LXIV – Martha the Scapegoat

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For
those who believe that mankind has abandoned the practice of throwing
children from cliffs, or tearing out the hearts of young women on
temple altars, all for the purpose of appeasing the gods, the conviction
of Martha Stewart should inform you that this ritual has only changed
form. Scapegoating remains an accepted ceremony, even though its
more brutal expressions no longer appeal to us. It is now usually
performed in a bloodless fashion, with the rites of procedural due
process carefully observed.

Scapegoating,
along with other forms of human sacrifice, is as old as human society.
It is particularly evident during periods of political, economic,
or social instability, when there is a failure of group expectations.
The scapegoat serves two purposes during such periods: as an object
upon which the fears, anger, and frustrations of a group can be
directed. The scapegoat is also politically useful, during periods
of turbulence, as a means of reminding people that the state retains
the power of life and death over them. In the words of a nineteenth
century tribal chief: "If I were to abolish human sacrifice,
I should deprive myself of one of the most effectual means of keeping
the people in subjection." The scapegoat need not be innocent
of any offense: if he or she is perceived to be guilty of
some offense, so much the better to convince people of the propriety
of the coercive action against the victim.

Scapegoats
served the needs of power systems during the Inquisitions, as well
as witch and heresy trials, when church authority was challenged
by such influences as the Reformation and scientific inquiry. The
roots of the Salem witch trials have been traced to political instabilities
within that colony. The upheavals of the Civil War brought about
a sharp increase in the lynchings of blacks, as did the depression
of the 1930's. As the post-World War II American state fashioned
the mindset of a Cold War with the Soviet Union, it found it useful
— with the aid of such men as Sen. Joseph McCarthy – to identify
and ferret out domestic communist scapegoats, and to inflict the
death penalty upon two: the Rosenbergs. Such a pattern of statist
behavior is now repeating itself in the domestic phase of the "war
against terrorism," wherein even the readers of almanacs are
officially targeted, by the FBI, as potential "terrorists"!

Beginning
at least in Lyndon Johnson's administration, through the Nixon years
with Watergate, the Reagan years of the Iran/Contra scandals, and
the revelations of wholesale influence peddling in the Clinton White
House, most Americans have lost their high-school-civics-class innocence
about the "noble" and "public interest" purposes
of government. Lying, deception, and the incestuous relationships
between large corporate interests and the state have reached such
a common awareness that, unlike earlier corruption that managed
to stay hidden from view, it no longer surprises most of us. If
there is one phrase that ought to inform minds of the political
realities of our corporate-state world it is the one that emerged
from Watergate: "follow the money!"

Lyndon
Johnson's and Robert McNamara's lies about the prospects for winning
the Vietnam War — lies that led to the deaths of at least fifty
thousand Americans — have morphed into George Bush's lies about
"weapons of mass destruction" and the prospects for "Iraqi
freedom" if only more American soldiers can be sacrificed
to the cause. As Halliburton and other corporate interests close
to the White House prepare to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars
from the Iraqi war; and as Vice President Cheney treats a Supreme
Court justice to paid hunting trips at a time when a case involving
Mr. Cheney is before that court, even the most unsophisticated minds
experience a failure of expectations about the nature of government.

But
such disappointments will never rise to a fundamental criticism
of state power for, to do so, would force people to question their
very sense of being. The identities of most of us are so wrapped
up with the nation-state that, to condemn it, is to condemn ourselves.
Besides, like dealing with a bully, most of us are fearful of standing
up to what we perceive as a more powerful force and content ourselves
with attacking lesser targets. Unlike that brave soul, Wang Wei-Lin,
who stood up to that row of tanks in Tiananmen Square a few years
ago, most of us are moral cowards who lack the integrity to challenge
the forces that destroy our lives.

We
are nevertheless implicitly aware that the systems with which we
identify ourselves have failed in their stated purposes, and we
require a cathartic remedy to overcome our withered sense of wholeness
and restore our illusions. Who better to fulfill this role than
the scapegoat?

The
scapegoating purposes of the Martha Stewart trial were apparently
evident to at least some of the jurors. One of them stated, afterwards,
that the verdict "sends a message to bigwigs in corporations
they have to abide by the law." He added that the verdict "was
a victory for the little guy who loses money in the market because
of this kind of transaction." Considering that Martha was convicted
only of obstruction of justice and lying to government investigators
— and not for any illegal "transaction" — it appears that
some of the jurors, at least, were responding to what they perceived
as systemic problems within the business community, and not to any
acts for which Martha was charged. It is not the role of
juries in criminal cases to "send messages," but only
to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. It would seem
that, in the eyes of some of the jurors, Martha became a stand-in
for the alleged sins of others.

The
prosecuting attorney got caught up in this act of ritual sacrifice.
"The victims in this case are the entire American public,"
he intoned. He then added: "when we first indicted this case,
we said that it was all about lies," and "no matter who
you are, if you're Martha Stewart or Joe Q. Public, we're going
to go after you."

The
prosecutor failed to note, of course, that those who tell more dangerous
lies out of the White House, and those well-placed business interests
who profit from the consequences of those lies, will remain untouched.
That "the entire American public" has been victimized
by government policies that have been "all about lies,"
will unlikely move this man to indict Mr. Bush and his cohorts.
Martha will serve as a convenient scapegoat for the dishonesty and
corruption of a political system that is to remain beyond criticism.

That
Martha's conviction serves to vindicate purposes irrelevant to the
crimes with which she was charged is seen in the numerous attacks
upon her personality following the verdict. I have heard
people who should know better defend the jury's decision on the
grounds that Martha is "obnoxious," or "arrogant,"
or a "bitch." Such responses lend credence to the mistaken
view of many feminists that this case was only about Martha
as a woman. There are doubtless many people — women as well as men
– whose personal sense of identity looks upon the proper role
of women as inheritors, rather than generators, of
great wealth, and to such persons Martha becomes a useful scapegoat.

I
caution you not to hold your breath awaiting federal prosecutors
bringing criminal charges against any of the big-time players who
hang out on "Boardwalk" and "Park Place." It
will be the denizens of "Baltic Avenue" who will be called
upon to bear the sins of a disappointing system. "Take that,
Martha Stewart! Take that, John Q. public! We have a u2018zero tolerance'
policy when it comes to the offenses of you ordinary people!"
In the end, cases of this kind only reconfirm the centuries-old
observation that:

The law
locks up both man and woman
Who steals the goose from off the common.
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

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