Just a quick note to readers before I begin: this blog is NOT about environmental degradation – at least not in a physical sense. Although Catholic social teaching has many terrific things to say about our responsibility to be good stewards of this beautiful world and protect this essential goodness from human activities that could physically foul it, the focus of this blog another kind of human activity – one that is no less destructive and has unfortunately been in the news almost constantly lately – that brings about another type of human degradation…one not of the human environment per se but more alarmingly of the human person herself.
As I’m sure almost every reader is unfortunately aware – the news media of late has been riddled with stories of men in prestigious positions behaving very badly. Whether we are speaking of libidinous lawmakers, sports figures who definitely do not “play by the rules” or the increasing roster of “governors gone wild”, the news media is littered with stories of men in positions of power whose behavior shows a complete disregard – and lack of respect – for their families generally, but most especially for the women in their lives. To turn on the news over the past few years has been has been like watching an ongoing slideshow of tawdry male behavior. Recent months have only seen this trend continue…moving inexorably from the tragic: with story of former Senator John Edwards two-timing his cancer stricken wife with a celebrity obsessed groupie, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitting after years of denying allegations of marital infidelity that he indeed did father a child with his housekeeper-mistress, to the ridiculous: culminating with the media circus concerning the recently resigned Congressman Anthony Wiener tweeting lewd self-portraits across the Ethernet to women he did not know.
In the midst of all of these public and personal tragedies and the multiple indignities they foist upon the innocent however, the one that stands out to me as the most outrageous – indeed the one that screams of the most misogynistic mindset – is the alleged sexual assault of a 32 year old widowed immigrant mother from Guinea by French politician and former International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn when the young African housekeeper came in to clean his $3,000 a night Presidential Hotel Suite in the Sofitel Hotel last month. Now, I have to admit that when this alleged assault first took place, I had never heard of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or DSK as he is known to those “in the know”); I had however most definitely heard of the International Monetary Fund, or IMF. First established in the wake of the Second World War in 1945, its mandate was to assist struggling economies towards financial recovery. Building on the successes that it had in helping European economies to recover after the Great War, the IMF from the early 1960s onward went on to offer loans to nations in the developing world aimed at securing their own economic growth, an activity that earned the IMF a decidedly mixed reputation as an enforcer of strict “structural adjustments” – austerity programs mandated as a condition of receiving loans, the burden of which fell most heavily upon the poor. In the year 2000, the Jubilee Justice Campaign – which Blessed John Paul II and the United States Bishops’ Conference were major supporters of and which was a wonderful example of Catholic social teaching in action – succeeded in altering these “structural readjustments” undoing many of the most usurious conditions enforced on the poorest and most highly indebted of developing nations. In recent years, the IMF has begun a period of recovery and repentance and – after the financial collapse hit in 2008 – the fund roared back into prominence, bailing out the “newly” financially struggling economies of Ireland, Portugal and Greece.
It was during this period that Dominique Strauss-Kahn – or “DSK” – rose to prominence. A top French economics professor, Financial Minister, socialist philosopher and presumptive candidate for the French Presidency, DSK was a shrewd, capable financier who rescued the IMF from its from its less then illustrious past just in time to save the European economy. It was then – when he was basically acting as Europe’s wallet – that DSK had the encounter with the young African immigrant woman that would change both their lives: she in her work uniform carrying her cleaning supplies during her appointed rounds, he emerging unclothed from the bathroom of his Presidential hotel suite; when she apologized and tried to leave according to police, he chased her down, grabbed her, locked the door and physically assaulted her. She finally escaped, and when her co-workers at the hotel contacted police about the assault, DSK had already fled the high-class midtown hotel for a First Class seat on AirFrance bound for Paris. The police came on board to remove him handcuffed from the plane – had the jet successfully taken off, he would have been safe from extradition to face the charges against him.
During his rise, DSK – who has been married 3 times – developed a wide reputation as a serial seducer of women, earning him the moniker of being a “chaud lapin” (or “hot rabbit”) in French. In New York, the term that such slippery behavior would earn him is a much less cute nick-name – here, we would call him a “player”….of course, if he is found guilty of the activity which is alleged, he is something much, much worse than this – he is – plain and simple – a predator.
