It’s been reported that the prosecutors in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case have applied for the charges to be dropped. This outcome had been widely anticipated, and it follows a frankly unseemly apology for criminal process. We’ll never now learn the truth of DSK’s guilt or innocence, nor whether or not a poor woman’s life has been appallingly abused by a rich and powerful man. In every sense this is the worst possible outcome.
But if we can’t learn the truth, perhaps we can learn something else. From the moment the French politician was dramatically bundled off a plane at the last minute before it took off, and a tearful and traumatised woman was paraded before the world’s media, the entire process has been more circus and soap opera than it has been dispassionate search for the facts. The public playing-out of the drama was never anything to do with justice. Rather, the half-digested and repeatedly-leaked factoids of the case have been assembled into a number of contrasting and pre-determined narratives.
First, we have what might be termed the “feminist” narrative. In this version, a woman is always a victim, and a man is always an aggressor. The drama is not about sexual misconduct, but about power. Rich white man versus poor black woman. Oppressor versus oppressed. Powerful versus powerless. This story was just too good to miss for those for whom this narrative already had resonance. The facts came a poor second to a morality tale crying out to be told.
Second, we have the “Gallic” narrative, or perhaps more broadly, the “New World-Old World” narrative. Thus the French press saw the narrative as a ritualised humiliation of the francophone world at the hands of the anglophone one. The outrage was again nothing to do with the sexual behaviour of a politician, but rather about the crass, tasteless upstart having the temerity to insult the sophisticated, suave hauteur of its cultural betters.
And third, we have the “titillation” narrative, where the sexual athleticism of DSK, his wife’s long-suffering support for him, the queue of others lining up to bring further accusations to light, the sheer pornographic frisson of oral sex, inter-racial liaison, and older man and younger woman sexual activity, together provided a rich tabloid diet in which facts were unimportant and peripheral, and sensationalism crucial and central.
Perhaps we can learn that justice is not served by attempts to wrap the facts around pre-existing prejudices of whatever kind. Perhaps we can learn that justice is not served when public spectacle usurps quiet investigation. Most important, we must learn that when we put our desire to be entertained above the real lives of those we want to entertain us, then truth and justice are the first and last casualties. I have no idea whether DSK is a bad man, nor whether Nafissatou Diallo is a wicked and manipulative woman. Nor, I suspect, do you, no matter which of those positions was the one you held. But I’ll bet you held one or the other. And that’s the tragedy.