Two days before Strauss-Kahn allegedly emerged from that hotel bathroom naked, there was a big demonstration in New York City. "Make Wall Street Pay" was the theme and union workers, radicals, the unemployed, and more—20,000 people—gathered to protest the economic assault in this country that is creating such suffering and deprivation for the many—and obscene wealth for the few.
I attended. On the crowded subway car back to Brooklyn afterwards, the youngest of my three female companions had her bottom groped by a man about Strauss-Kahn's age. At first, she thought he had simply bumped into her. That was before she felt her buttock being cupped and said something to me, as young women often do, tentatively, quietly, as though it were perhaps not happening or perhaps not quite a problem.
Finally, she glared at him and told him to stop. I was reminded of a moment when I was an impoverished seventeen-year-old living in Paris and some geezer grabbed my ass. It was perhaps my most American moment in France, then the land of a thousand disdainful gropers; American because I was carrying three grapefruits, a precious purchase from my small collection of funds, and I threw those grapefruits, one after another, like baseballs at the creep and had the satisfaction of watching him scuttle into the night.
His action, like so much sexual violence against women, was undoubtedly meant to be a reminder that this world was not mine, that my rights—my liberté, egalité, sororité, if you will—didn't matter. Except that I had sent him running in a barrage of fruit. And Dominique Strauss-Kahn got pulled off a plane to answer to justice. Still, that a friend of mine got groped on her way back from a march about justice makes it clear how much there still is to be done.
The Poor Starve, While the Rich Eat Their Words
What makes the sex scandal that broke open last week so resonant is the way the alleged assailant and victim model larger relationships around the world, starting with the IMF's assault on the poor. That assault is part of the great class war of our era, in which the rich and their proxies in government have endeavored to aggrandize their holdings at the expense of the rest of us. Poor countries in the developing world paid first, but the rest of us are paying now, as those policies and the suffering they impose come home to roost via right-wing economics that savages unions, education systems, the environment, and programs for the poor, disabled, and elderly in the name of privatization, free markets, and tax cuts.
In one of the more remarkable apologies of our era, Bill Clinton—who had his own sex scandal once upon a time—told the United Nations on World Food Day in October 2008, as the global economy was melting down: "We need the World Bank, the IMF, all the big foundations, and all the governments to admit that, for 30 years, we all blew it, including me when I was President. We were wrong to believe that food was like some other product in international trade, and we all have to go back to a more responsible and sustainable form of agriculture."
He said it even more bluntly last year: "Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did."
Clinton's admissions were on a level with former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's 2008 admission that the premise of his economic politics was wrong. The former policies and those of the IMF, World Bank, and free-trade fundamentalists had created poverty, suffering, hunger, and death. We have learned, most of us, and the world has changed remarkably since the day when those who opposed free-market fundamentalism were labeled "flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960's fix," in the mortal words of Thomas Friedman, later eaten.
A remarkable thing happened after the devastating Haitian earthquake last year: the IMF under Strauss-Kahn planned to use the vulnerability of that country to force new loans on it with the usual terms. Activists reacted to a plan guaranteed to increase the indebtedness of a nation already crippled by the kind of neoliberal policies for which Clinton belatedly apologized. The IMF blinked, stepped back, and agreed to cancel Haiti's existing debt to the organization. It was a remarkable victory for informed activism.
Powers of the Powerless
It looks as though a hotel maid may end the career of one of the most powerful men in the world, or rather that he will have ended it himself by discounting the rights and humanity of that worker. Pretty much the same thing happened to Meg Whitman, the former E-Bay billionaire who ran for governor of California last year. She leapt on the conservative bandwagon by attacking undocumented immigrants—until it turned out that she had herself long employed one, Nicky Diaz, as a housekeeper.
When, after nine years, it had become politically inconvenient to keep Diaz around, she fired the woman abruptly, claimed she'd never known her employee was undocumented, and refused to pay her final wages. In other words, Whitman was willing to spend $140 million on her campaign, but may have brought herself down thanks, in part, to $6,210 in unpaid wages.
Diaz said, "I felt like she was throwing me away like a piece of garbage." The garbage had a voice, the California Nurses Union amplified it, and California was spared domination by a billionaire whose policies would have further brutalized the poor and impoverished the middle class.
The struggles for justice of an undocumented housekeeper and an immigrant hotel maid are microcosms of the great world war of our time. If Nickie Diaz and the battle over last year's IMF loans to Haiti demonstrate anything, it's that the outcome is uncertain. Sometimes we win the skirmishes, but the war continues. So much remains to be known about what happened in that expensive hotel suite in Manhattan last week, but what we do know is this: a genuine class war is being fought openly in our time, and last week, a so-called socialist put himself on the wrong side of it.
His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch, but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 13 books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasters and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. She is, from kindergarten to graduate school, a product of the California public education system now being decimated. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.