Fareed Zakaria: So, in light of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, we wanted to explore just how different our laws and morals in American and in Europe. To help answer that question and to talk about many other topics, a terrific panel from both sides of the pond.
Across the Atlantic, in Nice, France, is French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. Sitting with me but actually hailing from the United Kingdom is Columbia University's Simon Schama. And representing the Americas, I suppose, Bret Stephens is The Wall Street Journal's foreign affairs columnist, and Chrystia Freeland is global editor-at-large at Reuters.
Bernard-Henri Levy, I'm going to start with you because you have been a prominent participant in the whole affair DSK. There's a column in The New York Times by Joe Nocera in which he says - describing your writings on these issues, "To judge by his recent writings, Bernard-Henri Levy prefers to live in a country where elites are rarely held to account, where crimes against women are routinely excused with a wink and a nod, and where people without money or status are treated like the nonentities that the French moneyed class believe they are. I'd rather live here," he says.
You are of course in Nice, and happy to be there, but what do you say to this columnist?
Bernard-Henri Levy: What I tell him is, first of all, is that I love America. I'm a defender of America. I so often explain that anti-Americanism is a sort of form of fascism, and that I hate sometimes the way in which America is cartooned, and sometimes by itself.
The image of the justice which was given in the first days of this Strauss-Kahn affair was a cartoon image. It was not America. It was not the judicial system which de Tocqueville praised so highly and which he exhibited as the model for the whole world.
For somebody like me who likes America as much as France, it was heartbreaking, and when I said that, I did not defend my friend, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I defend the idea which I have of justice in general and of American justice in particular.
Fareed Zakaria: But, let me ask you, you - again Nocera says I don't see what Vance did wrong. The woman alleged rape. She had no criminal record. Her employer vouched for her. The quick decision to indict made a lot of sense for legal and practical reasons.
Then, as the victim's credibility crumbled, the district attorney didn't pretend that he still had a slam dunk. He acknowledged the problem.
Levy: What he did bad was to consider from the very first minute without having heard the word, the voice, of Dominique Strauss- Kahn, that he was a guilty one. What he did wrong was to offer him to the whole world as a sort of beast, as a sort of perv, as a sort of criminal by essence and substance.
The jail, the shame, the public humiliation, the leaks organized to the tabloid press, presenting the facts in a completely disordered way.
What he does now, which is to leave the two parties free and to fact check, to double cross the information, to try to understand what really happened in this Sofitel suite, this is right. And if there has been a crime, if there has been a rape or an attempt of rape, it is a big crime, and it will have to be punished.
Zakaria: Simon Schama, in his column at The Daily Beast, Bernard-Henri Levy says that this is like Robespierre. You wrote a book on the French Revolution, do you think that there's any parallel?
Simon Schama: I can understand Bernard's passion about that, but, as we know, the guillotine was the conclusion of that. That's not exactly what happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
What I wanted to say to Bernard and to the discussion is that, you know, much of what he says I share, but I think it boils down to this kind of very lurid relationship between the tabloid press and the nature of criminal prosecution. Spectacular criminal prosecution or criminal apprehension, potential criminal apprehension as a kind of public spectacle –
There is something in American public life which actually assumes it not to be problematic, actually, to make a show even before any guilt is necessarily proven.
Levy: You have this tendency, and also in France, and I was even more severe or as severe concerning France than America, you have this tendency to mix show and justice.
And when you saw the lawyer of the maid expressing himself, having a sort of a bad press conference on the stairs of the court and describing in such a graphic way the most intimate parts of the body of his client, this was not only graphic, it was pornographic.
Maybe Strauss-Kahn rapes, maybe we'll see - the attorney will say, but the lawyer this day committed also a sort of symbolic rape. You cannot speak of your client, when she's a woman, in such a rude way, coming again and again to the world to the parts of the body and so on. All this way of giving a theater show for all the press all over the world, this was really problematic.
Freeland: None of you have mentioned something - the thing that actually angered me the most about how Dominique Strauss-Kahn was treated, and actually mostly the media treatment, which is I think something quite characteristic of America and I hope that Europe doesn't import, which is the confusion of promiscuity with sexual assault. What I really didn't like was in the early stories about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, people talking about, well, he's had affairs.
I don't think that's relevant, and actually I think it's so important for women and feminists to take a very firm stand on saying a person's personal sexual ethics have no bearing whatsoever on wrongdoing and on criminal activity. And why this is so important is it used to be the case that we would say it wasn't possible for a woman to be raped or assaulted if she was loose, if she had affairs or slept around, and equally I think just because a man has affairs, which Dominique Strauss-Kahn was known to do, it doesn't mean we should assume he's more likely to rape someone.
Zakaria: But you think - you wrote in your column, you said, look, the guy's a sleaze and he probably did it.
Bret Stephens: No, I didn't say that.
Zakaria: What did you say?
Stephens: I said that's what I was inclined to think, and I reproached myself for having that thought because, look, we liked our news to –
Zakaria: But by saying he's probably a sleaze.
Stephens: He is probably a sleaze, and there's a lot of information to testify to that, which is not in dispute, including sleeping with chambermaids in New York City hotels and his affair for which he was reprimanded by the IMF, and a long trail of stories emerging from his past in France. But Chrystia is entirely right. Being a sleaze is not the same as being a criminal.
And our problem here, which is I think universal, not just an American one, is that we liked our news to have the quality of a parable. And here there was a parable - really, whatever your political persuasion happened to be, if you were a feminist of a certain point of view, it was, as Chrystia says, this is a guy who's a sort of a sexual rogue, hence he must be a rapist.
If you had a maybe a right of center persuasion, you didn't like Strauss-Kahn, you didn't like French socialists, you don't like the lending policies of the IMF, there was a sense of delight this guy had been pulled from his first-class Air France seat and sent to Rikers Island in the best American traditions.
So it all came together to convict the man before anyone - most of us, including myself, had asked some common-sense questions, not the least of which was does this really make sense for him to do? And were the details that were known to us merely from the very beginning of the trial, did they correspond to the idea that - that a sexual assault had actually taken place?
I think this happens in more than just the case of DSK. I think it's pervasive in the was we make news judgments about different stories. We mistake anecdote for data, and that's what we did here. There were anecdotes about DSK and we suggested that this led inescapably to a conclusion. We forget that stories in life and in history as well tend to be crooked.
Zakaria: We're going to leave the DSK business here, but with one footnote that we need to remember - rape charges are still pending against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.