Democratic Underground

Martha X: The Radicalization of Martha Stewart

January 19, 2005
By Max Gordon

Today is January 19, 2005 and Martha Stewart has spent 103 nights in a Federal prison camp called Alderson. Her prison number is 55170-054. In our country of African-American communities bathed in swirling red and blue lights, police radios waking sleeping neighbors and handcuffed black men lowered into the backs of squad cars, the idea of Martha Stewart, our doyenne of lavender-scented linens and homemade pumpkin cookies at Thanksgiving, being thrown in the slammer like a black ex-con who has violated his parole, seems like someone's idea of a nasty political joke.

White women like Martha Stewart don't go to prison in America; they don't even know what a prison looks like from the outside. Yet Martha Stewart is very much a woman, very much white, and she is, at the time of this writing, very much in prison. How did it happen?

Reading about someone in jail brings many of us a perverse delight. Our freedom, however much unappreciated every other day of the year, tastes a little sweeter when accompanied by the refrain, "Well at least I'm not in prison like her". It's the reason the newspaper ultimately satisfies; unable to gather any real enthusiasm about our own bleak existences, our lives have a momentary gleam when contrasted with the starkness of someone else's misfortune.

A divorce, imprisonment or murder adds a bounce to our step - we may not have it good, but thank God we don't have it "that bad." Our desperate comparison is even yummier when the person suffering is a celebrity like Martha; superior and distinctly separate from us, we've been waiting to see her brought to her knees.

When I left my apartment this morning, there was a police car in front of my building. The training I received as a child about the police will last my lifetime. I gather myself, make my face expressionless and stare straight ahead.

I was taught if I ever saw the police to keep moving, not to make eye-contact, never to be belligerent or antagonistic in any way, and if stopped, to answer all their questions and cooperate fully, always remembering that an unannounced hand in a pocket to retrieve identification could result in death. I was made to understand that the police can do whatever they want to you if you are black, and you have absolutely no protection whatsoever; the courts will always stand behind the officer.

I am an American as is Martha Stewart, but she is an American white woman with wealth and I am a black man in my mid-thirties, who, statistically, might have been shot or incarcerated by my age: our having been born in the same country may be all that we share. Women like Martha Stewart see the police and think protection by. I see the police and think protection from.

I haven't done anything that would warrant interrogation, but that doesn't change the fact that I feel hot with guilt - someone who looks like me, who is black and male, is doing something, somewhere, and that is enough for me to be guilty in America. I know intuitively the police can call me over or fuck with me if they feel like it, if they are interested or bored enough. It is the reason I am always aware of a police car passing by as I walk alone on an empty street, why I always record how many officers are inside the car.

I tell myself that reports of police brutality are exaggerated and I'm overreacting to my parent's pre-civil-rights paranoia; the country has changed since then. But it is there again, on the way to work, a story in the paper. There will be another in a couple of months. A black suspect was shot off a roof by an officer, a psychotic black man ran towards the police with a hammer and was shot to death, a black man pulled out a toy pistol and was blown away.

I blame the black men for being shot because it's easier than feeling powerless. Why the hell was he on that roof anyway, didn't he know he was in New York, it was late at night and he was black? Didn't that man know better than to be black and psychotic?

We tell ourselves that if someone is in prison it is because they deserve to be there. If there are human rights violations we say, "Prison isn't supposed to be a picnic." If rehabilitation is requested and denied we say, "You should have thought about that before you got arrested." Like the fabled Bermuda Triangle, people go to prison and disappear from the face of the earth.

It will be easier to go to work this morning if I believe that everyone who is in prison belongs behind bars because he is a bad person who needs to be punished. I don't have to consider the lack of education and training, substance abuse, heartbreak and rage that all contribute to crime, that prison construction is a lucrative business venture, and some states have built prisons to revitalize their economies. That it costs the same amount of money a year to maintain an inmate as it would to pay for a year's college tuition.

It's hard to enjoy a Saturday picnic with your kids if you know that an imprisoned mother will have to wait years to have the same picnic with her own; convicted for the bad checks she wrote trying to feed them or for defending herself or the children from an abuser.

