Marilyn's Dress: Stolen Steaks
If Marilyn Monroe's 'Happy Birthday' dress is worth $5 million, what is the going price for a soul?
When I was a kid…
One of our neighbors rang the front door bell with an irresistible deal.
We’d known this man and his family ever since we moved to the neighborhood. He lived in a white clapboard two-story home in the middle of the block. He had a good job with an insurance company and wore a business suit to work. On weekends, he moonlighted at a second job, and on Sundays he went to church with his family.
But on this day, this seemingly honorable man was selling sirloin steaks that had been “confiscated” from a delivery van.
'“They’re hot, he told my mother, but don’t worry—they’re still frozen. I can let you have 5 pounds for two bucks.”
At the time, the average price of sirloin was 64 cents a pound (I know, I know!) and usually out of our league. We ate chuck. To get sirloin for 40 cents a pound was unheard of.
“Hot?” my mother said. “You mean they’re stolen?”
“Not stolen,” our neighbor told her. “Confiscated. The way I look at it, the white man has been stealing from us Black folks ever since day one. I’m not stealing—I’m just claiming what ought to be ours in the first place.”
“Well, I don’t care how you describe it,” my Mom said. “I don’t want anything to do with stealing. I need you take those things away from here.”
This past Father’s Day, I repeated the story to my son.
He’d been telling me about some fellow he’d come across who got rich filing lawsuits against his employers in order to collect large financial settlements. This guy’s rationalization was the same as the steak-stealing neighbor from my childhood. The system is rigged. So why not take all you can while you can.
Naturally, I was delighted to hear that my son disagrees with this way of thinking. It was the best Father’s Day gift he could have given me.
When you grow up with a woman like my mother, you hope that her example of honesty and integrity will rub off on you. It felt good to know my son had absorbed that legacy.
But I wasn’t just influenced by my Mom
To grow up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement was to breathe the same air as the heroes we now venerate for their courage.
Because I lived in that place at that time, I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., newspaper editor Ralph McGill, John Lewis, and many others, including Charles Weltner, the patrician white Southerner who broke ranks with the segregationist Southern Bloc to make passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill possible.
All these people influenced my life
So did the teachers at my elementary school, who refused to pack up and go home when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the school lawn when I was in fourth grade. As did the ordinary everyday folks—neighbors and friends, Blacks and well as whites—who laid their bodies on the line to stand up for a principle during that difficult time.
We all think we know the story of the Civil rights Movement. It’s old hat by now, isn’t it?
Here’s what’s not old hat—courage. That’s what it took to keep on marching, praying, and singing while dogs and firehoses were set loose on you during peaceful protests. Maybe it’s because I grew up when all that was happening that I admire people who do things like that. Their example has become part of who I am.
The way I see it, courage shouldn’t be a rare commodity
But it is. That’s why we should be filled with gratitude and admiration when we find it.
In my last post, “Young Mike Pence,” I turned to satire to express the sense of frustration I feel at the high rate of gun violence in our country, the inability of Congress to enact meaningful legislation to end it, and the rush to turn Mike Pence into a hero for not caving in to the enormous pressure to disobey his oath of office. After all, didn’t Mr. Pence spend four years enabling his boss?
Satire is a useful rhetorical tool for holding vices and follies up to ridicule. But it has the limits. And while it may be clever, sometimes it misses the deeper truth.
The other side of the coin
For me, that deeper truth is this: If I were to see Mike Pence walking down the street, I would rush over and thank him from the bottom of my heart. On January 6th, he had the courage to do two things I admire. First, he refused to leave the Capitol during the riot because he did not want history to record that the Vice President of the United States had fled the premises and abandoned his duty to certify the vote. Something that’s never happened before.
Second, he stood up to the illegal requests of his boss and listened instead to a higher call—his own moral compass.
If Mr. Pence had not acted with courage that day, who knows where our country would be now? As his attorney Greg Jacob testified during Day 3 of the January 6 hearings, failure to certify the election or to name Trump the winner by choosing a slate of fake electors would have led to fearful consequences for the nation. An irreparable crack in the cornerstone of our democracy.
It is not impossible to imagine
Rioting in the streets on a level we have never witnessed. Nor is it impossible to imagine martial law, which at least one Trump adviser had suggested even before January 6.
Martial law in the United States?
It is not impossible to imagine a situation in which the military could have been forced to take decisive action of its own, which may or may not have been favorable to the former president.
We have seen these things happen in places like Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Myanmar. We never dreamed the United States could have come within a hair’s breadth of a similar outcome.
But on January 6th, that’s exactly what could have happened if Mike Pence hadn’t kept his head when all about him were losing theirs. I am truly grateful to him for that. And that’s something my satire did not cover.
But here’s a question
If the country had been irrevocably damaged on January 6th, would people have cared as much as they cared about reports that Kim Kardashian had damaged Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress?
The one Marilyn wore at Madison Square Garden when she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John Kennedy? The one Ripley’s Believe It or Not paid nearly $5 million for?
