Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Poor man's justice, rich man's justice

If indeed it is true as the New York Post and the Daily Beast report today that associates of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, recently of Riker's Island the the IMF, are trying to buy off the family of his victim, that is both gross and illegal. True or not (and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if it were true), the whole incident made me think about Americans' relationship to money and power.

And here's more gross for you: A smattering of cynical commentators on the web advise the victim of this crime to "Take the money...(because) justice is thin soup." This comment, read in The Daily Beast, is not unique. I'd bet that no one who has actually been raped would ever make such an ignorant comment, but I think it's also a symptom not only of how little abuse against women is seen as a real crime and how deluded Americans can be in regard to the value of money.

It is a critical error to suggest that the victim, a Guinean-American chamber maid from a poor family, should accept a payout to drop the charges and it is an error to imply that justice is an individual matter. Society has a mighty stake in the process of meting out punishment for crimes. The prosecution of criminal acts is not a matter of how much one person can get out of it, either in retribution or payout: Rather it is the fundamental process of maintaining a social order that reflects the commonly held values of fairness, compassion and equal protection under the law that are promised to us by our constitution. It is incumbent upon every citizen to understand that a crime against one of us - including immigrant African chambermaids - is a crime against all of us.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a bully and, now, an (alleged) criminal bully. Personally, I am glad he had his perp walk, despite French objections to that American tradition. I am glad he tried out the room service at Riker's Island and, unlike Jack Lang the former French Minister of Culture and Education who simply couldn't understand why Strauss-Kahn had been denied bail because "no one had died" (!), I think he should still be in jail. I consider it a class issue that Strauss-Kahn (like Schwarzenegger and Clinton et. al.) went after the hired help, and for me it is proof of the continuing war against women, especially poor women. I think there should be more perp walks of rich criminals. My only disappointment was that Strauss-Kahn was not wearing an orange jumpsuit! Quelle horreur that would have been, no?

Americans have been hypnotized to act contrary to their own good. I notice how Americans generally complain more vocally and angrily more about crimes committed by poor immigrants than about those committed by the rich ones who breathe the air of hushed executive suites. Americans assume (falsely) that there is some sort of basic difference between them and the folks coming from Guinea to work as chambermaids, while they are more apt to feel a connection with the powerful and wealthy. The categorization of poor brown people as the "real" criminals or the undesirable element (as in Arizona), and our group failure to punish wealthy criminals as they deserve is symptomatic of the American obsession with material wealth and our fantasy of personal power.

The big fat foible of the so-called American middle class is that it has so far failed to realize that by the economic standards of the 1960s, it no longer exists. The American middle class has had the very earth cut out from underneath it, along with its unions and its educational system, while it was distracted by a daily diet of American Idol, Real Housewives and McDonald's. The average American lives with an illusory sense of his own access to wealth and power, perhaps because of the availability of impossibly cheap goods, including a hyper-abundance of granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, but he hasn't figured out yet that he has quietly slipped down into the lower middle class in the last 40 years thanks to -- you've got it! -- the crimes of the very rich. The very rich that they idolize. The irony is nausea-inducing.

As it is, Strauss-Kahn can buy his way out of Riker's which makes him different from the rest of us less wealthy people. If the Guinean chambermaid had stolen something from his room, you can bet she'd still be in jail without bail! It's unfortunate for Strauss-Kahn that he will be fairly unpopular here because he's French, and if there's one thing Americans instinctively dislike (for the wrong reasons), it's French people. Oh, and Jewish people, too. But that's OK, I suppose, because the French dislike us just as much and anti-American sentiment is already brewing (among French men) because of our rough treatment of their guy.

As for the advice from some irresponsible parties to the chambermaid to "take the money and run", I hear the voice of The Big Me in all this. I repeat: Justice is not an individual matter, no matter what the cynics write in commentaries in the Daily Beast. Average New Yorkers (perhaps all cosmopolitan populations) believe everything to be an individual matter, purchasable and available for resale. Maybe living in cubes, wedged in between 7 million other people does that to you. The Ego of the urban dweller is trained to be selfish by the pure inconvenience of city life. In my experience, the average city person sees everything in terms of how it affects Self: Self's personal space, Self's job and Self's commute to work. The reality is the exact opposite, of course. And the prosecution of real justice is not and never should be about Self, but rather about Society vigorously protecting itself from those who do it harm.

Me? I'm breaking up with New York and the illusion that of being a few degrees of separation from money and power is an actual goal or value. No, I'm moving to a humbler place where the public transportation is green and free, where small farmers still have a chance and where, I hope, no one ever suggests that justice is for sale.

No comments: