Kahn was the likely candidate of the French Socialist Party who would have faced Sarkozy in the upcoming presidential elections. The IMF chief clearly had a leg-up on Sarkozy who has been battered by a number of personal scandals and plunging approval ratings.

But if Strauss-Kahn was set up, then it was probably by members of the western bank coalition, that shadowy group of self-serving swine whose policies have kept the greater body of humanity in varying state of poverty and desperation for the last two centuries. Strauss-Kahn had recently broke-free from the “party line” and was changing the direction of the IMF. His road to Damascus conversion was championed by progressive economist Joesph Stiglitz in a recent article titled “The IMF’s Switch in Time”. . . .

Strauss-Kahn had set out on a “kinder and gentler” path, one that would not force foreign leaders to privatize their state-owned industries or crush their labor unions. Naturally, his actions were not warmly received by the bankers and corporatists who look to the IMF to provide legitimacy to their ongoing plunder of the rest of the world. These are the people who think that the current policies are “just fine” because they produce the results they’re looking for, which is bigger profits for themselves and deeper poverty for everyone else.[5]

While the beginning of Whitney’s article attempts to appear balanced and fair, he parallels consensual (albeit paid) sex with sexual assault, and his headline implicates the maid in a “honey trap.” So even in the face of rather compelling evidence to the contrary, he is—as feminists would hasten to point out—indulging multiple rape myths of pretending the victim “wanted it” and of blaming the victim. All this coincides with a phenomenon called SlutWalking:

“You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here,” [Toronto Police Officer] Michael Sanguinetti began, blandly enough, as he addressed the 10 students who turned up for the pep talk. Then he said: “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

Fast forward three months from Sanguinetti’s unfortunate remarks, and a movement that was born in riposte to his loose talk has now gone international. “SlutWalking” is attracting thousands of people to take to the streets to put an end to what they believe is a culture in which it is considered acceptable to blame the victim.[6]

SlutWalking has attracted some controversy. Slut is an epithet, but as with some African-Americans and the N-word and as with some gays and the word queer, it occasionally happens that stigmatized groups reclaim epithets with some success, and in the case of slut, I cannot imagine a more appropriate reappropriation. For if we consider the meaning of being a “slut,” we see a woman, choosing to enjoy her body, with whomever she pleases, as often as she pleases, with little or no regard for the prudes who would inform her that she should exercise greater discretion. Her choices harm no one else; it is her absolute right to do with her body what she chooses, to accommodate within her body (or not) the men (or others) she chooses, and it is in this very basic notion of personal sovereignty that I connect the right not to be raped with the right to an abortion.

What lies in common between the case of the IMF chief and the Toronto police officer is that, even as strangers, powerful men infer a privilege over women on at best superficial grounds. And that this coincides with a vicious move to deny women access to abortion and even contraception[7] seems to suggest yet another backlash against women in our society,[8] that they should be reduced to baby factories. The arrogance is breathtaking.

But we’re seeing a lot of that kind of arrogance and not just against women, which is what, in addition to being profoundly offensive, makes Whitney’s “honey trap” allegation ironic:

[Barack] Obama and [Cornel] West’s last personal contact took place a year ago at a gathering of the Urban League when, he says, Obama “cussed me out.” Obama, after his address, which promoted his administration’s championing of charter schools, approached West, who was seated in the front row.

“He makes a bee line to me right after the talk, in front of everybody,” West says. “He just lets me have it. He says, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself, saying I’m not a progressive. Is that the best you can do? Who do you think you are?’ I smiled. I shook his hand. And a sister hollered in the back, ‘You can’t talk to professor West. That’s Dr. Cornel West. Who do you think you are?’ You can go to jail talking to the president like that. You got to watch yourself. I wanted to slap him on the side of his head.

“It was so disrespectful,” he went on, “that’s what I didn’t like. I’d already been called, along with all [other] leftists, a “F’ing retard” by Rahm Emanuel because we had critiques of the president.”[9]

West is discovering and you can see in the following passage an evolution of thinking in his description first of Obama as spineless and later of the Democratic mainstream (which can hardly be taken to exclude Obama) as “thoroughly complicitous,” a painful recognition that Obama has absolutely no moral justification for being in power:

“This was maybe America’s last chance to fight back against the greed of the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats, to generate some serious discussion about public interest and common good that sustains any democratic experiment,” West laments. “We are squeezing out all of the democratic juices we have. The escalation of the class war against the poor and the working class is intense. More and more working people are beaten down. They are world-weary. They are into self-medication. They are turning on each other. They are scapegoating the most vulnerable rather than confronting the most powerful. It is a profoundly human response to panic and catastrophe. I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone.

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had taken office and deliberately educated and taught the American people about the nature of the financial catastrophe and what greed was really taking place?” West asks. “If he had told us what kind of mechanisms of accountability needed to be in place, if he had focused on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts and engaged in massive job creation he could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk. The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt. It is corrupt. Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.

“We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful,” he says. “It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream. In telling that truth we become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire. I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama. If it turns out in the end that we have a crypto-fascist movement and the only thing standing between us and fascism is Barack Obama, then we have to put our foot on the brake. But we’ve got to think seriously of third-party candidates, third formations, third parties.”[10]

This is a president who not only continues a war in Iraq and dishonestly escalated the war in Afghanistan, but who refuses to seek Congressional approval for his intervention in Libya and who resorts to novel legal strategies in order to avoid doing so.[11] This is a president whose first response to skyrocketing unemployment was that “we all know there are limits to what government can and should do even during such difficult times,”[12] who even with something like 32 million underemployed and unemployed people, persists in promoting disastrous so-called “free trade” policies,[13] and who passes the buck on job creation;[14] a president whose administration facilitated fraudulent foreclosures;[15] and a president whose only campaign promise which we can unequivocally say he has kept was to kill Osama bin Laden.[16] But none of this is supposed to matter; we’re supposed to continue to call Obama a “progressive,” even as he advances policies of endemic surveillance, detainee abuse, and the abrogration of habeas corpus.[17] And this is a president who has refused to pursue war crimes charges against the Bush administration,[18] an omission which Cole starkly contrasts with Strauss-Kahn’s rapid arrest.[19] If any of this were even in the least bit funny, I might choose the term chutzpah.