For black men who want to experience the American dream but, exasperated with the limited opportunities racism affords, only see the possibility of success realized through crime, prison exists as an inevitability. And contrary to the hardened criminal image that most of us have, there are "regular" people who are truly bewildered about how they ended up in prison, having gone from too few schools, to even fewer options, a direct route laid from their birth to their jail cell with the precision of Amtrak.

When one considers the number of people who are currently in jail, on their way, who have family members who are incarcerated or who work in correction facilities, it could cynically be argued that half the United States is in prison. It's the "other" America, like the commercials that advertise pork as the other white meat.

If you are not in jail or love someone who is, you have no reason to know or care about the overcrowding, the gangs, the possibilities of rape or murder behind bars by other inmates or guards; the suicide, substance abuse and exposure to HIV/AIDS without condoms, treatment or access to medications; the inmate labor used to manufacture goods for private firms, the long-distance service providers who take advantage of prisoners' isolation and charge exponentially even for collect calls, the visitors turned away because of a technicality or suspended indefinitely; the unnecessary strip-searches, withholding of food as punishment, the extortion, bribes and state-sanctioned executions; the loss in some states, for the remainder of one's life, of the right to vote in any state or national election.

I never believed Martha Stewart would really see the inside of a jail cell. She'll get a slap on the hand and a stern warning from the judge, I thought. A fine, community service. I envisioned her grumbling bitterly, a kerchief covering her hair as she raked leaves beside some highway or spooned mashed potatoes onto the plate of an older black man in a homeless shelter. Or, most likely, she'd never be convicted at all.

As the trial began to stumble toward its close, the possibility increased that Martha might indeed be found guilty and that charm, celebrity status, letters from powerful famous friends, expensive lawyers, tears, and Rosie O'Donnell offering Martha's prosecutor M&M's wasn't going to influence the outcome. Friends' reassurances at the beginning of the trial that "You're not going to jail, for God's sake," must have diminished, and Martha had to be very scared, no matter how fabulous the handbags were that she carried every day to court.

After all the damning testimony, after Douglas "baby put Miss Martha in her place" Faneuil's triumph as the underling who was not going to go down for his bosses, and Martha's vacation friend who couldn't remember whether she or Martha said, "Isn't it nice to have a broker who tells you those things," the final verdict was guilty, and for the first time, being white, or blonde, or rich wasn't going to make a difference. Martha Stewart was definitely going to jail.

From the first headline that suggested wrongdoing, America couldn't wait to laugh at Miss Perfect getting her comeuppance. Jokes at her expense were made nightly on the The Tonight Show and Letterman, comedy shows parodied her. There was daily commentary on the morning news weighing her guilt, headlines in every newspaper and moment-to-moment coverage on the Internet.

Fresh revelations reported that bit by bit Martha was losing everything; money, power, friends. Then there was the merchandizing; the "Free Martha" mugs, tee-shirts and buttons; the websites, the dinner-party conversations, the speculation and assumption of guilt debated by "experts" on CNN, the condemnation before any evidence was even presented in a courtroom.

Demonized, ridiculed and humiliated before the American public, Martha may have achieved the dubious distinction of being the first rich white woman to be lynched in the United States. It's a princess lynching, of course - she's out in five months and then can look forward to house arrest; a 63-year-old teenager who's been grounded.

Where does the delicious satisfaction come from, watching Martha go to jail? Innumerable places, although I can only account for my own. As a black man with an unavenged history, Martha's sentence atones for all the "Miss Anns" of slavery who accused a black man of rape and got him killed. By putting America's whitest white woman in prison, even if it is only for ten minutes, the revenge begins for all the black men murdered or mutilated for "disrespecting" a white woman in the South, for "assaulting" her by saying good morning.

Although I consciously know it's not fair to make Martha pay for America's history of racial insanity, and that white women were victimized in a different way by whiffs of magnolia from the plantation house porch, when you make your money as the poster child for white womanhood, you inherit all the projections and mythology, not just the ones that make you rich.

Like Mary Tyler Moore, Doris Day, Betsy Ross, and Hazel, Martha is the leading member of the white-women-we-aspire-to-be club, white women who always have a freshly baked cake in the kitchen and a pot of coffee on no matter when someone drops by. Who can throw a meal together in an hour even when their husbands tell them at the last minute that the boss is coming over, who never get angry or lose their patience, who never burn dinner or have orgasms, or want anything other than what their families want.

