99 Problems But This Ain't One

Judging when to use tabloid stories as teaching moments on issues regarding race, gender, and class isn’t always easy. Sometimes the connection is clear, as when bloggers and activists used the Chris Brown/Rihanna blowup to raise awareness about domestic violence. Other times, a point can’t be found, no matter how hard one may try. The scandal surrounding Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s baby, recently born at at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, is a classic example of this sort of overreach.

For those who may not know, soon after Beyoncé gave birth to Blue Ivy Carter, there was a rush of tabloid and then mainstream-media stories quoting parents who were furious about the security measures the hospital took, which included clearing out the wing the couple stayed in, covering cameras, and dispatching guards for their protection. The parents’ complaints—which were given wide airing at sites like Jezebel and The Huffington Post—mostly centered around the attention the celebrity couple received and the inconveniences it caused. The New York Times quoted Rozz Nash-Coulon, a mother who gave birth at Lenox Hill when Beyoncé did, complaining about the security guards reportedly wearing badges that said “special event.” The press inflated these complaints into a scandal, framing it as the type of economic injustice that motivated the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But the real problem with Jay-Z and Beyoncé is much more mundane—and fundamental—than how they were treated at the hospital. First of all, patients and families might be angry at the mild inconveniences caused by the celebrity couple’s presence, but they aren’t considering how much worse it would have been to have paparazzi everywhere. More to the point: While the desire of every new mother to have as much fanfare for her birth-giving abilities as Beyoncé is perhaps understandable, the fact that they don't falls on the scale of injustice in between wanting your cats to stay kittens and wishing that iPhones had better standard ringtones. The injustice isn’t that Beyoncé giving birth was more of a “special event” than it is for the four million other women who have babies every year. It’s that she and her husband, as part of the economic elite, aren’t paying the taxes they really ought to; the wealthy in this country have rigged the system against ordinary Americans.

The problem with using the fiasco as an example on par with the grievances of the OWS movement is that it takes the very serious issue of income inequality in America and reduces it to mommy wars about whose baby is more special. It gives credence to the idea espoused by Mitt Romney: that critiques of low tax rates on the rich and lack of consequences for the bankers who ruined our economy are nothing but “class envy.”

It’s tempting for the mainstream media and liberal bloggers to amplify tabloid stories about Jay-Z and Beyoncé that touch on class issues. Their fame guarantees getting an audience that otherwise wouldn’t listen. Plus, the structural inequalities that genuinely cause problems tend to be abstract and hard to illustrate to an audience. Most of the information is number-crunching about tax rates, stagnating real wages, rising housing and education costs, and complex arguments about investment incentives. That the children of the wealthy can go to top-tier universities and graduate debt-free while your kids are looking at six-figure debt is a real problem.

This isn’t to say that tabloid stories can never be used to make important points about structural inequality. Just perusing US Weekly, I saw a few that stand out. Take this story about famous pot smokers, for instance. It would be interesting to use this to illustrate how there’s two justice systems in America: one for the privileged that slaps them on the wrist and one for poorer people, which ruins lives and makes it difficult for people caught up in it to ever enter the world of gainful employment.

So go ahead and use the tabloids to make a political point, just make sure the shoe fits before you wear it. And don’t forget the bigger story. The bankers who destroyed the economy are less glamorous targets, but they’re the true cause for outrage.