18/05/2011

DSK and the Clash of Civilizations

Samuel  Huntington's famous article on the clash of civilizations focused on the differences between cultures, citing among others, potential confrontations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York highlights some fundamental differences within the Western world, especially between France/Europe and the United States. The following comments do not imply his guilt; they are observations about the nature of the debate.

The first difference, especially pronounced in Calvinist Geneva, is the separation between the private and the public. Government representatives, Europeans believe, have the right to privacy; their personal lives should remain outside the public domain. DSK was known to be a womanizer, but journalists kept most of the information to themselves, even when he was accused of using his role at the IMF improperly or eventually compromising the French government politically through a personal relationship with a relative of an important official from a foreign country. In the United States, the public wants to know about the private lives of the politicians, including spouses and children. And, beside Bill Clinton, people like Gary Hart, Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards have paid the price for pretending to be good family men. Journalists in the United States and the public are much more prodding and inquisitive.

The role of women in Europe is also quite different. Roman Polanski was supported by many in France, including the Minister of Culture, for his illegal actions with an underage girl. "Boys will be boys," seems to be the general attitude. In the United States the past behavior of DSK and the accusations against him are taken seriously. Even in American universities today, when the hormone level of both sexes tends to be extremely high, there is little official tolerance for any type of sexual harassment. Relations between faculty and students are carefully scrutinized as well as between bosses and employees in general.

And because there is greater scrutiny in the US in these matters, penalties for transgressions are much higher. Europeans seem shocked at the handcuffing of DSK and his confinement in Rikers Island. I have been to Rikers Island - just visiting I assure you - and it is no Kempinski 5 star hotel. But, the charges against DSK are serious; he risks over 70 years in prison. He is not being accused of a parking violation!

The United States is often accused of skirting the law and having a cowboy culture. In this situation, when the legal system is following the letter of the law, it is being accused of being intolerant. Au contraire! DSK is getting egalitarian treatment under US law.

May 17, 2011