In her private life, Martha may have been something else, but Martha Stewart Incorporated is another TV-commercial-white-woman brandished at us with blonde hair and an apron, smiling and holding a meatloaf, smiling and holding a bottle of disinfectant, smiling and holding a mop, an iron, a toothbrush, a bowl of pet food, a jar of mayonnaise, a box of laundry detergent; a white woman of perfect lawns, fresh air, polished chrome, and a backyard with all the world's sunshine. A woman to shame and embarrass the rest of us as we vicariously get off on her order, perfection and starchy whiteness, watching her through a lens of disappointment at our own failed, squalid lives.

Martha is the smart-ass student who always does her homework when everyone else blows off theirs; the one who gets an A on the test and ruins the curve, and who when confronted in the hallway snaps, "It's not my fault you people didn't study." In my fantasy, Martha gets caught cheating on the final exam, not because she isn't smart enough to pass, but because she has to have the best grade, she has to be better than everyone else, and she can't risk the possibility of failure. As she is escorted to the principal's office crying, all suspicions are confirmed, all heads nod knowingly. "See, I told you she cheats. I knew she couldn't be that smart."

Martha is all the bosses I've worked for as a secretary. She comes in all shapes and sizes, male and female, black and white. She is the executive outraged with you because the copier isn't working, even though you have no control over whether a copy machine decides to work or not. She bangs the phone down on you with disgust because you have not finished typing something she needs right now, even though she gave it to you only twenty minutes ago, and she'll need a conference room for six people at two o'clock, and did you order her lunch yet?

She is not concerned that the other secretary called in sick and you are the only one answering the phones today; she demands to know why you have to leave early, even though you've explained three times your child has an ear infection and you have to take her to the doctor. At least once a week someone walks out of her office and back to their desk in tears. She is not specifically outraged at you because of the malfunctions of the day, she is angry because you are an assistant, and it is your job to make sure she never feels pain, experiences inconvenience or discomfort of any kind.

That is what you are paid to do. It is what all the secretaries, the nannies, the doormen, the taxi-drivers, the bathroom attendants, the hotel maids, and the clerks are paid to do. There is no delicate way to put it: Rich people wipe their asses with poor people. When you have a certain amount of money in America, you don't even have to focus your eyes on individual poor people anymore - they are a blur if they exist at all.

A disembodied "hand" extends a towel in the restaurant washroom, "little fairies" (illegal immigrants paid less than minimum wage) cook your food and clean your hotel room, "pixies and sprites" (black and Latino mothers working two jobs) clean your toilet bowl and raise your kids.

You aren't required to see anyone you don't want to see, because you have earned your money and you have paid for a service and that makes it fair. One day, perhaps, if they are so fortunate, they may earn enough money to have a poor person to wipe their ass with too. And that is how America works. Land of the free, home of the slave.

Secretaries sit and wonder about their Marthas; "What will ever make her stop and consider anyone else besides herself? What will ever penetrate through this selfishness? When will she learn to share?" For the companies that settle one sexual harassment lawsuit after another because the same male supervisor can't stop himself from pinching his secretary's ass or telling the receptionist cock-sucking jokes during her coffeebreak (the golden boy who will never be fired because he earns the company a ton of money), the answers are nothing will, and never.

No one will talk about the fact that there were survivors of 9/11 who said that they left the towers warning co-workers of the danger, but that some refused to leave their desks right away, as they made "one more call" or completed a final financial trade. It is too ugly and painful to look at our attachment to money even in the face of imminent death. And so we say that someone drove planes through our twin monuments to financial power because they hate our "freedom."

It might be worth asking, in our own self-interest, was it really freedom they were trying to smash? How do we talk about fruit, and coffee, and chocolate, designer jeans, shoes, and watches that "magically" appear in our stores from "exotic lands" where the products are exported for our use, but arrive free of the pain, torture, and sickness that are required so that we may enjoy them so cheaply?

How do we deal with a world of people who watch our movies and know how rich and healthy we are, as they work themselves to an early death in sweatshops, making us healthy and richer? Shops like Global Fashions, a Honduran factory exposed by Charles Karneghan in 1996, where 10 year old girls earned 31 cents an hour and worked 75 hour weeks making Kathie Lee Gifford sportswear for Wal-Mart.

