Mike McGovern, a Yale anthropology professor, has written a New York Times op-ed asking us to “consider the context” before judging the Guinean maid who has accused French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping her in the Sofitel where she worked. “Revelations” about the maid, McGovern writes, suggest that she lied on her asylum application (or, as McGovern puts it, that she “embellished” that application); lied on her tax returns (oops! I meant “fudged”); profited from as yet unexplained, but to all appearances criminal, behavior; and possibly lied to New York investigators about the hotel incident. But the exculpating “context,” according to McGovern, includes Guinea’s abusive, kleptocratic leaders; its high levels of national poverty; the free-trade policies of Strauss-Kahn’s former employer, the International Monetary Fund; and Americans who use aluminum cookware made with Guinean bauxite supplied by nasty multinational corporations.
Such awful conditions are ubiquitous in the Third World. Yet knowing that they exist, Congress still passed immigration laws regulating who has a right to enter the United States. If coming from an abysmal culture justified fraudulent entry into the U.S., we should junk our legislated immigration regime and declare the borders open to all. Until we do, to “understand the circumstances in which such deception could occur,” as McGovern urges us to do, doesn’t justify breaking the law and lying on an asylum application. Certainly one feels great sympathy for people born into dysfunctional countries, especially since being born into a law-abiding, stable regime had nothing to do with one’s own merit or behavior. But it is precisely the rule of law that makes the U.S. so attractive.
McGovern doesn’t establish that the accuser personally suffered from Guinea’s government abuses. But even if we were to decide that living in a deeply troubled country means that you get to lie on your asylum application, how can that excuse extend to engaging in criminal behavior once you’re in the United States? Once a victim, always a victim, it seems, a status which under the “root causes” theory of crime can indefinitely exculpate an ongoing series of criminal actions.
In a final bid to engender sympathy for someone who increasingly seems an unpleasant addition to the body politic, McGovern strikes a feminist note: “Does a sexual encounter between a powerful and wealthy French politician and a West African hotel cleaning woman from a dollar-a-day background not in itself suggest a gross abuse of power?” That depends. Under the rape scenario presented by the accuser, yes—though not an abuse of power in which the U.S. or the West is implicated, as McGovern suggests. But if the Sofitel maid is in fact a moonlighting prostitute who was plying her trade, as has been alleged but not confirmed, her relationship with Strauss-Kahn becomes more ambiguous. Certainly a feminist postcolonialist will see a “gross abuse of power” in any interaction between a white male Westerner and a black woman from the Third World. But if the transaction began and ended voluntarily, despite the parties’ different stations in life—and we’re far from knowing the facts in the case—the abused-victim mantle fits the accuser only in a view of the world that denies moral agency to certain favored groups of lawbreakers. McGovern’s op-ed is a classic example of portraying individuals only as the helpless pawns of larger social forces—a sure recipe for dissolving the rule of law.