Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rogue Shepherd

The recent arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on charges of sexually assaulting, forcibly confining and attempting to rape a hotel maid can be properly seen as a victory for the rule of law. While the American legal system asks us to presume innocence until guilt has been established in a court of law, the very fact that Strauss-Kahn is being held to answer these charges in a court of law is a welcome testimony to the principle that no one is above the law.

Removed from a plane bound for Paris moments before its take-off, and now most recently denied bail as a flight risk, Strauss-Kahn – often discussed as a potential future President of France – appears headed to a criminal trial in an American court. That his accuser, a hotel maid who has been reported in the media as a female of African descent, was taken seriously and properly treated by American law enforcement officials is also greatly cheering given the tremendous power disparities between her and the IMF head.

I will leave for late night TV hosts the low hanging fruit of commenting on how similar this incident is to the IMF’s typical interactions with Africa. Rather, I would suggest that we can use this incident to reflect on fundamental issues of equality and inequality.

While we can applaud the fair application of the law, we should not allow this to distract us from the basic social and economic structures that have created a society where some stay in lavish $3,000 a night hotel rooms and others are maids who might not make as much in a month of work. Were we to don John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”, would we accept that a role of the dice could put us in the maid’s or in Strauss-Kahn’s position. Perhaps yes, as the interest-maximizing logic of Capital and “free markets” has convinced many of us that the greater good is served by allowing individuals to acquire resources beyond basic human needs. Perhaps yes, as the maid in question would appear to enjoy considerable legal protections against exploitation. Yet, what is particularly significant in this case is that we are not talking about a relation between a successful business person and a service worker – it is a relationship between a political leader and a citizen.

When teaching the Republic I make the claim to my students that Plato’s philosopher-kings are alive and well – and among us in figures such as Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan of the US Federal Reserve. (Appointed to office, not elected; chosen on the basis of their education, wisdom and prudence; able to see Ideal Forms such as “consumer confidence” where the rest of us merely grapple with the individual choice of whether or not to upgrade to a flat screen TV; and, charged with leading the flock through hard times.) By any yardstick, as an intergovernmental organization designed to oversee the global financial system, the IMF and its leaders seem to bear a clear responsibility to look after the public good. When those shepherds abuse the powers of their office for personal gain or pleasure, we want a system in place to check those abuses. Perhaps, however, this extends beyond the personal foibles of Strauss-Kahn and we should ask what systems have been put in place to compel us to understand and obey the orders of philosopher-king experts. What should our shepherds cost us?

Noah W. Sobe
Loyola University Chicago

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