Belmont Club

The Wrath of Kahn

The Wall Street Journal raises an interesting question: are knuckle draggers to be held to the a higher standard than those whose sophistication is immeasurbly higher?  In an article entitled the Strauss-Kahn Charges, the WSJ argues that the catastrophe that overtook Strauss-Kahn may have had its roots in the blind eye they turned toward his earlier indiscretions. They contrasted this with the the treatment shown to Paul Wolfowitz:

The IMF declined to comment yesterday, but its board should do some soul-searching about the pass it previously gave Mr. Strauss-Kahn. The married Frenchman pursued and had an affair with a senior fund economist not long after taking the top job in 2007. After her husband blew the whistle, the fund board let Mr. Strauss-Kahn off with a wrist slap that he had committed a “serious error of judgment.”

The IMF board’s forbearance contrasts with the way the World Bank pushed out American Paul Wolfowitz as bank president on the pretext that he had secured a raise for his girl friend, though Mr. Wolfowitz had kept bank officials informed from start to finish and had not violated bank policy. The boards of both institutions are dominated by Europeans, who deployed a double standard for Mr. Strauss-Kahn as one of their own.

Especially pungent in retrospect is the report by a consultant to the board at the time that “going forward” the IMF should consider whether its managing director should be held to a “higher standard of conduct” than the staff. A. Shakour Shaalan, the longest-serving member of the board, announced at the time that he had personally told Mr. Strauss-Kahn that “this should not happen again.”

The WSJ once again raises the old charge that there are double standards for behavior between the different political persuasions. In that view liberals “get a pass” or are even genially praised for behavior that would send a conservative to the Federal Penitentiary. It is probably true that higher standards are expected of some.  Robin Hanson argues that society varies its expectations by the category of person it judges. “Consider three kinds of celebrities: politicians, athletes, and musicians. We clearly hold politicians to higher moral and social standards than we do musicians. This makes sense because we feel more vulnerable to bad behavior by politicians than by musicians. An out of control politician could kill us all, while an out of control musician would at worst just fail to make music we like.” But this applies to types of professions, not to their espoused ideologies.

The other argument is based on the assumption of a kind of diminished capacity. Is there a “bigotry of low expectations” that surrounds left-wing politicians, entertainers, sports stars and similar figures that shields them from being pulled up on minor infractions because they are creative, edgy and somewhat unstable but cool personalities who cannot be treated like mere mortals? That entitles them to be indulged like children, eccentric geniuses or visionaries? If the IMF’s choice of lawyers is any indication, the IMF chief is placing himself in interesting company. Strauss-Kahn just hired Michael Jackson’s lawyer.

Few criminal lawyers know their way around the New York legal system better than Benjamin Brafman, famed for helping celebrities in serious trouble and chosen by Dominique Strauss-Kahn to defend him on charges he attempted to rape a New York hotel maid.

Brafman is known for either winning cases at trial or negotiating deals.

He represented pop king Michael Jackson in a child molestation case in 2004 before stepping aside, and New York Giants football star Plaxico Burress for carrying a gun into a nightclub that went off when it slipped down his pants. And he won a not guilty verdict for rapper “P.Diddy” Sean Combs, on illegal weapons and bribery charges in a nightclub brawl and shooting that was witnessed by over 100 people.

But some people would argue that the Left Wing/Conservative dichotomy is the wrong standard to apply. What really counts is whether a faction is in power or not. Long before the modern categories of conservative and left-wing emerged, factions were taking care of their own, whatever the stripe. The only reason that liberal political and entertainment figures appear to be given a pass is the fact that liberals have more or less dominated the media these last decades. They are the permanent power in media and all else is sour grapes. If conservatives had dominated it then shoe might be on the other foot.  For no one is exempt from the regrettable instinct to favor their own. The terrible effect of a code of silence is evident even in the scandals which have plagued the Catholic church, not just recently, but through history. Secrets are buried, for the good of the service, or rather as it were, to their detriment.

It was a Roman Catholic, Lord Acton, who wrote in regard to his opposition to Piux the IX’s adoption of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

From that point of view, no one who overlooks a peccadillo is really doing a service. He is just greasing the skids for the bigger one to come. Whether this happened to Strauss-Khan is what the lawyers will talk about, in their parsing, hair-splitting and mincing ways.


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