For me, there was an aspect of sacrilege about anyone besides Marilyn wearing that dress, especially since she died 10 weeks later. By putting her body into that dress, Kim Kardashian messed with its mzimu, a Swahili word meaning spirit. Kardashian mixed her DNA with Marilyn’s, thus becoming the pop-culture equivalent of a fake elector.
The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah unwittingly raised another equivalency when erroneous reports claimed Kardashian had damaged the dress:
“If you are entrusted with a piece of American history, you better do everything you can to take care of it. Everything.”
If that’s true for a dress, shouldn’t it be doubly so for our democracy? Shouldn’t the rest of us be doing everything in our power to take care of it? I mean, everything.
Some people already have
On Day 4 of the January 6 hearings, I learned about courageous men and women who not only endured enormous political pressure but outright threats of violence simply because they refused to disobey the oath they had taken to uphold the Constitution.
Each of these people reminded me, in his or her own way, of A Man for All Seasons, the story of Thomas Moore’s execution for refusing to support Henry VIII’s wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.
That happened on July 6, 1535, which seems a long time ago. And yet history repeats itself whenever any man or woman is forced to choose between doing the easy thing and doing the right thing. They may not face beheading as Moore did, but they do face doxxing, death threats, and loss of livelihood.
Over the course of the January 6 hearings, I have come to admire Republicans whose political views differ from mine. Because during a time of great personal and political crisis, they chose to rely on the moral compass they live by.
For one man, it was the Bible he carries every day.
For another, it was the belief that the Constitution is divinely inspired. During Day 5 of the hearings, three top-ranking members of the justice department relied on the law and their sworn oath to uphold it.
Each of these people was answering the same question that is put to us all. Do I identify with my ego, which will cease to exist when my body gives out? Or do I identify with the part of me that lives forever? In short, Do I have a soul?
Fortunately, Republicans like Arizona Speaker Rusty Bowers answered in the affirmative. Not only does he have a soul, he has a conscience.
Loaves, Fishes, Miracles
There were many times when I was growing up that my mother found strength and inspiration by reflecting on the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes in the New Testament to get us through lean times between my father’s paychecks. I’m sure it would have been nice to grab an armful of the stolen steaks our neighbor was selling that day.
But instead of jeopardizing her soul, she chose to make do with beans and rice and ground chuck stretched with oatmeal. There was always some kind of miracle that kept us going during those years, and my mother always gave thanks to God for seeing us through.
As I watched the first five January 6th hearings, remembering how I felt as the riot unfolded on TV, I realized anew what a miracle it is that our democracy has lasted this long.
We dodged a kryptonite bullet on that day
And I feel grateful to the men and women who held on to something higher than themselves and in the process managed to keep the democracy intact.
It worries me that many of the rioters believed they were acting out of principle too. As some of them stated in video played during the January 6 hearings, they believed they were fighting to save the democracy from a fraudulent election.
For them, this was a matter of principle just as adhering to the Constitution was a matter of principle for people like Mike Pence and Conservative Arizona Republican Rusty Bowers, who resisted pressure from the former president and his allies to turn his state’s results over to the legislature without any evidence of fraud.
Sadly, the rioters put their faith in a lie. A lie Ashli Babbitt lost her life for. Although right-wing media spins her death as martyrdom, it was the lie that killed her.
Donald Trump’s Big Lie is the demon seed of the belief that protecting capitalism is more important than preserving democracy. It’s also the evil offspring of the post-truth era, a time when "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."
The Big Lie works because post-truth is real. Emotion speaks louder than facts. That’s why 25 million people continue to believe the election was stolen despite all evidence to the contrary.
That’s why thousands of people, emotionally worked up by post-truth rhetoric, attacked the Capitol on January 6. That’s why many others issued death threats to ordinary citizens like Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, who served as poll workers in Atlanta. It’s why a mob became angry enough to chant, “Hang Mike Pence” outside the capitol.
Eve of destruction?
In 1965, Barry McGuire reached the Billboard Hot 100 with a song called, “Eve of Destruction,” which catalogued the long list of social issues during the turbulent 1960s. That song was the musical equivalent of street preachers carrying makeshift signs that say: Repent. The End Is Near.
But the end has been near ever since the days of John the Baptist. It was near during the Hundred Years War, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. The end is always near.
And yet we are still here. Why is that?
Dylan Thomas would say we’re here because of the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Charles Darwin would say we’re here because of natural selection. Joseph Campbell would say we’re here because of the hero with a thousand faces.
But I like my mother’s answer best. The woman who refused to buy stolen steak that day would say we’re still here because of the daily miracle. She would say the daily miracle comes from a divine source—and therefore the supply is endless.
She would also say Republicans who followed their moral compass and chose not to support the Big Lie were also part of the daily miracle. And maybe that’s why America’s fragile democracy survived an attack from within that day.
Finally, I think she would say just keep on keeping on. Because the only way to stop these daily miracles—is to stop believing in them.
©2022 Andrew Jazprose Hill
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Gloria Steinem: Marilyn Monroe—The Woman Who Will Not Die, 1986