Debate: Kahn He Speak? Kahn’t He Speak?

Should Dominique Strauss-Khan be speaking at The Union? ANNA MATHEW and former Union pres LAUREN DAVIDSON get busy.

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The petition to scrap Dominique Strauss-Kahn from the Union’s Lent lineup has caused quite a stir – a current student and a former Union president battle it out:

ANNA MATHEW would rather see him gone.

The first resort of Strauss-Kahn defenders is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Parroting this proves nothing except that you probably watch too much Law & Order.

Here, recourse to the presumption of innocence obscures the fact that Strauss-Kahn hasn’t actually been acquitted by a court of law; the charges against him were dropped.

Since Strauss-Kahn isn’t about to be proven guilty or innocent of rape, it is worth taking a closer look. In case it needs spelling out, respect for fundamental aspects of the law is not incompatible with critical appraisal of how they work in practice.

Neither case reached court. Questions can be and have been raised about both, but in the case of French journalist Tristane Banon, charges were dropped because the evidence of sexual assault was insufficient for a charge of attempted rape, and a charge of sexual assault was time-barred.

Strauss-Kahn admitted “sexual aggression” against Banon. Given this, the Union President’s defence that Strauss-Kahn “hasn’t been found guilty of anything and it’s not up to us to judge him” is wilfully blind. Strauss-Kahn has committed at least one known sexual assault for which he cannot be prosecuted.

The inescapable conclusion is that, despite the fact that better economists could have been invited to speak, the Union is happier to cosy up to the one who isn’t most famous for being an economist. In fact, go look at the latest breaking news regarding Strauss-Kahn (hint: it’s not about economics).

I am, moreover, curious about how it “challenge[s] the presumptions and prejudices of a wide range of ideas” (from to allow a powerful, rich, white man to rehabilitate his reputation following attacks from that traditional bastion of privilege, immigrant workers in the service industries.

The response to the announcement gives the lie to the idea that Strauss-Kahn was invited purely for his economic credentials. Exploiting rape survivors to garner controversy is wrong. The Union has its publicity, but at what cost?

If you’re in any doubt as to the actual effect of Strauss-Kahn’s continuing notoriety, look at the reporting in the Telegraph and even The Tab. The idea that rape is a sex act, not a crime, is played up to by both.

We should expect more from institutions purporting to represent us: more respect for the vulnerable in the Union’s commitment to “the basic principles of free speech and open debate”; more care from our newspapers. Most of all, we should expect more from each other and of ourselves.

When we are told that our words and actions, however innocent, marginalise people who have already been victimised once, we must pay attention. With that in mind, I hope the Union will listen when we tell them that it has erred in welcoming and legitimising this self-styled ‘Great Seducer’.


Former Union President LAUREN DAVIDSON wants him in.

Ex-head of the IMF, former long-standing French government minister, once favourite to win this year’s presidential election in France, alleged sexual assaulter.

I know what sounds the most interesting to me, although the Women’s Campaign would have you think differently.

I needn’t spell out that the Union exists to provide a platform for free speech and debate where the most important and interesting issues of the day can be tackled in an open and intellectual environment.

The global economic meltdown, particularly in the Eurozone, and the upcoming French election are two of the hottest and most relevant topics on 2012’s tongue – and DSK is a prime candidate to address both issues and allow the Union’s membership to engage with a leading authority.

Yet the letter from the Women’s Campaign goes so far to say that the Union invited DSK because of his alleged criminal notoriety, not just in spite of it.

But the crucial question to ask is: would he be a topical, interesting and significant speaker if eyebrows had never been raised in his direction? The answer is a resounding yes.

An obvious case in point is Julian Assange, who addressed the Cambridge Union Society less than a year ago. Members queued around the block for hours to hear and engage with Assange – not because he was facing allegations of sexual assault, but because of his involvement with Wikileaks.

The same principle must apply to DSK.

The Women’s Campaign, of course, raises a valid point as to the questionable nature of DSK’s private life – and it would be incongruous of the Union not to welcome and encourage the right of others to express their opinion.

But the Campaign undoes itself by harping on at the Union yet again, accusing the Society of limiting itself to “inviting rich, white, powerful men to define [its] termcard” – despite the advances made to redress this balance. In the past year, three of four presidents have been women, the Union now has a designated women’s officer and the number of female speakers this term is twice that of Michaelmas.

The Women’s Campaign accuses the Union of sexualising and trivialising topics relating to women’s issues – despite debate topics in the last year including the face veil, the effects of pornography, LGBT issues, marriage, positive discrimination and the perils of the fashion industry.

It’s clear that Strauss-Kahn is a key speaker this term for his impressive professional resume (although I can see why some would take issue with the other credentials attached to his name) and that the Union has in no way invited him for any other reason than his political and economic prowess.

If some fail to see past the allegations made against DSK, then that is up to them. But others will be fascinated to meet Strauss-Kahn and hear what he has to say, and they shouldn’t be stripped of the privilege.