Friday, February 02, 2007

The Grace Kelly Factor

by Libby Hellmann

Barack Obama is a Wahhabe Muslim!

Hillary Clinton’s campaign said so!

Laura Bush was the go-to girl in college for weed!

Joe Biden’s a racist!

XXX (name any famous politician, athlete, or actor) is in rehab with Lindsay Lohan!

It’s hard to believe election season is still a year away. The Oppo campaigns – aided and abetted by certain media outlets -- are already slinging mud, and plenty of it. And refusing to stop even when the attacks prove to be lies.

Oh, that’s just politics, you say…

Then there are the reality shows that reward people by publicly humiliating them. And Donald Trump, (accompanied now by his daughter) showing us how to be shrewd enough to move up the ladder. Paris Hilton’s possessions are for sale online, Rosie and The Donald are feuding, and Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson has a small arsenal in his home.

Is anyone else fed up with the assault on our sensibilities? Okay... I know, it’s been happening for years. And I’m not immune -- I enjoy a little mud-slinging or practical joke, especially if the target is arrogant or pretentious. Still, I feel recently like I’m sinking into deep quicksand with no rope in sight.

It’s not just bad taste, although there’s enough of that to go around. What’s troubling is that the boundary between rumor mongering and lies has become too porous. We live in a viral online community with the potential to Swift-Boat anyone at any time. Opportunists, muckrackers, apologists -- anyone with an ax to grind… or a need to express their “truthiness”-- can throw up a website or write a blog. And they do. What used to pass for gossip very quickly assumes an importance – and credibility—it doesn’t deserve. Especially when it turns out to be untrue. Or exaggerated. At the very least, it cheapens the conversation and plays to our biases. And at worst, it destroy reputations, even careers.

Last weekend the Chicago Tribune predicted a return to class. As proof, they printed a photo of Angelina Jolie on the cover of Vogue wearing a gown reminiscent of Grace Kelly. That, says the Tribune, hopefully, is the answer. Bring back the Grace Kelly era, and people will be respectful. Polite. Our culture will be fixed. Forgive me, but I don’t think Grace, long gowns, or tuxedos are gonna do it.

But what will?

Most of you reading this are writers, or readers with respect for the written word. You know some of the tricks: the power of a well-placed adjective… the use of the passive voice to dodge accountability …the way conclusions are drawn from seemingly unrelated facts. What should we do when we read or listen to those screeds? How do we start to get rid of the ugliness we’ve created?

Do we need babysitters for the national conversation? Consciousness-raisers? Some carrot and stick scheme to make people more aware of what they read and write? Or do we just deplore it all, throw up our hands, and go back to our word processors?

Right now I’m listening to Richard North Patterson’s No Safe Place in the car. One of his characters says: “we ought to have a sense of shame; instead everybody’s looking for an agent.”

P.S. Speaking of class, we lost one of the smartest, wittiest, classiest columnists around this week. Molly Ivins was not only a fabulous writer, but she was about the only person I know who could deal the cards up straight and still make people laugh. She will be missed.



Sara Paretsky said...

right on about Molly Ivins, my sister! As for class, yes, I'd love a return to some of the manners of my youth--I don't like children calling me by my first name or running over me on the sidewalk, but I don't miss the racist slurs that people used with impunity back then!

Blind Camel said...

There's no shortage of interesting ideas in your post!

I work in market research for a boutique firm focused on U.S. teens. Some of the most recent themes we're reporting on -- the truth that we see at the intersection of qual and quant research -- reflect what you write.

We talk about the notion of "Authenticitude" -- that this cohort often seems to value the "feel of real" over real. Witness Laguna Beach and "reality" TV/stars, the rise of faux-surf shack Hollister (created in Columbus, OH), brands like Stacy's and Cascadian Farms as more attractive and down-to-earth proxies for Pepsi and General Mills.

In other words, for many young folks today what matters is not reality...but you write.

We also see young people more interested in how conscience might lubricate commerce -- in other words, let me buy Ethos water, which donates money to developing countries -- instead of telling me to reject consumerism.

