Martha Stewart is Attacked Because of Her Business Success

by | Jul 25, 2003

Why do so many people hate Martha Stewart? How does a home-decorating expert with a wholesome public persona come to be portrayed as a major cultural villain? Consider the latest media frenzy over Stewart’s indictment for obstruction of justice. If the arbitrariness of the charge weren’t enough to convince you that something is wrong–Stewart is […]

Why do so many people hate Martha Stewart? How does a home-decorating expert with a wholesome public persona come to be portrayed as a major cultural villain?

Consider the latest media frenzy over Stewart’s indictment for obstruction of justice. If the arbitrariness of the charge weren’t enough to convince you that something is wrong–Stewart is charged with obstructing an investigation into insider-trading, a crime she hasn’t been charged with–consider the reaction in the press. Even after a year of jokes about jail cells with matching curtains, snide columnists and chuckling news anchors seem not to have tired one bit of contemplating the idea of Martha Stewart behind bars.

There can be only one explanation for this tone of malicious glee. Martha is hated because she’s a tall poppy.

I have been told that there is an Australian saying: “You have to cut down the tall poppies.” In other words, anyone who dares to poke his head above the crowd must be attacked, denigrated, and brought down to the common level. I don’t know whether this Tall Poppy Syndrome, as it is called, is really typical of Australian culture, but it is a widespread trend in American culture–and Martha Stewart has long been one of its favorite targets.

Long before she was accused of insider trading, Martha-hatred was already an established industry peddled in dozens of books and television profiles purporting to reveal Stewart as a shrewish employer, a neglectful mother, a cold wife, an ungrateful daughter, and everything else you could dream up. One charge keeps recurring as the central thread–and real motive–of all these claims: Martha is too perfect. The problem with Martha Stewart, we are told, is that the lifestyle she promotes in her books, magazines, and television shows projects an “unattainable” perfection. Her kitchen is too clean, her house is too beautiful, her parties are too elegant. She gets too much done in a day. Such perfection, the charge goes, merely makes everyone else feel inadequate because they can’t measure up.

This attitude is not shared by Martha’s many fans (and customers), even those whose housekeeping is not as lavish as hers. Most people are able to appreciate the accomplishments of others, even if they cannot match them. But for those who suffer from Tall Poppy Syndrome, other people’s achievements are an affront, an intolerable reminder of their own shortcomings. These are the people who desperately search for dirt to sling at celebrities, to show that they aren’t so good after all–and who rush to join any witch hunt.

The Martha Stewart scandal is a case study in the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

It is important to grasp what a non-crime “insider trading” is. The newest allegation–after previous charges didn’t stick–is that Stewart was tipped by her broker that ImClone executives were selling the company’s stock. This “inside information” supposedly gave Stewart an “unfair” advantage. In a “fair” world, apparently, investors are forced to hold on to their stock even when they know it’s going to crash. Martha’s alleged “crime” is not wanting to lose money.

But even the evidence for this pseudo-crime is thin–which is why federal prosecutors did not actually indict Stewart on insider-trading charges. Instead, they indicted her for lying to prosecutors (about a crime they can’t prove she committed) and, most disturbing, they charged her with fraud for proclaiming her innocence.

All of these charges have yet to be proven–but Stewart has already been convicted in the court of public opinion. The same people who assume she is a shrew because she is “too perfect” also assume she’s a swindler because she’s rich.

Stewart’s lawyers suggest she is being targeted because she is a successful woman in a “man’s word.” But ask Bill Gates what kind of welcome a successful man can expect today. In fact, both are the target of a deeper hatred. We have been told for centuries that the weak, the incompetent, the most down-and-out bums on the street are the most worthy objects of our moral concern–while the highest achievers are at best the bum’s servants, at worst his exploiters. The result is an upside-down morality, a code in which the better you are, the worse you are. The more you achieve, the more you are hated.

This hatred of the good is not merely ugly; it is destructive. A culture that attacks its highest achievers will mow down its tall poppies–and end up with nothing but weeds.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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