Reaction to DSK’s arrest and the allegations against him have been almost as extreme as the behavior that he has been charged with – and have exposed a difference of opinion between Americans and Europeans almost as wide as the ocean that separates us from one another. Here at Catholic Charities, a colleague of mine just returned from a trip to Scotland where she participated in a symposium that brought together people from all over the continent; as she was telling me about her trip, she said that DSK was very much on the mind of all the Europeans there, and that they were very upset that he had been arrested. He was – as the presumptive candidate for the French Presidency – in their words “the best hope for France”. Within France itself, the American justice system has come under attack for its treatment of DSK – with that country’s leading philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy denouncing the judge in DSK’s case for “pretending to take him (DSK) for a subject like any other” even though he is – in Levy’s words “a defender of proletarian nations and the fragile and vulnerable among us.”
Now here, I have to say that I am a major fan of our system of justice in the United States where every person is innocent until proven guilty. In this regard DSK is no exception…I also realize that as regards politics in Europe – from financial policy, to immigration issues, to xenophobia, to the on-going military campaign in Libya – the continent’s best and brightest minds are desperately needed on task. That being said, I guess what really disturbs me about some of these reactions is the near invisibility and lack of concern for the alleged victim of this crime – herself such a perfect example of the “proletarian…fragile and vulnerable among us” that you would think she was found in central casting. I must admit here that I am not really surprised by some of these opinions: living in New York and doing the work that I do has allowed me the opportunity to meet many people who work in international development – both at the United Nations and through religiously affiliated organizations. Most of the people that I have met have been some of the kindest and most dedicated servants of the common good that I have ever had the pleasure to know, but to be honest I do know some – the sophisticates mostly – whose attitudes, assumptions and quips about people they meet from the developing world make me question their true dedication to their chosen careers. That’s where frankly the idea for the title of this blog came from – how in the world can someone do a good job at constructing and promoting conditions that foster economic justice for all when in particular circumstances they treat those who would be the beneficiaries of those conditions as mere objects to be disregarded, used, thrown away. I think that it is here that Catholic social teaching can give us great insight into the attitudes we all need to foster full human flourishing for ourselves and others: Solidarity – as one of the 7 principles of Catholic social teaching is essential, but it is only built – as are all the other 6 Principles– on the 1st and foundational principle of our social teaching, namely respect for the life and dignity of every human person. Without this firm foundation, our dedication to the true common good for us and for others is about as secure as house built upon sand.
Soon after his arrest, DSK resigned his position at the IMF, prompting an international search for a replacement for him. Traditionally, the roll of Managing Director has been chosen from candidates who hail from the wealthy industrialized countries of Europe, with a French incumbent leading it for 36 of its 65 years. The search for a new director still continues. I myself have my own suggestion of a candidate who I met just recently that believe has the vision that is required to do an effective job. I was reminded of this candidate during a phone call with the colleagues that I traveled to Africa with this past September with Catholic Relief Services. During that call, my colleague Anna recounted our visit to a little village a few hours drive from Dire Dawa in Eastern Ethiopia where we went to see a well that was drilled in the past year by the community with assistance received from CRS. During our visit, the village spokesperson and manager of the water project – with all the villagers assembled around him – spoke proudly about the work that their community undertook to get the water system up and running. When he was asked by one of our group “What changes the provision of the well water had brought”, his eyes filled with tears, and said quietly: “We had no bad water to cause dehydration or dysentery because of the well – none of our children died this year”. All that were around him hung their heads – not in shame but in sheer emotion.
I’m not sure what the specific skill sets required are to fill the position of Managing Director of the IMF – and I’m not sure that that he would possess all the technical knowledge – but certainly that manager of that well who I met outside Dire Dawa, Ethiopia would not only understand the importance of the work of development; he would also have his priorities strait…unlike so many who think they see the forest – but need to see the trees as well.