Almost a decade later, most sweatshop conditions are still the same. How do we face a "Third World" that refuses to be a munchkinland for American comfort any longer? No wonder the idea of Santa's elves is so appealing. If the North Pole weren't so far, Id assume they were from Honduras too.

It seems obvious that Martha made a wrong choice somewhere, and that what she did had to be addressed. But something else snags when one considers her plight. Despite myself, I feel protective of her as I watch the merciless glee with which she is excoriated in the press.

Perhaps Martha and I have something more than our national origin in common after all. For a black man and a white woman, the American dream, in its purest form, is not really intended to work. Martha and I can definitely aspire to having a piece of the American pie, but ultimately, as a woman she is supposed to bake it, and as a black man I'm meant to serve it.

There is an extra bit of contempt reserved for her, guilty or not, as there is for an O.J., Michael Jackson, Clarence Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Ethel Rosenberg, Mike Tyson, Bill Clinton (yes, Clinton: though not "oppressed" in the same way, Clinton falls in this category as a white man too sympathetic to black people). Bigger than our country's fascination with power or cruel gossip is our need for retribution for a crime that extends beyond the transgression in the headlines.

This gathered storm, this surge of hatred, is absent from the scandals of Ollie North, Dennis Tyco, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly. These white men are in the papers too and we lick our fingers over their scandals, but the thrust towards them, the conviction to bring them down is never quite the same - there is an absence of malevolence, the spiteful "get 'em" as the violent mob makes its advance.

Despite the fact that some families lost everything they had because of Enron or that we as a nation are currently on trial in the world's "criminal court" for torture violations, there are some Americans who will never see the machinations of a Kenneth Lay or George Bush as anything more than good guys who've been "a little naughty." The response to their white-boy debacles lacks the bloodthirstiness of an America wanting to prove to an uppity nigger that in spite of the fact that he's got money, he can still go to jail, or to a powerful woman who runs her own company that she is really just a bitch who is finally going to get what's coming to her.

The sinister surprise is that this mob is not only made up of bitter rednecks and competitive corporate white men anxiously waiting for Martha to bite the dust. It's a crowd of the oppressed: other women, blacks, gays. There is a sense of the inevitable in her downfall and an awful tension released. We wondered how long she could maintain herself at such a great height, how long "they" would let her have power.

When she failed, there was the satisfaction in knowing that even if she reached the top, a Martha Stewart can't really last in America. Our indignation and jealousy come from our deep self-hatred and our pain at having always to compete against other oppressed people for scraps: we tried to be "Martha Stewart" too (i.e. loved, rich, powerful), and America only had room for one: the good news about someone else's failure is that there is always a job opening.

Martha might have to count herself in her own mob - as she unconsciously metes out and attracts the punishment that she feels she deserves for being a woman who has too much power. The challenge becomes a balancing act of not self-destructing while maintaining oneself against a cultural imagination that wants to believe it accepts strong women, but itches to destroy them.

Oprah lives at this altitude, and the tension must work on her. She succeeds greatly, but there are the ingratiating games that she must play with her white audience. Her struggle with weight may have more to do with the razor at the throat of the richest black woman in America who may choose no longer to be fat and jolly for us, who, when she stops driving her Miss Daisies (co-dependent white women who "can't live without her") and allows herself a more compelling sexuality and relationship, may actually threaten the people who support her the most. (For anyone who just said, "But she's got Steadman" - that's another essay.)

They may allow her to make money as a personality who reassures their perceptions, but will they identify with her rich experience and history as a woman of African descent who also happens to be thin, wealthy, powerful and loved - without punishing her? (They have their ways: no one saw "Beloved.")

Martha's greatest failure wasn't insider trading or lying, but what she became; a great capitalist, a company woman. At the center of the American dream is the nightmare of what oppressed people must become to prove themselves, that no matter how much we "succeed" at the dream we can never truly realize its promise - a woman or a black man who has the societal power of a white man.

In our efforts to conquer, we become unrecognizable and grotesque, (which, at times, Martha was) but what we will never become, no matter how many secretaries we abuse, is a white man. Some aspect of patriarchal power will always elude us. We may be feared and hated by the same oppressed people as white men and have the same American Express cards, but we can never be more than the gatekeepers of patriarchy. The American dream is to have a white penis; and biology, regrettably, prevents us from that achievement, even those of us with the greatest determination.

