Martha Stewart does not deserve our derision

Working- and middle-class Americans grow up believing in underdogs, believing in fresh starts, believing in making it big. They can succeed with education, tenacity and a little luck. Just ask Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or, just ask Martha Stewart.

Stewart grew up in a large working-class New Jersey immigrant family. Her mother taught her to sew, cook and clean, and her father taught her to garden and to fix household appliances. She excelled in high school and went on to Barnard College.

If Martha Stewart’s youth sounds familiar, it may be because it’s the beginning of what looks like an American success story, or perhaps because it looks strikingly like our own lives. I for one can more than identify with tenacity and big dreams, the hope of rising above odds, going to a good college, or, simply and honestly, attaining more than an average level of success.

While at Barnard and after, Martha Stewart continued to live out the dreams of many: she worked as a model in TV and print ads, she got married, and, after graduation, she became a successful stockbroker on Wall Street. She outdid herself tenfold by revolutionizing home decorating forever and founding her own corporation, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO, if you want to check out her share prices, which have been more or less rising since New Year’s).

Martha Stewart has built a business by the skin of her teeth, and though she has made a few enemies along the way (her ex-husband, former employees and childhood friends, according to the unauthorized biography “Just Desserts”), and has been ridiculed for her hot temper and outrageous perfectionism, she has not done anything uniquely horrible to make her fortune. She has lived the American dream almost to the point of a cliche.

Stewart has also turned stereotypical women’s work into a force to be reckoned with in the male-dominated workplace. To paraphrase Vicki in last year’s movie “Down With Love” as she surveys her enormous pink office: I thought women weren’t cut out for the workplace, but it turns out that the workplace just wasn’t cut out for women. Again, a cliche, but Martha Stewart has realized it, and should be congratulated. She used what her mother taught her to teach women (and, as it happens, quite a lot of men) that making a home beautiful, comfortable and delicious is something to take pride in: a skill and an art. Martha’s audience has in turn given her the fame and fortune that most of us want.

Now, at 62, Martha Stewart is on trial and faces a possible thirty years in prison, not for insider trading (the initial charge brought against her) but for securities fraud and obstruction of justice. I am a firm believer in Martha’s innocence, but enough professional columnists and lawyers can defend her much better than I can. The truth is, I’m not as interested in the particulars of Martha Stewart’s trial as I am in the way that she’s been ridiculed for living out the dream that we all aspire to.

While American society glorifies the rags-to-riches story, it vilifies the capitalist pig. Educate yourself, make money, get famous, but by all means don’t do it at the expense of others. That all sounds great, but in fact it’s quite impossible. We all know that the very society in which the humble can rise to greatness depends upon flux, upon the success of Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger relative to the defeat of local businesses, smaller talk shows and book clubs, Bob Dole and Grey Davis. The success that we are taught to value comes at the expense of others, through manifestation of that which we despise.

Martha Stewart’s success is built in part on others’ failures. But should she be on trial for it? Stewart has spent large amounts of money defending herself (significantly more than she would have lost had she not sold those notorious ImClone Systems shares in December 2001) against charges that are too picky and convoluted to really be brought on in the name of justice.

I don’t think Martha did anything criminal, but regardless of all these facts and figures, I do think that the charges brought against her — charges only tangentially related to her original ‘crime’ — prove that she is on trial more for the sake of Putting Martha Stewart On Trial than for sake of the eternal preservation of truth and justice.

While jokes about Martha redecorating the courtroom or revolutionizing prison kitchens may be funny, they ridicule success. They come at the expense of anyone who has beaten an opponent in a student council election, anyone who got into Yale when 85 percent of competing applicants did not, anyone who ever gets a job, internship, or fellowship that other people apply for. They come at the expense of you and me.

I admit it. I value success, triumph and personal gain. While I hope that whatever victories may be in store for me can come at the least possible detriment to others, I realize that I can’t reasonably hope to compete without defeating somebody else. Don’t join the millions who hate Martha Stewart for maintaining the success that she’s worked all her life to achieve.

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