Madonna: Like a hypocrite

Jonah Goldberg

6/18/2004 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

From an ABC News exclusive: "She was in the pages of Playboy, published her own book on sex and kissed Britney Spears in a live stage performance, but Madonna tells ABC News' '20/20' she may be through with propelling her celebrity with sex."

What courage! What daring! A 45-year-old mother of two has decided to stop using sex as a publicity tool. Isn't this a little like Saddam Hussein declaring now that he will abide by all U.N. sanctions?

Full disclosure: Every columnist has a few topics that serve as a bottomless well to draw from. For some it's church-state issues, for others it's the gas tax. For me, it seems to be Madonna's penchant for "reinvention." Actually, that's not fair, because the last three or four times I've written about Madonna she's been "reinventing" herself into the same thing: a more responsible working mom.

In 2001, People magazine ran a breathlessly sycophantic article titled "Balancing Act," which portrayed Madonna as the Rosie the Riveter of working moms. "Like many working mothers - even those who have an assistant and at least one nanny on hand, as she does - her life is 'exhausting.'" She told People: "There isn't a second in my day that isn't taken up looking after my family or thinking (about work)." And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution declared that her tour should've been called "Material Mom Puts Family First This Tour."

Of course, that "reinvention" stood on the shoulders of another, more or less identical reinvention from a year earlier. In 2000, Madonna explained in another People magazine article: "I've gone through all my sexual rebellion and don't need to do it anymore. I worked it out of my system, it's pretty safe to say."

So, imagine my surprise when ABC broke the "exclusive" that the Material Girl was prepared to admit that she was ready to put her rebellious life behind her. The exciting news now, other than her embrace of a bogus pseudo Jewish mysticism, is that she's now so "traditional" that she actually - gasp - insists her kids pick up after themselves. In terms of news value this ranks only slightly above "This Just In: Abraham Lincoln is Still Dead. Story at 11."

So why should anyone care?

Excellent question. I'm glad I asked it for you. First of all, it never hurts to be reminded that "news" outfits are not above repackaging the same old shinola in new wrappers.

But there's something a lot more important, even sinister, about the public treatment of Madonna. Madonna was a slut when sluttiness worked for her. Oh, and before you get on some high horse about how it is ungentlemanly to use such language, all I would say is that the word has no meaning if it doesn't apply to a woman who glamorized group sex and performed lessons on oral sex - all aimed at a teenage audience.

When conservatives - and plain old good parents - criticized or denounced Madonna for promoting slattern chic, they were uniformly jeered at as prudes, theocrats, Comstocks, etc. Those who didn't celebrate Madonna's ability to "transcend bourgeoisie morality" or some other gobbledygook "just didn't get it."

Well, now that Madonna's getting older, is a parent herself, and younger Madonna rip-offs are doing the same thing, she claims to value modesty and tradition - and the same nattering bandersnatches of the "sophisticated" media congratulate her on her maturity. She's now realizing that the soulless materialism of her material girl days was anemic, and she's searching for meaning in whacked-out New Age cults.

This is precisely what you get in a culture that detests hypocrisy more than immorality. When Madonna defended her shtick, she was celebrated as "authentic" - and authenticity is the most important thing in the world. Now, that she's lewd no more, it's OK for her to criticize lewdness.

But here's the thing: Lewdness is either right or wrong regardless of Madonna's personal behavior. It's similar to the outrage at Rush Limbaugh's alleged drug problem. Since liberals are terrified of being "judgmental," they could denounce his "hypocrisy" and not the actual underlying transgression. It's tantamount to saying that gluttons must condone gluttony for everyone, because to say otherwise would be hypocritical.

This is a very real problem in a culture that sees super-rich - and often very dumb - celebrities as role models. Madonna championed promiscuity as self-expression for millions of girls who would never grow up to become kazillionaires like Madonna, who, by the way, has bragged that she's never changed a diaper (she's got staff for that). That is not the plight of real "working moms."

Madonna could always afford her values, as when she had a baby with her personal fitness trainer. Most people cannot. What solace is it to the women who followed her advice 20 years ago that she now has realized that there was something to "bourgeoisie" values all along?