In ancient times we had fables, myths and parables to explain to us the vicissitudes of nature and the nature of power, stories drawn to illuminate a given culture's moral code. Today we have the news media.
As a morality tale about abuse of power, and the abuses of the powerful, the fall from grace of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the International Monetary Fund, is a doozy. Arrested last week for allegedlyassaulting and forcing sex on a housekeeper at a luxury hotel in New York, a man who once ranked among the world's most powerful now sits, forlorn, in a jail cell on Rikers Island — all because an immigrant woman in a lowly position had the temerity to tell a superior that one of her employer's very important clients had done, by her account, terrible things to her.
By any measure, it was a risky thing to do. There's a reason most rapes go unreported. But there was one thing that housekeeper knew could not be done to her for reporting her account, observes a colleague in the labor movement: she could not be fired for having done so, because of the contract between her union, the New York Hotel Trades Council, and the Sofitel Hotel at which she works.
Taken at its most literal level, the story of Strauss-Kahn's fall is rife with the iconography of a power dynamic described in texts going back to ancient times: the ravishing of female household staff by the master of the house. (It is not for nothing that a beloved sexual-fantasy meme for legions of ordinary men who seek sexual power involves a scantily-clad woman sporting a tiny apron, feather duster in hand.) Strauss-Kahn, as head of an international institution that can make or break entire nations, is the perfect modern stand-in for the role of an ancient king — or even a creature of greater stature. ABC News referred to Strauss-Kahn as a “titan,” referring to a member of the original pantheon of ancient Greek gods. (Were this simply a story about the alleged rape of a working-class woman of another profession by rich man who did not hold the fate of nations in his hands, it would not be nearly so riveting.)
And that's just first blush. When examined in a more metaphorical light, the story speaks more deeply to power relationships between haves and have-nots in any number of categories: gender, race, and the legacy of colonialism all have a hand in this tale, as do the continuing tensions produced by those dynamics. Strauss-Kahn is a white European man who, until yesterday, sat at the helm of an institution that exerts controls on the economies of countries once more overtly colonized by Europe. (As Lynn Parramore of the Roosevelt Institute pointed out, the IMF's pressure on the Congolese government to privatize its mineral resources for mining by Western companies is fueling Congo's civil war, which has resulted in the systemic rape of countless women.) She is an immigrant in a nation that will never quite accept her as one of its own; he is a citizen of the world.
No sooner had pictures of Strauss-Kahn doing the perp walk hit the wires than attacks ensued upon his accuser, by powerful men on both the left and right. The leftist philosopherBernard-Henri Lévy questioned the woman's motives in having entered Strauss-Kahn's room by herself; the right-wing shill, Ben Stein, asked why anyone should believe the word of a woman about whom nothing is known except the fact that “she is a hotel maid.”
This is how power most often works: the powerful circle their wagons around those of their own powerful class. If the ascending forces in our national politics had their way, the powerful would always prevail. Take a good look, the Strauss-Kahn case may turn out to provide an example of why the rich men of the right despise organized labor; the check on power it provides can land a titan in jail.
Within American society, the woman at the center of the Strauss-Kahn case occupies a weaker position than many women who find themselves in similar straights, but who never dare to come forward. Since Strauss-Kahn's arrest, several European women — women far better positioned to have taken the risks of making such accusations — have come forward with similar accusations against the now-diminished titan, liberated to do so by a woman who, on another day, could have been making their beds and fluffing their towels.
It could be that it's just in her make-up to do what she did in making her complaint against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, something the woman whose account brought down the mighty would have done whether her job was protected or not, something she would have done without the fellowship of her brothers and sisters in the union. But, when considering her options, having the bit of protection provided by the union likely played a role in her decision to move forward. Fellowship and solidarity surely have their place in the stories we tell to explain the nature of power.