Tuesday, July 5, 2011

L'affaire DSK.

None of us really know for certain if Dominique Strauss-Kahn is guilty or innocent of rape.  What we do know is that since his arrest at JFK Airport, he has been the story de jure.  Perhaps it hasn’t reached the OJ level, but coverage has been both sensational and obsessive.  To be sure, such a rapid fall from grace for the IMF’s Managing Director and a presumptive candidate for the Presidency of France is legitimate news.  DSK was expected to mount a defense that the sex was consensual — there appears to be some physical evidence that it took place.  But isn’t it fair to ask what brings one of the world’s top financial leaders, a married man to wit, to have sex with a 32-year-old Guinean hotel housekeeper?  What was he thinking?  Inexplicably, some in DSK’s party in France have indicated that, if exonerated, his career might well get back on track.  Right.  He also remains popular in the country’s opinion polls.  Go figure.  Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford et al take note.

However intriguing the particulars may be to some, I see l’affaire DSK as an opportunity not to be missed.  Rape (an often white-collar crime) deserves far more of our attention than it gets.  The real take away from this unfolding story is familiar to any woman in America and probably throughout the world.  Rape is a crime rarely witnessed, one that boils down to that already doubt-casting characterization: she says, he says.  That dubious premise is compounded by the predictable claim of consensual sexshe wanted it.  Once a defense is mounted by the accused, it almost always focuses on the credibility — and perhaps more so background and reputation — of the accuser.  In contrast, the accused’s history is often deemed inadmissible and prejudicial.  So inevitably it’s the victim who is put on trial.  In this case, the New York District Attorney’s office is also being put in the dock, accused of a rush to judgment, of excessive reaction.  The point is to focus attention elsewhere and to blame anyone but the accused. What’ we’re witnessing here follows a classic pattern.

Indeed it is this predictable course that accounts in part for rape being the most underreported crime. Moreover, according to a CBS study only 25% of accused rapists are arrested (much lower than for other crimes) and of course just some of them end up in court, much less are convicted.  But the difficulty of gaining a conviction is just one problem.  Rape, especially for some cultural and religious groups, is a mark of shame.  Just as defense lawyers focus on the victim’s past or culpability, many women feel themselves, or are made to feel, guilty.  How could I let that happen to me; how could I do that to my family or to the man in my life?  In some societies, raped women are punished, even killed, transformed from victim to the criminal who had sex with a man other than her husband.  Even in America, married women or those in a relationship can feel too ashamed to report their rapes to a partner assuming (often with good reason) that he may think less of them or consider them damaged goods.

The perpetrators of rape are often men of power — people like DSK but also fathers or, as we have learned in the past years, trusted priests.  One of the defense points being made in this case is that the woman delayed in reporting the attack.  She went on to clean perhaps another powerful guest’s expensive room before coming forward.  In fact, counselors and other professionals dealing with rape will tell you that delayed reporting is not at all unusual, and we’re talking here about a matter of hours, fast enough to prevent DSK’s takeoff on the same day.  Just think of the still uncounted number of rape victims of predator priests who waited not hours but years, even decades, before reporting their abuse.  Again, I have no way of knowing if the victim in this case is telling the truth, but challenging her credibility because she didn’t run to a supervisor or immediately phone the police is, in context,  ridiculous on its face.

As information unfolds regarding his accuser’s misstatements to police about her life, it has been reported that many in France are expressing indignation over how their beloved DSK has been treated and anger in general about our system of justice.  Again, absent all the facts, it’s premature to know if this was indeed a rush to judgment or even if the case will ever be tried.  When it comes to rape and the hurdles that must be overcome, even a not-guilty verdict in court doesn’t necessarily mean that the accused is innocent.  Rape is more often than not a serial crime.  One of the reasons New York authorities were so quick to act is that DSK has a reputation and indeed a French writer, Tristane Banon, is expected to file an attempted rape complaint against him in the next few days.  Father rapists with more than one daughter often repeat their crime with the younger sister and those priests all abused multiple youngsters (in this case boys), often over a long period of time.

The French may be angry because they, like many Europeans, claim to have a less Puritanical view of sex than do we, including a tolerance for infidelity. Mark Oppenheimer’s June 30 Times Magazine piece on infidelity may shed some light on whether that perception holds water.  It is a fact that, while President Fran├žois Mitterrand openly maintained a mistress (and a second family) without penalty, we impeached Bill Clinton for Monica.   I’ll let you judge whose mores on infidelity make more sense, but even the open-minded French should know that rape falls into an entirely different category.

