Friday, March 19, 2004

Martha Stewart and Afghanistan (this week's New Yorker)

Instead of writing my book this morning I sat around the apartment reading the New Yorker. I read two long articles, one on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and the other on the Martha Stewart trial.
Though I read the Afghanistan piece diligently, I walked away feeling vaguely disengaged. America's reconstruction efforts are falling apart, the Taliban is coming back; in fact what is beginning to happen there now is a little like what happened after the Soviet occupation ended and the Mujahideen took over in 1991. In other words, we may very well have Taliban II rising to power in two years... I'm shocked to hear myself thinking: So what.

But Jeffrey Toobin's Martha Stewart piece!!! Brilliant, infuriating, revelatory!

The most intriguing paragraph comes near the end. Throughout the article, Toobin focuses closely on the details of the trial. He states the mistakes Martha Stewart and her legal team made without moralizing -- they were mistakes anyone could have made. And he avoids drawing big conclusions about the trial, gender issues, and the dot-com bust. Even this straightforward presentation of the facts was quite revealing, for someone who hadn't really been following the trial very closely.

But then he says something really intriguing:

"Many other attempts were made to find large significance in this trial, and the case brought together unlikely allies. On the "Today" show, the writer Naomi Wolf attributed Stewart's fall to "a social taboo against women being too pwerful, too wealthy, too successful without being attached to a man." Some conservatives, like Ann Coulter, heard an echo of Bill Clinton in her indifference to truth-telling-- a presumption taht the rules didn't apply to her-- and demanded punishment. Other conservatives saw the tiral as big government run amok, with Stewart's shareholders as the real victims--they were, according to the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, 'the innocent bystanders paying the biggest price for the prosecutors' zeal to see Martha Stewart in an orange jumpsuit.' The facts of Stewart's fall could fit almost any agenda."


In effect, the significance of Martha Stewart's fall is in its ability to mean something different to everyone. Some might try to find a correlation between the blandness of Stewart's pies and Christmas wreaths and the nature of her crime (Foucault: two modes of "living", one concept of suburban disciplinarity). But really all of them are mistaken.

The best tone to take is Toobin's: a complex, imperfect business-person made a serious mistake, and she is going to jail because she lied about it.

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