Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Movable Womb
of IMF managing director and French political star Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s
arrest on Saturday reminded me of nothing so much as the cocoons of wealth and
how isolating they can become. By
keeping others at bay through layers of protection, you lose the kind of social
interaction and supervision that serves as a check on your behavior. Space and its enclosure, in other words,
can in itself create a breakdown in ethical behavior. I do not know whether that happened here (Strauss-Kahn is
claiming innocence as I write this), but it does seem to be the latest bit of
behavior that breaks the social contract by failing to recognize that there are
behavioral limits even within the most cushioned spatial limits.
Credit: Business Travel Guru
The New York Times described Strauss-Kahn’s $3,000-a-night hotel
room as consisting of a foyer, a conference room, a living room, a dining room,
a bedroom and two bathrooms. The
main point of all that space would be to keep neighbors away. He was the only one occupying all of
this—until the unfortunate maid entered. After fleeing, he was plucked off the first class seat of an Air France
flight as it was sitting at the gate. Those seats are pods, where you can recline fully and remain completely
isolated from those around you.I
imagine that these two scenes are typical of the great man’s life; wherever he
goes, he lives in isolation, surrounded by enough space and walls to keep those
that might be dangerous or just annoying (and thus detrimental to his
all-important concentration) away. It reminds me of the one time I rode in a bulletproof U.S. Embassy car: I could not feel or hear anything of the outside world, and even its sights
were dimmed by the tinted glass. No wonder American power seems so remote.
These sites are extreme versions of what many of us try to
create for ourselves: places of security. We want to live in houses that are as big as possible, with as much land
as possible, for privacy. We crave
sound and sight isolation, designing our spaces to create those buffers. We prefer our air filtered, heated, or
cooled, and our information organized by the screens around us. In our cars, we want good suspension
and insulation from sound and danger. In our offices, the dream for many is still that corner office, with
nobody next to you and a secretary in front to ward off visitors. When we travel, we aspire to business
class seats with more space between us and others, and a smaller likelihood of
screaming babies or chattering folk.
Ironically, one model for such isolation is the life of the
hermit or ascetic. By removing all
the world’s distraction, this person can come to his- or herself. Enlightenment comes from knowing one’s
self, and knowing that one is nothing. In the case of big business, titans of industry and politicians supposedly
deserve this state because it will
allow them to perform better as enlightened leaders of vast resources.
The other model, however, is that of the ruler in his keep,
who is so afraid of everybody and everything that he retreats more and more
into a kind of self-imposed prison. It is a staple of Shakespeare plays and fairy tales.
In truth, I think these cocoons have become perks without
ideals, rhymes, or true reasons. We often work better in teams and we are effective through social
connections. We have to know our society
and be part of it in order to act in it. The world is a stage on which we must act, and we cannot remain in the
Green Room forever.
Retreating into a cocoon is childlike behavior. In hotel suites and first-class suites,
everything is soft, rounded, and plush. You are fed without even asking. You are mothered and pampered. The quality of such spaces carries through to their materials and
colors; humanlike color tones, soft curves, unnoticeable transitions, and a
lack of hard edges to every cushy surface you touch.
It is easy to see how life in such a movable womb might make
you think that your actions will have no repercussions. Everything gives in there, so why not
people? As Dominique Strauss-Kahn
may have found out, there are limits. Space cannot save you from your actions and responsibilities.