May 27, 2011, 6:04 PM
By PETER CATAPANO
There were a lot of shockers this week.
For instance, did you know that America’s top colleges were largely for the elite? No, it’s true! Or that conditions in California’s prisons were considered subhuman — so subhuman that the Supreme Court ordered that some prisoners be released early to reduce the population. Or that bafflement followed Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent, when he said that the prisoners who would be released were not likely to be in need of medical care but rather “fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym” (good thing or bad thing?), an image so un-SCOTUS-like that it must have been a subliminal nod to the fact that California had actually been run for years by a man with intimidating muscles, and we all know how that turned out.
But perhaps the most shocking revelation this week is that the French and the Americans still don’t quite understand, or apparently, even like each other.
You’d think it would be different. The mutual revulsion defies history — a history suggesting that each country owes its existence at least partly to the other, with the French Enlightenment guys cheering on the American Revolution, jazzing up the new patriots here in the 1770s, and the Yanks some 170 years later winning the war at a devastating human cost that let France keep being France, and not a beleaguered outpost of a Greater Germany.
But when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund and the person most likely to become the next president of France, was taken off a Paris-bound plane at J.F.K. airport on May 14, arrested and charged with the sexual assault of a hotel housekeeper, the ensuing arguments, drama and trans-Atlantic tabloid extravaganza just seemed to stir the old Franco-American grievances, and did little to clarify or mend.
So what is it really about? Herewith, a sampling of views.
It’s about Paris and New York.
Foster Kamer at The New York Observer : “The D.S.K. scandal has reinforced cultural differences between America and France in the most striking instance since that unfortunate period when French fries somehow became freedom fries in more conservative parts of the country. Yet, the charges against Mr. Strauss-Kahn — currently awaiting trial under a Lindsay Lohanesque house arrest in Manhattan, on a $1 million bail and a $5 million bond — are fundamentally serious and have highlighted clashes, not just between Americans and the French, but also between New Yorkers and Parisians of both nationalities. It would seem the two cities and their denizens have much in common, as liberal bastions of the mostly progressive. Yet, in recent weeks, the lines between them have become sharper.”
It is about delighting in watching the rich and powerful getting their comeuppance.
Jay McInerney in The Independent: “For blue-collar New Yorkers, no doubt, the prospect of seeing a French banker in handcuffs was deeply pleasing, particularly in the wake of the recession, which many blame on the big banks of Wall Street. And we can’t entirely discount Francophobia, which is far less prevalent here than in the heartland but which is fanned and fomented on a regular basis by the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, which famously, in the run-up to the Iraq war, branded the entire nation ‘Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys.’ At that time the Post eagerly promoted stories about boycotts against French products, printing pictures of patriots pouring bottles of Bordeaux in the gutter, although it’s doubtful that any Chateau Margaux was lost in the process.”
It’s about American barbarism.
The inflammatory French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, in one of his much-derided recent broadsides: “I maintain that we have seen a tribunal of public opinion install itself around the presumably innocent Strauss-Kahn, one which, contrary to the other, doesn’t bother with evidence or proof or contradictory accounts. And I maintain that this pseudo-tribunal is too noisy, too spectacular, too powerful not to exercise a tremendous influence on the other one, the real one, the one that strives to establish the facts, just the facts, nothing but the facts, when the time comes. The United States dreads and sanctions any pressure on witnesses, and justly so; what can one say about this other pressure, none the less criminal, exercised on the judges by the self-styled DAs of the scandal sheets and, it unfortunately follows, the press in general?”
It is about vulgar middle-aged men ruining the French ideal.
Katha Pollitt at The Nation, laments the end of the infatuation: “France, I don’t like you anymore. Because what is the point of having all those smart, cultivated, social-democratically inclined secular people if it turns out they are such self-satisfied creeps? You should listen to yourself sometime: smug, paunchy, powerful middle-aged men parading across the media going on about how Dominique Strauss-Kahn was just engaging in some typically Gallic flirtation in that Sofitel suite in Manhattan. ‘It was just a quickie with the maid,’ said the famous journalist Jean-Francois Kahn, using an antiquated idiom (troussage de domestique) that suggests trussing up a chicken. Former culture minster Jack Lang was outraged that DSK was not immediately released on bail since after all, ‘no man died.’ (He probably didn’t mean to, but he did say ‘no man’ — Il n’y a pas mort d’homme — not ‘no one’). And let’s not forget Bernard-Henri Levy, whose pretentious drivel has to be the worst thing you’ve exported to us since pizza-flavored La Vache Qui Rit. Levy can’t get over the way the New York justice system is treating his friend: ‘I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other.’ Treating a master of the universe the same as anyone else — even the African immigrant who cleaned his hotel room, quoi — isn’t that what justice is? Didn’t they teach you that in high school philosophy, M. Levy?”
It is about the future of U.S.-French relations.
Paul Berman at The New Republic: “And if the man turns out to be innocent? The damage, in that case, will end up greater yet, though maybe not so long-lasting, as when the U.S. Air Force bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. (We apologized.) But assuming the general accuracy of what has already been reported, Strauss-Kahn’s own ardor for defending himself will only succeed in compounding the original crime with a political crime. I suppose there is no point in asking him to interrogate his conscience, any more than there is in asking the editors of the New York tabloids to rethink their headlines. Maybe there might be a point in asking Strauss-Kahn’s champions in the French press and among the politicians to reflect on what they themselves are doing. The more he is defended, the thicker and chillier will be the trans-Atlantic fogs, in the future. Dear champions of DSK, réflichissez-vous! But no one is going to reflect. Anyway, a bit more caution on the part of his loyalists would scarcely help, at this point. The ocean-liner of American justice and the ice floes of French conspiracy theories are already bobbing in one another’s direction, and nothing is to be done about it, and, oh dear, has anyone figured out what to do next, post-collision?”