Martha's mistake was that she thought her money and power made her unassailable, that she could do anything and get away with it, which is what it means to be male and white in the world. The failure is not that she lost money or status, it's the unexamined assumption that patriarchal power is something to aspire to, a worthy achievement.

Instead of our being allowed just to acknowledge the talent of the remarkable woman Martha is, her gifts and accomplishments are used by an oppressive society as signs of equality, and as tools to bury the rest of us alive. She is proof, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary in most American lives, that the system works. Instead of raising the minimum wage, or creating job programs and training, we point to her success and say to the welfare mother, the underpaid factory worker, the high-school dropout who supports her family: Oprah did it. Martha did it. Anyone who desires it enough can make it in America, regardless. What is wrong with you?

When Diana, Princess of Wales died, a friend remarked that the overwhelming grief around the world about her passing was more than just for Diana herself. Something archetypal had been lost. It was the end for princesses everywhere, for anyone, woman (or man) who felt they would one day find someone in the world to sweep them from a dismal and dreary life into wealth, power and protection. It was the end of happily ever afters. Diana, with her eating disorder, her despair over her husband's affair, her hateful mother-in-law, and her eventual "black" boyfriend, revealed through her life that an era had definitely ended, and that a princess could wait all night for her husband to come home just as any lawyer, schoolteacher or homemaker could.

In the end, however tragically, Diana did us a great favor. She discovered something in herself more worthy than having a royal title to drape lovely things on, or a living fairy-tale myth endlessly waiting to be rescued from a high tower by her adoring prince. She was the funkiest, saddest and most handsome princess one could be; a princess who might say, "Fuck the carriage, I feel like walking tonight."

It has been said that the Fifties ended with the death of JFK, the introduction of the Beatles, hippie culture and "free love." Actually, the Fifties were only put on pause, their conservatism and isolationism returning through the Eighties and the Reagan years. The Fifties officially ended October 8, 2004, the first night Martha's cell door clanked shut and a guard shouted, "Lights out." The American fantasy of white-womanhood is now over.

Martha did us a favor, too. She helped us to see that nice white ladies were never "nice", "ladies", or "white." It takes more than a little courage to run a company; you can't faint at the first sign of trouble and you have to be willing to get dirt on your hands. Martha's vicious power, her anger, and her ruthlessness may have blown her life apart, but they have also helped blow apart an enduring myth, encouraging the end of white patriarchal racism and violence perpetrated through the archetype of a white female "sweetie-pie." Laura Bush take note.

I read in the paper this week that Martha has been a support to troubled younger inmates - one woman who was particularly distraught was given a pep-talk by Martha: "If I can do it, you can do it." Martha catches the "spirit" at a Thanksgiving gospel performance, Martha says in an open letter on her site MarthaTalks, written during the Christmas holiday, "I beseech you all to think about these women - to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking. They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life 'out there' where each person will ultimately find herself, many with no skills and no preparation for living."

An arrogant, smug, self-centered, obnoxious white woman, convicted of a crime, having lost millions of dollars, power within the corporate world and most of her reputation, goes to prison. Sullen and withdrawn at first, she is affected by the pain and horror of the working-class women and women of color she encounters, and after listening to their stories and courage, has a major transformation. She becomes a person of moral conviction and great valor; a true leader of the people. Private Benjamin meets the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Maybe Martha will get out of prison and go back to her same old tricks, or her "changes" will be of the patronizing socialite kind; a once-a-year fundraiser for women in prison as a token gesture, or checks she never sees, written by her secretary and mailed to faraway charities or foundations. Maybe Martha's kindness is just more manipulative press; fodder for the ongoing reality shows all our lives have become.

However, I believe that real change is possible in Martha, because I know the effect of pain in my own life, how it can shatter and redeem. It's strange in this world of money we live in; Martha Stewart had to go to prison to find out how to have compassion for poor women again. A rich successful boss lady who wasn't always a Miss Ann or a fairy-tale princess, but was once working-class herself in Nutley, New Jersey - once upon a time.

Visit Max Gordon's blog at maxgordonworks.blogspot.com.

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