"It’s like a live action metaphor. The head of the IMF trying to **** an African. It’s like he’s posing for his own editorial cartoon”
— May 16, 2011, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
With questions about the alleged victim’s credibility, the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is falling apart, but in the beginning, Stewart nailed it. What a metaphor!
The story resonated with New Yorkers. It wasn’t just the IMF connection. It was about the privileged wealthy versus the poor and humble. New York has long been a city of economic contrasts, great — almost inconceivable wealth, tons of strivers, a struggling middle class, and of course the poor who we always have with us and even when some of them manage to lift themselves out of poverty within a generation or two, there are always new arrivals from third world slums.
Those of us born in this City who are well-educated and hold down good jobs — the teachers, the cops, the plumbers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, store owners, talk show hosts, financiers and so on, are often only a generation or two or three removed from poverty and oppression.
While the City does not have the kinds of gated community found in wealthy suburbs, there is often an invisible gate, hotels with suites costing several thousand dollars a day which an ordinary person may only enter through the service door, cooperatives with two laundry rooms — one for the tenants who rarely use them and another more crowded one for the servants.
There are millions of people at the lower rung who remain invisible to the wealthy or even the comfortably middle-class. These are the people that drive the taxis, work in the remaining (and sometimes secretly operating) factories, bus tables, wash dishes, and of course clean hotel rooms.
America prides itself on being, not a classless society, but a society where anyone with pluck and guts can arrive and thrive, a land of opportunity, freedom and upward mobility where the cab driver from Ghana, can dream of owning his own medallion and someday a fleet of cabs, where the bus boy may imagine opening up his own restaurant, where even a hotel housekeeper can plan a better life for herself and her daughter.
When the newspapers first reported that the head of the IMF had been taken off a plane, prevented from leaving the country and was arrested for sexually assaulting a hotel maid, New Yorkers weren’t just shocked, they were proud. The French may have been outraged watching Strauss-Kahn’s infamous perp-walk, but to New Yorkers it was a signal that there was equal justice, that even the most lowly could not be used like a toilet, and even the most powerful could not flout the law.
We were pleased that our prosecutors would pursue a case that could become politically messy. We admired our cops for believing the victim. Her story was and remains believable and supported by physical evidence. And most of all we admired the plucky maid herself, for coming forward, for standing up, for not allowing this to happen to someone else.
The newspapers didn’t create a hagiography of the victim. We did. All the elements were there — she was New York, a hard working immigrant, who came here for a better life. We didn’t know her name, but we knew her struggles. She’d come from far away. She’d seen some terrible things. We knew she was granted political asylum. She was a Muslim and wore hijab to work. Could she even do that in France? Her courage inspired us all.
And then we found out there was a lot we didn’t know. It shouldn’t surprise us. The poor can’t always afford to keep their hands clean. We know she lied to get political asylum, including a lie about having been gang raped. We’re told she claimed someone else’s child as a dependent on her taxes — though we are not told if there were any extenuating circumstances like whether or not she actually cared for her friend’s child, and spent her own money — a not unlikely scenario. We know that there were multiple phones and bank accounts in her name and this may (or may not) have something to do with her connection to a man now in jail facing drug charges.
While none of this means she wasn’t assaulted, all of it will be used by the defense if the case goes forward, a possibility less likely by the hour.
No one should be surprised that a poor woman would have a conversation with her boyfriend in jail wondering if there was any way she could cash in on pursuing charges. The bar for being a credible victim should not be perfection, but somehow we all feel a little duped, a bit conned because the maid isn’t the humble saint we created.
The whole episode I’m sure will be a movie someday. Probably one that like Reversal of Fortune or Bonfire of the Vanities explores issues of great wealth, masters of the universe who play by different rules, and lawyers who sell their services and maybe their souls. But the movie it reminds me of is the 1937 screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred. That’s the story of Hazel Flagg, a young woman from Vermont, who worked in a watch factory and was diagnosed with radium poisoning. A New York newspaper offers her a spree in New York and puts her up in a swell hotel. New Yorkers take her tragic story and courage to heart, celebrating her with girls’ clubs and many honors. But Hazel is not really dying. She found out she’d been misdiagnosed before she accepted the newspaper’s offer but she kept that secret and took what she could get. She hadn’t set out to lie, but she’s not who everyone thinks she is. She’s played by Carole Lombard, and we, the audience, are on her side the whole time. She was simply an opportunist, and what is more American than that?
Something happened between Strauss-Kahn and the housekeeper in that hotel room. No one is disputing that. It was either consensual or it wasn’t. There’s physical evidence that supports assault. We can ask ourselves which seems more likely, that Strauss-Kahn somehow “seduced” the housekeeper or that she was, as she has said attacked. My own belief is that it was more likely it happened the way the maid described it, but in Strauss-Kahn’s mind this may be a seduction. He may believe that he is irresistible, or that no means yes, or that certain kinds of woman are insatiable, or that all women are whores. That the alleged victim had a conversation about whether she could benefit financially from pursuing charges, does not make her less credible. Like Hazel Flagg, it makes her more American.