End Notes: Capital Punishment

If Martha Stewart had poisoned her husband or drowned her children, she would have received more sympathy. I never quite understood what she had done wrong, only that her indictment and trial were the occasion for morose delectation in many. When the mighty are brought down from their heights, those who exult are not always the humble. I always knew that Martha knew lots of things others didn’t, but it seems to be a crime in buying and selling stock. What was such a nice lady doing mixed up with these rascals?

My image of the stock market is of men milling around in a cockpit, frantically waving their arms, flourishing slips of paper, talking on several phones at once—madness. It makes a casino seem sedate. Both forms of legalized gambling attract those for whom money itself is the object of pursuit. Martha was busy about many things, but it is impossible for me to imagine her dreaming about money.

I am reminded of my personal debt to Martha every time I pack for a trip and first put my suits into those plastic bags that come from the dry cleaner. Arrive wrinkle-free. It’s magic. And it was only one of millions of practical tips Martha dispensed. She made it big in a man’s world by doing womanly things on television, housekeeping things, speaking with easy authority and utter clarity. You and I loved it, but there were some who seem to have hated her for this. We were asked to believe that she had betrayed the little people who have to bet blind when they buy stock. And she lied to a federal investigator! Politicians who still are what Mark Twain said they were lie to one another, to us, and in many cases to their wives, and they are walking around free. Like the uncle in Death of a Salesman, they go into Congress poor, but they come out rich. No one can convince me that Martha was as venal as your average politician, lawyer, or professor.

As Martha came blazing across the media heavens, brought down by something which in financial circles probably doesn’t rise to the status of a peccadillo, I thought of money, of how abstract, how spiritual a thing it has become. Jacques Maritain in his old age dreamed of a society without money. It is almost upon us. The great train robbery and the Brinks’ truck heist were spatio-temporal events, and those involved worked up a sweat. Now a hacker can tap into a bank’s computer and transfer millions to his account effortlessly. And what has he gained? Sacks of money? Bars of gold? Only a different set of numbers on a print-out. Wealth has become as unworldly as non-Euclidean geometry. No miser could cackle over a set of numbers—he wants to run doubloons and pieces of eight through his grasping fingers. Growing rich has become a mental event.

 

You will say it brings that vacation hideaway in Idaho, the condo in the Caribbean, your third house in Chapaqua, your boat, your private jet. Of course, money can be turned into things and not just more money, whatever that has come to mean. But there is a limit. When we read what some athlete has been promised for a season yet to be played, it is hard to see what he can do with that much money. Invest it, I suppose, and increase the problem. No wonder we prefer golfers, who win or lose each week because of how well they play. If there is a physical limit to how much money you can spend, turning it in for things, this does not seem to govern our appetite for it. When Oliver Twist asked for more, he was hungry and it was gruel he wanted. Now we all want more, and the more is money—and it is not clear what practical use more of it can be to us.

It is as an idea that money becomes infinite, unlimited. Once there was poverty of spirit; now wealth itself is spiritual, freed from coffers, safety deposit boxes, vaults, armored cars. It has become something in cyberspace. A numbered account in a Swiss bank gives access to other numbers no more substantial than the square root of X. Avarice requires a taste for abstraction.

You can go around the world now with a piece of plastic, winning every time at the ATM machine. Lire and francs and marks have become euros; countries lose their currency as they do their language. And one thinks of Fort Knox with all those gold bars in a temperature-controlled environment, utterly useless, but at least palpable. Martha might have wanted something as tangible as gold, but she would have shown us the wonderful things we could make with it. Would a golden calf have been among them? I can’t believe it. Free Martha Stewart!

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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