Friday, April 8, 2011

The Wages Of Sin…

               Are Good And Getting Better

Kenneth M. O’Brien

As despicable as it may sound, you almost have to feel sorry for John Edwards and Bernie Madoff.

A whole industry has developed around taking the crimes, indiscretions, or outrageous behavior of public figures and morphing them into a platform for increased fame and income.

Another dimension has emerged that is even more insidious. As Elisa Doucette reported in her Forbes Magazine blog “Shattering Glass”, in an article titled “Bristol Palin Was Paid Seven Times Candie’s Foundation Donations”,

the organization [Candie’s Foundation] was only able to find $35,000 to grant to charities from the $1,242,476 donated from the public. Meanwhile, the young Ms. Palin managed to pull in a $262,500 paycheck for her role as an ambassador for their teen pregnancy prevention campaign in 2009.

I would speculate that the spin doctor entrepreneurs found their inspiration for this enterprise in the events of forty years ago.

Charles Colson was a Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon. He was renowned as a tenacious and vindictive advocate for that administration. His office sported a graphic with the caption, “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Colson became the first Nixon Administration official to be incarcerated for Watergate-related offenses. Specifically, he was convicted of obstruction of justice in his efforts to defame Daniel Ellsberg in the release of the Pentagon Papers.

While serving seven months of a one to three year sentence, Colson converted to Christianity.

As reported by Wikipedia:

Colson's later life has been spent working with his non-profit organization devoted to prison ministry called Prison Fellowship. The ministry has promoted pen-pal relationships with inmates. Colson is also a public speaker and author. He is founder and chairman of the Wilberforce Forum, which is the "Christian worldview thinking, teaching, and advocacy arm of" Prison Fellowship, and includes Colson's daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint, now heard on a thousand outlets. The ministry conducts justice reform efforts through Justice Fellowship.
Colson has received 15 honorary doctorates and in 1993 was awarded the Templeton Prize, the world's largest annual award (over $1 million) in the field of religion, given to a person who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension". He donated this prize to further the work of Prison Fellowship, as he does all his speaking fees and royalties.

I am not disparaging Colson’s transformation. All evidence indicates that it is real and has resulted in significant good. Moreover, his early post-imprisonment actions do not appear to have been motivated by the prospect of financial gain.

What I do believe is that his story has served as a template for the new industry of capitalizing on bad behavior.

It ran into a roadblock in 1977 when New York passed the so-called Son of Sam law.

The law prohibited criminals from profiting from their crimes, most particularly in terms of book and movie deals. Numerous court battles ensued, including one related to the so-called Lng Island Lolita Amy Fisher.

Without getting sidetracked into a dissertation on the evolution of these laws, suffice it to say that the Public Re-branding Industry shifted gears.

The focus divided the potential clientele into two categories. The first category was those who had committed a crime. The second was those who had merely outraged public sensibilities.

The classic cases of the first type are exemplified by G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Vick.

Liddy was the head of the famous White House Plumbers unit that burgled the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate hotel that eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon.
Liddy ended up serving fifty-two months in prison for various crimes related to those actions.

Today Liddy is a recognized advocate for the right wing as an author, radio talk show host, and Fox News panelist. He also serves as a spokesman for a firm specializing in gold sales.

A more recent example is the case of Michael Vick.
Vick was a first round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to running an interstate dog-fighting ring for over five years. Vick served 21 months in prison and two months of home confinement. Subsequently, Vick was released by the Falcons, signed by the Philadelphia Eagles and reinstated in week 3 of the 2009 season.

The Vick case illustrates the evolution of the Public Re-branding Industry.

Rather than capitalizing on his crime, Vick became a public spokesman aginst the actions that landed him in prison. This was coupled with a strong emphasis on the Christian principle of redemption and his newly-found devotion.

The latter formula has become de rigeur for the re-branding of those who are convicted of a crime. Too bad Bernie Madoff was Jewish!

The second category relates to those who have offended public sensibilities.

In dealing with this group there appear to be two alternative strategies.

The first is to capitalize on the outrage and amplify it.

The clearest examples of this are the sex videos that catapulted Paris Hilton and (to a lesser extent, because she was already famous) Pamela Anderson.

More recently, we have seen this approach adopted by the culturally ubiquitous Snookie from “Jersey Shore”. Aside from her cute tweets back and forth with John McCain, she has emerged as an “author” and a WWE canvas queen. Lest one underestimate the benefits we need only need to look at her assessed market value. Rutgers paid a Nobel Prize winning author $30,000 to speak on campus. Snookie got $32,000 to tell students, “Study hard, but party harder”.

This has been carried to the extreme in the latest, inescapable example of Charlie Sheen.

The alternative strategy, is the seek forgiveness and mend your ways approach that was employed by Michael Vick.

This is the core of the Bristol Palin issue. She is now a spokesperson for abstinence – despite a failure to adhere to that precept. One is reminded of the adage, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach”.

Not only is there the inherent cyncicism implicit in this strategy. There is also the seeming corruption of what is supposed to be a charitable program. When you pay a spokesperson seven times what you are investing in those whom your charity is supposed to benefit, then it is not unreasonable to suspect your motives.
Additionally, there is the ideological construct that underlies these examples. There has emerged an underlying political element that previously was most evident in the Liddy case. There is an inherent right wing component that seeks to re-brand those who are sympathetic to their goals. They are coupled in their social rebirth with a message that advances a particular political agenda.

Simultaneously, there has been a a deafening silence from the “social warriors” regarding the tactics of the likes of Vick, Sheen, Hilton, Anderson, etc. Again, I suspect that this a function of the intersection of the advisors  who specialize in this Image Re-Branding Industry between the latter and the former. You can’t publicly tar the people who are serving your interests without being implicated in their doing the same for others.

As a direct function of this, the right is perpetuating a climate that undermines the social values that they supposedly embrace. The message that is being instilled in youth is that adherence to social norms is contrary to success. It is no different than the message conveyed in the movie Wall Street where Gordon Gecko proclaimed, “Greed is good”. Intended as an indictment, it has become the mantra of a Wall Street culture from which we are not merely still suffering, but is being fostered and perpetuated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

As an aside, that I am sure will engender no end of enmity from the right, this is in direct contrast to the outrage that was directed at “Gangster Rap”. While it was acceptable for a Nevada Senate candidate to advocate “second amendment remedies” it was unacceptable for this to be done by a racially identifiable element. While I do not have sympathy for either extreme, the racial component has to be clear. As Dylan Ratigan has said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, Ken! What has clearly disappeared from modern life is any concept of shame.


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