What does the Strauss-Kahn affair say about modern society?

Thucydides writes:

It seems almost unbelievable that Strauss-Kahn, a man who is obviously of high intelligence and social skill, and who had risen to be head of the IMF and was likely to be elected the next president of France, should have sexually attacked his hotel chambermaid. One’s first response is to think this conduct must be rare, but then the case of Bill Clinton comes to mind—another man of great gifts who repeatedly engaged in adultery (Jennifer Flowers), attempts to coerce sex (Paula Jones and others), and apparently even violent assault and rape (businesswoman Juanita Broaddrick’s ABC interview, never denied). Neither man hesitated to try to force sex on women they had never before seen. Perhaps this sort of abuse is more common than we would like to think.

It strikes me as culturally significant that men of such talent and status, men who are clearly honored members of the social elite, should deport themselves in a manner no different from those at the very bottom of society, that they should be governed by appetite and impulse in the same fashion as persons of very low IQ and degraded moral character. One would say they were lacking a moral compass. What can it mean when those who are at the top of society feel no compunctions over the violent abuse of their fellow human beings? Does it not suggest that some version of the doctrine of original sin, that most men have a tendencies to evil that will emerge in the absence of constraint, may be true?

Can it be that our abandonment of the idea that there are transcendent sources of moral authority, sources external to the individual, is playing a role here? If every individual is his own moral arbiter, what is it that says that individuals should not do whatever they can successfully get away with? What is left but will and appetite?

In the case of Clinton, Jesse Jackson of all people picked up on this. I remember reading somewhere that after his first meeting with Clinton, he gave his impression to a reporter: “The man is all appetite.”

Is this sort of conduct the outcome of the failure of the Enlightenment dream that we would replace moral prescription with a universal morality founded in reason to which all individuals would necessarily consent, a project that notwithstanding the efforts of Bentham, Kant, and others has clearly failed? Does this conduct somehow proceed, at least in part, from the liberal hypervaluation of personal autonomy and the abandonment of the idea that there are transcendent moral standards to which we all must try to live up?

What does it say about us when those who occupy the heights of our society are of the character exhibited by Strauss-Kahn and Clinton?

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Jim C. writes:


Nothing. Does not good Thucydides subscribe to the rule of law which calls for presumption of innocence? Let’s first establish the facts, then philosophize—OK?

LA replies:

We already know a lot about DSK’s behavior beyond the criminal charges. See yesterday’s New York Post article about his conduct with female hotel and airline employees both before and after the alleged sexual attack. That a man in such a high position routinely behaved that way is a legitimate topic of discussion, whether or not he is found guilty of the sexual assault.

Also, Thucydides wasn’t limiting himself to Strauss-Kahn, but speaking of his alleged behavior as an example of a broader phenomenon.

Jim C. replies:

Couched in those terms, I would agree with you. However, there is a big difference between inappropriate sexual behavior and attempted rape. If IMF guy is found to be completely innocent of the charges, I believe there will be other lessons learned from this affair, and such lessons will not involve frisky Frenchmen.

Laura Wood writes:

The Strauss-Kahn affair does say one positive thing about modern society. Sexual assault against a servant is a criminal offense and even the most powerful can be brought to trial for it. For most of Western history, that was not so.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 23, 2011 09:50 AM | Send

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