May 2011, Week 4


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Mon, 23 May 2011 21:41:29 -0400
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Accusing DSK of Sexual Assault Took Guts -- But Union
Protection Is Essential

A woman attacked by her employer's very powerful
customer was perhaps empowered to come forward knowing
her union contract meant she wouldn't lose her job for

By Adele M. Stan


May 19, 2011


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
allegedly assaulting 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

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.) Strauss-Kahn's alleged victim
is a black African woman from Guinea, a former French
colony. 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 philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy 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 straits, 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.

[Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.]


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