Imelda Marcos' shoes have been starring in Johnny Carson's recent monologues. It's funny stuff. It's also sort of interesting, given the fact that, in Carson's most recent divorce, his ex-wife Joanna asked for, among other things, $37,065 a month for jewels and furs and $88,000 a month for personal expenses.
The evening news has shown us rooms in Malacanang Palace looking like nothing so much as a warehouse in the garment district. The palace is a study of pathological consumerism, a shrine to Imelda Marcos' avarice. Everyone who sees it is shocked and appalled, and that's got me confused.
Oh, I understand the shock of the Filipino people, many of whom live in unspeakable poverty. The grief on the faces looking at the evidence of what the Marcos regime did to them is clear, and it's understandable. What's not so undertandable is how it came to be so fashionable among residents of Los Angeles' affluent west side to talk about "that terrible woman, Imelda Marcos." Because the same avarice that drove Marcos to buy, buy, buy is much in evidence here.
I know a woman who is said by many to have married for money. I suspect, but don't know for a fact, that that's true. What I do know is that, once she married money, she set about spending it with a fervor that makes one suspect the act of acquisition is to her a religious experience. She just loves money, and the things it will buy: cars, clothes, jewels, useless doo-dads, whatever. She has raised shopping to an art form. Now and then, the constant shopping in Los Angeles creates a certain ennui. So she goes to other cities, sometimes other countries, and when she comes back she talks, not about museums or beautiful vistas, but the adorable little boutiques.
These days, in between trips to stores, this woman has taken to talking a lot about "that awful, awful woman" Imelda Marcos. It's hard to keep a straight face, listning to all this, because the only difference I see between the Filipino shopper and the American shopper is quantitative. The American hasn't an entire country to plunder, just one man's bank account.
There is a television show called "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." I've never seen this show, but I'm somehow certain it slobbers, awestruck, over evidence of obscene levels of spending.
There is a magazine called "People," which is not so much about people as it is about rich and famous people. Oh, every once in a while they throw in a piece about a scientist who has made a real contribution, or an article on homelessness, but it is still pretty much an ode to the rich and famous, and the rich and fatuous among us.
One issue, in a profile of a Texas socialite, showed us pictures of the socialite's closet -- well, it wasn't really a closet, it was an entire room where the clothes were hung on racks, just like in a department store, just like (dare I say it?) in Malacanang Palace.
What we are shown by that television show and that magazine is offered to us in the spirit of "gee, gosh, golly, isn't this wonderful? Isn't this the height of human success? Isn't this the best there is?"
The Princess of Wales is said to be not terribly bright, under-educated and ill-read. She is also wonderful looking and beautifully dressed. Shopping is reported to be her favorite activity. And she is about as famous as a person can be. For all this, her name appears regularly on lists of the most admired women. (Speaking of the English royal family, Diana's mother- in-law is said to have a personal fortune in the billions. This money was not obtained through hard work, or through a democratic process. It is the fruit of plunder, hung onto through sufficient generations to legitimize it.)
The fact is, we celebrate acquisitiveness in this society. We honor it. We lust after not just money, but the tangible symbols of money. One might say that Imelda Marcos just sort of took an idea and ran with it.
Of course, an argument can be made that what is shocking about the Marcos spending is that all that money was stolen from the poor, and that in the stealing, a public trust was violated. But it's a specious argument. To be shocking, information needs to carry an element of surprise. Is it really so surprising to any of us that the Marcos' stole from the poor?
Imelda Marcos has been living lavishly for a long time now. And while we hadn't before seen her closets, we'd certainly seen her wearing some of the things that hung there: we saw pictures of her wearing them in New York, in Europe, wherever there was a party, wherever it took her fancy to go. What did we think all those years? That she financed the trips and the clothes by judicious expenditure of the housekeeping money given to her by her husband, who made $5,700 a year?
There is no question, Imelda Marcos deserves our scorn. The question is, are we in any position to bestow it?