America loves seeing the lacquered armor of class stripped away and discarded; it is, after all, what this country is about. Aristocratic gentility and privilege have no value here. In America, all men and women stand equal before government and the law. Justice is blind to breeding and power, etc., etc., etc.
So of course Dominique Strauss-Kahn got the perp walk, the handcuffs, the night in New York City's infamous "tombs," the blazing cameras broadcasting high-definition images of him, unshaven and rumpled, staring back from the prisoner's dock in a Manhattan courthouse.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn got the full Sherman McCoy, to invoke the hapless protagonist in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. Like McCoy, the high-earning Wall Street "master of the universe" who, by leaving the scene of an accident, blundered into a world of race politics and class envy he barely knew existed, Strauss-Kahn offered New York City authorities a real-life opportunity to demonstrate their utter indifference to privilege.
Especially French privilege. No bail for Strauss-Kahn, cried the district attorney, and the judge agreed. After all, the director of the International Monetary Fund, who had already surrendered his passport, might somehow flee. Roman Polanski did just that 33 years ago, after all.
Strauss-Kahn is suffering one great injustice, and I haven't heard it mentioned once in all the uproar, all the instant analysis of the Strauss-Kahn case on the cable networks, and all the shocked reporting from the other side of the Atlantic.
Strauss-Kahn is what Wolfe incomparably described as the Great White Defendant. And perhaps he is indeed guilty, as Sherman McCoy was.
Moreover, the average New Yorker wouldn't have been treated much differently, with the probable exception of denial of bail. Anyone who's ever read an American detective thriller or watched Law and Order knows what going into the New York "system" means.
But Strauss-Kahn is suffering one great injustice, and I haven't heard it mentioned once in all the uproar, all the instant analysis of the Strauss-Kahn case on the cable networks, and all the shocked reporting from the other side of the Atlantic.
He has already been ruined. His political career is almost certainly in ashes, even if he's acquitted. Unless the French collectively decide to repudiate the vulgar Americans, Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be his country's next president. Nor is he likely to continue as director of the IMF, making decisions to save or sink the economies of entire nations. At a guess, his marriage is in trouble, too. Beautiful, rich, high-profile French women don't care for such exposure.
Like all complainants in sexual assault cases, his accuser's identity is protected. The American system, like Canada's, recognizes that sexual assault, or rape, carries such a special stigma for the victim in our society that public identification can victimize them even further.
It's an understandable rule. Enough rapes go unreported as it is. Imagine what would happen if every rape victim knew that reporting the crime would result in a gaggle of television cameras outside her home or place of work.
Here's the thing, though: No such courtesy is extended to the accused, and being accused of rape carries a pretty powerful stigma, too.
The accused is not only perp-walked for the cameras, his (or in extremely rare cases, her) address is often published, along with all the lurid details of the accusation. So it is for Mr. Strauss-Kahn.
At least Strauss-Kahn, though, has the means to hire the very best lawyers available, and mount a vigorous defence. Doing so will not leave him destitute, and given his international reputation and experience, he will probably be able to earn some sort of decent living if acquitted.
Not so for Lesser White Defendants.
Take Sean Lanigan, for example. As the Strauss-Kahn drama unfolds in Manhattan, Lanigan sits at home in Fairfax County, Va., contemplating an unfairly ruined life and career.
Until January, 2010, Lanigan was a successful, well-liked coach and educator at Centre Ridge school. Then a female student, irritated at being reproached by Lanigan for bullying, cried rape. Lanigan was hauled out of class and arrested. He spent four nights in jail. His name was broadcast on television; his family put through the attendant humiliation of the cameras outside the door.
For months he was forbidden to coach, or even go near students. He went through $125,000 in lawyer's fees. Eventually, a jury acquitted him. Actually, the jury was so outraged after hearing evidence of his young accuser's treachery that it acquitted him in 47 minutes. One of the jurors, a woman, wept during closing arguments.
But, the system being what it is, Lanigan remains, to an extent, condemned. Just to be on the safe side, the school district transferred him to another school far from Centre Ridge, something that eventually cost his wife her job.
School officials are refusing to reimburse his legal fees, even though Virginia law allows it when someone is unjustly charged. In fact, he's been presented with a long list of "expectations" by the school board, telling him — a soccer coach — to avoid placing himself in physical proximity to students, or being alone in a classroom with any of them.
In other words, Sean Lanigan is innocent, but his punishment continues. And his accuser remains anonymous, protected by a system … for the good of all.
Being a reporter, I'm usually all for publishing the facts and be damned about the results. I know all the arguments for open courts and public proceedings. I agree with most of them.
But would it hurt, in cases of rape or sexual assault, to keep the name of the accused as well as the accuser confidential, at least until there's a guilty verdict? Even for Great White Defendants?