Instead, I’ll use the term patriarchy. Because if Lorraine Code is anywhere close to right in diagnosing a way of thinking that parallels dichotomies between true and false, between good and evil, and between right and wrong that rationalize war and an “us versus them” mentality with a dichotomy between male and female, and if George Lakoff is correct in paralleling these dichotomies with those of wealth and poverty, of health and sickness, and of well-being and suffering, then even our system of dualistic logic is intimately associated with oppression;[20] and if Riane Eisler is anywhere close to right in describing a more egalitarian norm of civilization prior to the last five to eight thousand years, then it was an increased competition for resources—whether they needed to be concentrated into fewer hands or not—that led to increased war, the subjugation of women, and economic injustice.[21] That competition was the wrong response; it fosters an avarice that can only be described as ruinous, and which leads to the hubris that brutalizes, among so many other people, a hotel maid in New York City.

  1. [1]Laura Italiano, Jamie Schram, and Kate Sheehy, “IMF chief claims consent in hotel ‘attack’, New York Post, May 17, 2011, http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/seduced_and_she_said_oui_oui_Oj0Z4K8iFIheZa4gvTBUWN
  2. [2]Italiano, Schram, and Sheehy, “IMF chief claims consent.”
  3. [3]Italiano, Schram, and Sheehy, “IMF chief claims consent.”
  4. [4]Juan Cole, “Why was Strauss-Kahn Arrested but W. & Cheney went Free?” Informed Comment, May 15, 2011, http://www.juancole.com/2011/05/why-was-strauss-kahn-arrested-but-w-cheney-went-free.html
  5. [5]Mike Whitney, “IMF chief Strauss-Kahn caught in ‘Honey Trap’,” Information Clearing House, May 15, 2011, http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article28103.htm
  6. [6]Ed Pilkington, “SlutWalking gets rolling after cop’s loose talk about provocative clothing,” Guardian, May 6, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/06/slutwalking-policeman-talk-clothing
  7. [7]Amanda Marcotte, “Red States Making Legal Abortion Nearly Impossible,” Reproductive Health Reality Check, May 15, 2011, http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2011/05/15/states-making-legal-abortion-nearly-impossible; Russell Shorto, “Contra-Contraception,” New York Times, May 7, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/magazine/07contraception.html
  8. [8]Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, 15th anniversary ed. (New York: Three Rivers, 2006).
  9. [9]Chris Hedges, “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic,” Truthdig, May 16, 2011, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_obama_deception_why_cornel_west_went_ballistic_20110516/
  10. [10]Hedges, “The Obama Deception.”
  11. [11]David Swanson, “60 More Days in Libya: Obama Does Bush Lawyers Proud,” War Is A Crime .org, May 16, 2011, http://warisacrime.org/content/60-more-days-libya-obama-does-bush-lawyers-proud
  12. [12]Michael A. Fletcher and Neil Irwin, “Obama to have forum on job creation,” SFGate.com, November 13, 2009, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/11/13/MNL31AJFT4.DTL
  13. [13]Robert E. Scott, “Heading South: U.S.-Mexico Trade and Job Displacement after NAFTA,” Electronic Policy Institute, May 3, 2011, http://epi.3cdn.net/fdade52b876e04793b_7fm6ivz2y.pdf; Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  14. [14]Jeff Mason, “Obama urges companies to hire, studies housing moves,” Reuters, May 12, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/12/us-obama-economy-idUSTRE74B2KZ20110512
  15. [15]David Dayen, “Donovan’s Folly: HUD Secretary’s Justification for Keeping Housing Market Going Neglects Clear Risks,” Firedoglake, October 17, 2010, http://news.firedoglake.com/2010/10/17/donovans-folly-hud-secretarys-justification-for-keeping-housing-market-going-neglects-clear-risks/; emptywheel, “Confirmed: Official Administration Policy Is to Continue Foreclosures,” Firedoglake, October 11, 2010, http://emptywheel.firedoglake.com/2010/10/11/confirmed-official-administration-policy-is-to-continue-foreclosures/
  16. [16]Liz Sidota, “Delivering on vow to kill bin Laden boosts Obama,” Associated Press, May 2, 2011.
  17. [17]Massimo Calabresi and Michael Weisskopf, “The Fall of Greg Craig, Obama’s Top Lawyer,” Time, November 19, 2009, http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1940537,00.html; Anand Gopal, “Obama’s Secret Prisons Night Raids, Hidden Detention Centers, the ‘Black Jail,’ and the Dogs of War in Afghanistan,” TomDispatch, January 28, 2010, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175197/tomgram%3A_anand_gopal%2C_afraid_of_the_dark_in_afghanistan/; David Kravets, “Obama Sides With Bush in Spy Case,” Wired, January 22, 2009, http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/01/obama-sides-wit/
  18. [18]David Johnston and Charlie Savage, “Obama Reluctant to Look Into Bush Programs,” New York Times, January 12, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/12/us/politics/12inquire.html
  19. [19]Cole, “Why was Strauss-Kahn Arrested but W. & Cheney went Free?”
  20. [20]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991); George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002
  21. [21]Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007).

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