The most compelling community in recent memory is MySpace, a virtual community, where everyone is a carefully distorted projection of themselves, where acne can be edited out and everyone can be "friends" with Dwyane Wade and Paris Hilton...

One of the themes we're working on for next year has to do with the rampant shamelessness that exists today, the kind that allows teens to say without irony (let alone shame), "I wanna be rich! Really rich! I love money." Or: "I just wanna look sexy! Looks are what mattters."

Interestingly enough -- and I've clearly already written too much -- these same teens are more comfortable holding two ideas in the same hand than previous generations. For example, as one young lady said in focus groups last year, "I wanna be the nurse...that drives a Hummer." They want to have good values alongside their bling. By and large, there's no such thing as "mutually exclusive" for today's teens, who live in a Purple State in their minds...

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Libby, this morning's Times has a story about the "Washington gossip wars" [reg. req.] that seems related to your post. It's about the explosion in the number of political gossip columns.

Here's a relevant quote:

"If you’re in Hollywood and you write something about Brad Pitt that turns out to be wrong, so what, it will probably help him,” Mr. Conconi said. But in Washington, he said, “If you’re wrong, it can end a senator’s career. So politics is going to breed more caution.” At least for now.

This next election cycle is bursting with players who are not just politicians but celebrities. Obama, Clinton, McCain, Giuliani. Unless we actually end up with a Vilsack-Brownback election (which is hard to imagine at this date) I think we could see the circus atmosphere of 2004 boosted by a factor of ten. It's going to feel like Paris Hilton's running against Lindsay Lohan with Ashton Kutcher starring as Karl Rove.

Sara Paretsky said...

blind camel, what an interesting post. I keep pondering my life as a writer in response to the MySpace phenom. I like the nurse driving a Hummer: I feel compassion for all living things as I drive over them in my Hummer!
And yes, Kevin, it's shocking that someone with no skill or qualification for running one of the most powerful countries on earth can parlay faux charm into a trillion-dollar war with tens of thousands dead. What will the next circus star do to us?

Libby Hellmann said...

Interesting comments, blind camel. And thanks for the link, Kevin. Check out this week's newsweek, already online at as well for their story on teenage girls and what/who influences them. I'd be interested in your reactions, especially, Blind Camel.. it sounds eerily close to what you're talking about.

guyot said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Libby, that article aligns closely with a theme we called Maturiteens coupla years ago. There are many signs that age aspiration -- the age old desire to be older -- has been accelerating among teens. We say today's teen girls are 15 going on 25, that they're taking their cues from SEX AND THE CITY and Paris Hilton. Funny that the big hit HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is really big with...wait for it...6 year old girls!

Anonymous said...

Another thing from this morning, an article on MSNBC saying...duh...that a lotta young teens are looking at porn online. This generation will have seen everything before they hit 16. For many of us, that was just not the case.

This is Scott -- blindcamel -- btw. I'd log in, post the link, etc., but I'm doing all this from a tiny, half-useless handheld device, stuck on a frozen plane on a frozen ORD runway...

Anonymous said...

Endless delay...more thumb-typing...

Perhaps more germane to the original post: The coarsening is pervasive, as TEEN PEOPLE, with at least some standards, folds up its tent, while PEREZ HILTON, with almost zero decorum, becomes the gossip/culture site du jour. And consider this: Much of what this cohort learns about etiquette and communication happens in a shrunken, semi-anonymous environment like this one. We're nice to each other here...but on MYSPACE that's not always the case.

Carol said...

It all reminds me of kids who used to see who could say the dirtiest word.When there weren't so many of us it could be labelled a chid's game and forgotten.Today,however,there are so many more of us all vying for attention so the one who can think up the nastiest words can take a secret pleasure in causing the worst mayhem.But it's not just kids anymore,it's grownups acting worse than kids.Perhaps there's not enough legitimate means of stimulation around these days and some of us have to revert to our childhood and name calling.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Is this really so new? Grace Kelly, after all, was reported to be very free with her charms, to put it politely. Liars and scoundrels have abounded since the days of Caesar or Leonidas. Perhaps we're just more aware of it because of the instantaneousness of information these days.

Sorry, Libby, but the Bears didn't go, they went down in flames. Still, a good Superbowl game to watch.