The Anna Nicole Smith saga is now complete. Anna Quindlen has come along to tell me the whole sordid mess is my fault -- and yours, too, by the way:
A hundred years ago a girl like Vickie Lynn Hogan, which was Anna Nicole Smith's real name, would have lived in a small town, and everyone would have talked about her behind her back until she moved on to someplace bigger. Britney Spears would have left her babies at home to bounce around the bars, and it would have been Topic A at card games and knitting circles.
Instead of reading on a Web site that the embalming of Anna Nicole's body was complete, you would have heard it from the funeral director at the Elks Lodge. Instead of being told on TV Britney needed to clean up her act, you would have heard it from your cousin who heard it from the choir director who heard it from the principal's wife. Human nature being what it is, people would have pretended to be sympathetic when they were really feeling superior. Sinclair Lewis nailed it in his novel "Main Street," the propensity of the herd to try to bring down the maverick.
But the big difference between then and now would have been twofold: most of the people doing the talking would have had actual knowledge of the women involved, and from time to time they would actually have had to see them on the street, or in the store, or at church. Eye contact has always had a dampening effect on trash talk. It's shame-making, quite properly so.
In our frantic modern world, in which many people don't know their neighbors well enough to gossip to or about them, it's a different story. No one has to feel bad about gawking at Anna posthumously slurring her words on videotape. No one has to feel bad about staring as Britney frantically shaves her head inside a beauty parlor, the moment caught on a lens that gives precisely the effect of the scope on a hunting rifle. Distance insulates us.
In the column there is only the barest suggestion that Nicole and Britney and Paris and all the rest might be irresponsible or selfish or superficial or self-destructive. These child-women are "mavericks" that the "herd" (that's us) must try to bring down.
Quindlen has a point about our ability these days to indulge in remote gossping without the need to ever come into personal contact with the ones being gossiped about. But she ignores the symbiotic relationship between the gossip-mongers and the "famous for being famous" crowd. The fame is desired and must be created, so the gossipers that everyone ends up deploring are first courted.
Also overlooked is the social function of gossip and its shame-generating effects. No society can exist without norms. Pointing at the ones who don't meet the norms and snickering about them is part of reinforcing the group's values. Mavericks exist to be noticed.
Not that many people feel all that much shame about anything at all these days.