What is it that these men don’t understand about the word no?  Whether Strauss-Kahn is guilty or not, it now appears that he may very well walk.  In doing so, he’ll be following the norm, the rule not the exception in rape cases.  There is something terribly wrong, no rotten, about that.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Affirmation of Marriage Act

Archbishop Timothy Dolan characterized it as not good for the common good, adding his assessment that…society and culture is at it’s peril.  I couldn’t disagree more.  The day the Republican controlled Senate passed and Democratic Governor Cuomo signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York was exceedingly good for the common good, a glimmer of hope for our society and culture.  It merits the traditional prayer invoked by Jews in giving thanks for sustaining us and bringing us to this day.  As the Psalmist put it, This is a day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.  Indeed, rejoice — each and every one of us straight and gay, followers of a religion or not — and be very glad.  The Archbishop would do well to read Frank Bruni’s touching June 25th column, To Know Us Is to Let Us Love, one I hope you’ll check out as well.  I can’t think of a better lesson in society and culture.

President Obama, who believes it unconstitutional, has ordered the Justice Department to stop representing the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by, yes, Bill Clinton in 1996.  That misguided legislation, initiated by self appointed arbiters of family values, assumes that defining marriage narrowly, in the traditional way, will somehow protect the institution.  That’s nothing short of snake oil sold to the public by rightist and religious ideologues.  We all know uniting a man and woman in wedlock is no guarantee of marital success.  America’s divorce rate is disturbingly high.  If traditional marriage has been undermined, we can only blame the different-sex partners whom our society has long allowed the exclusive privilege of tying — and breaking — the knot.

While divorced myself, I continue to believe strongly in the institution of marriage and in the underlying idea it tokens — human commitment.  Make no mistake, what happened in New York and in too few other places, is perhaps the most powerful affirmation of marriage we have seen in our lifetime.  It is the most concrete statement that nothing bespeaks a commitment between two people more than marriage.  No one should be robbed of that ultimate statement.  Civil Unions, the better-than-nothing copout available in some places, fall short — far short.  Faux, however we may dress it up, is never the real thing and we all know it.

I may totally disagree with Archbishop Dolan and deplore that he and other likeminded religious leaders across many faiths have lobbied so hard against same-sex marriage or have sought to impose their often narrow beliefs on the lives of the greater public.  Nowhere is this more egregious than on the issue of abortion whose latest manifestation is defunding Planned Parenthood under the guise of fiscal responsibility.  Like others, I deeply resent that they have invaded my private space.  

That said, I applaud the New York legislature for indemnifying religious institutions that opt not to sanction or host same-sex marriages under their roofs.   This has been portrayed as a pragmatic tactic in gaining the necessary majority, and that is undoubtedly the case.  But I think it far more significant and, as such, should not be seen as merely an expedient.  In fact, supporters of same-sex marriage (religious or not) should embrace any affirmation of religious freedom, perhaps especially for religious ideas with which we totally disagree, as much as the legalization of marriage equality itself.  Just as the government has no business in our bedrooms, it has no right to impose its will in our church, synagogue or mosque.  If clergy or a church refuses, a couple has other options and, from a legal standpoint, one could say more direct even if not preferable options.  Clergy who officiate at a wedding — execute a marriage license, which makes it binding — do so as agents of the state, surrogate civil servants if you will.   Real civil servants, judges and the like, officiate at weddings all the time.

What happened in New York is just another step on a long journey, perhaps one that will take years.  The President himself has not come out unambiguously in support of same-sex marriage.  It’s high time that he do so, but even that won’t turn the tide in 29 states that have adopted Constitutional Amendments and thus far, a change in recent polls notwithstanding, voters have turned down marriage equality whenever it has appeared on a ballot.  Also, the Supreme Court will be asked to rule on this subject and, given their current ideological makeup, one can’t be sure how they will interpret the Constitution.  Building even wider public support and enacting legislation where possible, biding for time, is probably not such a bad thing.  Also, with a growing number of states that have adopted marriage equality, same-ex couples now have options not available in the past.  Perhaps one day I'll have the privlege of officiating at the wedding of two loving partners finally afforded the marriage right and opportuntiy that I had, a brith right that should have been equally their's, and now will be in New York.

For the moment, let’s not think of the obsticals ahead but of the progress that has been made.  On June 23, 1963, John F. Kennedy traveled to Berlin where a wall had been erected separating East from West.  In an affirmation of solidarity, Kennedy famously declared, Ich bin ein Berliner.  It’s been five years since I moved to North Carolina from New York where I lived for most of my adult years.  I may be voting and paying taxes in Chapel Hill, but last Friday I was a New Yorker, and damn proud of it.