L’Affaire DSK: Presumption of Innocence Lost

Dsk_bail_rtr_hp From more than a month ago in The Nation, Patricia Williams:

On the surface, Strauss-Kahn’s troubles are all about “women.” He has long had a reputation for salacious advances. On one hand, therefore, it’s tempting to assume the present accusations fit him as “in character.” On the other hand, given his prominence and the seismic stakes for the European Union, his well-advertised randiness, in the opinion of many, renders him the world’s easiest fall guy.

On the surface, furthermore, the case can be framed as one individual charging another with sexual crimes, period. Strauss-Kahn has been arrested, pleaded not guilty, released on bail, put under house detention. Ostensibly, he will be presumed innocent until a trial allows all the facts to be presented in an orderly fashion, witnesses to testify, motives to be assessed, credibility to be evaluated, irrelevant and extraneous information to be barred from consideration.

Unfortunately, what has unfolded is not that simple. The international media frenzy has all but obliterated any space for a presumption of innocence; and it has relentlessly impugned both Strauss-Kahn and his accuser in broad, vulgar stereotypes—not only about sex, but about wealth, Guinean colonials, socialism, fame, French masculinity, American Puritanism, Muslim women, Jewish identity and Africans as bearers of HIV. It will be very hard to see justice done against a backdrop of so much roiling passion, rumor-mongering and pure projection. The deliverance of due process requires restraint, not just in the media but among the citizens of America and of the world. So I would like to offer some modest caveats as this case proceeds through the digestive tract of a world obsessed with celebrity dirt.

First, we do not know what happened. We can choose to believe what we want, but it serves no civic purpose to allow one’s personal hunches to stand in the way of being open to the specific evidence-based possibilities that will be presented in a court of law. For example, French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy’s publicly stated conviction that a proper first-class maid never cleans alone is spectacularly boneheaded. Even if it were true that housekeepers traveled only in “brigades,” it’s a generalization, a stereotype, irrelevant to whether DSK committed the crimes of which he is accused. At the same time, it is no less reflexively patronizing to conclude, as many women apparently have, that solely because the accuser is female or an immigrant or poor or Muslim or a widow that she could ever be anything other than truthful. And that is indeed all we know about her—that she is a poor Muslim widow from Guinea. Nor, of course, should we know much more about her identity, as a matter of due process. But, again, that process requires patience for victims’ stories to be played out in the appropriate place and time; it is not an invitation to plug the holes in our knowledge with bold imaginings.