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Martha and the Tall Poppies

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

Consider the past week's media frenzy over charges that Stewart engaged in "insider trading." The reaction in the press and by members of Congresswho have launched an investigationis far out of proportion to the actual evidence or the alleged crime. Nor can this case explain the eagerness with which snide columnists and catty morning talk-show hosts contemplate the prospect of seeing Martha in prisonjoking, as one host did, about whether her cell will have matching curtains.

There is only one explanation for this tone of vicious glee. Martha is hated because she's a tall poppy.

I've 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 culturebut it is a widespread trend in American culture, and Martha Stewart is one of its favorite targets.

Martha-hatred is an established cottage 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 threadand real motiveof 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 alland who rush to join any witch hunt and repeat any allegation.

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

First, it is important to grasp what a non-crime "insider trading" is. The allegation is that Sam Waksal, CEO of the drug-development company ImClone, phoned relatives and close friends to warn them of an upcoming FDA ruling that would wreck his company's stock. This "inside information" supposedly gave Stewart and others 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 lacking. Stewart, it turns out, had already sold much of her stock in ImClone the previous month but, according to one source, she was prevented by SEC limits from selling it all. This means that Martha made the decision to sell long before the FDA's ruling. As for her phone calls with Waksal, they are close friends and according to some reports were once romantically linked. Is it the SEC's job to monitor the friendships and love lives of CEOs?

In fact, few commentators have bothered to wait for evidence before passing judgment. The same people who assume Martha is a shrew because she is "too perfect" also assume she's a swindler because she's rich. No further evidence is needed.

Martha Stewart is not alone; ask Bill Gates what kind of welcome a self-made man can expect today. Or consider the achievers who impose restraints on themselvesas in Justice Stevens's recent death penalty decision. A man nominated to the Supreme Court for his superior knowledge and wisdom looks instead to public opinion polls to decide how government may wield the power of life and death. Apparently Justice Stevens didn't want to be a tall poppy.

This trend is not merely ugly; it's dangerous. A culture that hates its highest achievers will mow down its tall poppiesand end up with nothing but weeds.

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