There was no advanced script for how to react to Saturday's arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Shock was a reasonable response. Suspicion, too, as well as indignation aimed at the man with a history of reckless sexual behavior whose arrest has thrown the IMF into disarray.
Famed French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, though, saw this as an opportunity to place the blame precisely where he felt it belonged: with the American system of justice, with the global media and with the woman who has come forward with her own tale of sexual assault at the hands of Strauss-Kahn. In an essay authored by Lévy for his own blog and for the Daily Beast, the public intellectual had harsh words for "the American judge who ... pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other." (Who ever heard of such a notion?) Strauss-Kahn may deserve the benefit of the doubt in Lévy's eyes, but he has none for Tristane Banon, who has accused Strauss-Kahn of a 2002 attack. "This other young woman, this one French, pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape," Lévy writes, "but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television."
American observers were bemused and horrified. Matt Duss, a national security policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, tweeted: "Bernard Henri-Levy singlehandedly making me rethink the whole freedom fries thing." A day later others -- including Gawker, Washington Post blogger Melissa Bell and Tom Scocca -- took notice as well.
Yet for those with memories extending beyond the present news cycle, Lévy's stance is hardly a surprise. In September 2009, Lévy led an effort to mobilize artists and writers on behalf of another accused rapist -- Roman Polanski. During that same period, Lévy took to a number of outlets -- the Huffington Post among them -- to remind the world that "there are degrees in the scale of crimes." Polanski's admitted crime against a 13 year old girl was a small matter, Lévy suggested, when seen with the proper perspective.
Lévy's Q-rating, however, barely suffered from this conspicuous public defense of rape. The New York Times review of his most recent book did not allude to the matter. Stephen Colbert -- an incisive interviewer, despite his habit of conducting interrogations in character -- also failed to question Lévy about Polanski when the philosopher came on his show in January. The Daily Beast also neglected to bring up the issue when it interviewed Lévy earlier this year.
The phenomenon is not unique to Lévy or French philosophers. The Tennessee Freedom Coalition's decision to honor Dutch politician Geert Wilders at an event last week caused little uproar -- despite the latter's habit of hate speech against Muslims. FOX News, meanwhile, has hosted the British aristocrat Christopher Monckton on its programs, not batting an eyelash at his bizarre conspiracy theories about implementation of a one-world government or his stated belief that AIDS victims should be quarantined for life. (With shades of Larry the Cable Guy and deceptive understatement, Glenn Beck introduced Monckton on his show as "the guy who got it done" with his arguments against climate change science.)
For some reason, foreigner commentators seem to be imbued with a previously non-existent gravitas upon setting foot in front of American audiences -- whether or not they even remotely deserve it. Maybe it's the accents. Or maybe it's a general lack of knowledge of the intricacies of foreign politics, and the inability to adequately judge whether the foreign pundit at hand is a legitimate figure or his or her country's equivalent of Michele Bachmann.
Regardless, it remains distressing that Bernard-Henri Lévy was provided a first opportunity to excuse rape one day and merrily go about his American book tour the next. Now that his flippant dismissal of sexual assault allegations has proven pathological, will Lévy finally be held accountable by either the mainstream or literary media? If recent history is any indication, probably not.