Insights: Culture—Rumor Has It
Gossip's redeeming qualities make it a cornerstone of democracy
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00
Some months ago, controversial Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote an amazing book about the Baby Boomer mystique, the sex/drugs/rock and roll generation and the Bill Clinton impeachment trial. In American Rhapsody, Eszterhas relied on gossip, independent counsel Kenneth Starr's records and his own imagination to re-create the history as it affected the Washington-Hollywood axis.
I sit at home, wreathed in cigar smoke and smile as I contemplate the very nature of gossip. Whether we like it or not, gossip is the chief ingredient of the information age we live in. It informs, enlightens, irritates and engages us. But gossip is nothing new. Eszterhas certainly didn't invent it, although he makes great use of it in American Rhapsody.
When I entered the newspaper business in the late 1950s, I thought I would become a columnist in the nature of the Duc de Saint-Simon, who wrote down everything about the Court of Louis XIV and gave history an enormous shot in the arm. But when I received my own gossip column in the '70s, my friend and critic Taki Theodoracopulos took me to task for being too nice, too inhibited and pulling my punches. I tried to explain to him that it was one thing for Saint-Simon to write gossip in a secret diary. If the Sun King had found out about it, we would never have benefited from it and the diary keeper would have died in the Bastille. Writing for daily newspapers puts certainrestraints on the practice, restraints suitable to libel laws, taste and refinement, and the vagaries of the important publisher one inevitably works for.
I have had 30 years to study and print gossip and I have concluded that for all its extremely poor reputation, gossip has an unprecedented popularity and use. Why? Gossip is good for us. It is actually cathartic. It keeps our juices flowing and it is a medium of power to the max, an incredible instrument of the exchange of ideas, news and events. In addition, it has its place in the formulation of moral judgments and tells us what we really think and feel.
Can gossip actually be good for you? One might be surprised to learn that scores of serious academics say it is. Many scholarly papers, reports and university thesis papers bear this out. What can gossip do for you? It can relax you and establish who you are by how you react to and use it. It can make you feel better or worse. It is as cathartic in our modern times as comedy and tragedy were for the ancient Greeks. Some academicians even say that gossip makes you live longer. (This, they harrumph, is why women outlive men!) Gossip is an enormous form of information exchange and thereby has its own power. There is a lot of power and possibly prestige in telling something you know, or think you know. (Like all great and meaningful conformations, this could also backfire and scorch you.)
"Gossip empowers both the tale carrier and the recipient--gossip answers a wide range of human needs. It bonds both teller and listener together with a sense of sharing something slightly forbidden," writes respected New York Times columnist Gail Collins in her gossip tome Scorpion Tongues. Professor Gary Alan Fine of Northwestern University says, "Gossip is a bit like Greek tragedy, an emotional release valve that allows us to express a whole range of human findings--envy, anger, compassion--and to find solace in other people's woes." I believe it was Joan Rivers who said, "It's nice to know when everything is going wrong in your household, that Elizabeth Taylor has problems, too."
There's no point in being high-minded about it, although some people are. I always admired President Harry Truman, who, when handed the FBI files in which J. Edgar Hoover had written "pervert, commie, sex fiend" in the margins of the department's uncensored gossip files, refused to read them. "I don't care about that stuff!" Truman said. But most of us do care. We feel as if we need to know everything. I recall a conversation I once had with Lyndon Johnson aide Horace Busby. He told me that when JFK and LBJ were running for the White House, Johnson's men followed and made note of everything naughty the would-be president did. "Why?" I asked. "What did you do with this information?" Horace shrugged, "We didn't do anything with it. We felt we just had to have it!"
The notion of how much we crave news and our need to know what's going on is illustrated by the old houses in New England, most of which are situated very close to the road with expanses of property lying behind. They were constructed thus so a passerby might give a homeowner, hanging on, say, the fence, the latest on-dit. "Hey, didja hear? They shot Lincoln a month ago down in Washington. He was at the theater and I understand Mrs. Lincoln had forced him to go; he wanted to stay home!"
Oscar Wilde wrote that history is merely gossip. Later, he added my favorite quote: "But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality!" If you don't believe gossip is history, consider the 1,000 days of John F. Kennedy's tenure in the White House. Hundreds of morsels of gossip were chewed over at the time, but the vogue then was not to write about a president's sex life or how he was trying to get the Mob to help him win elections or eliminate Castro. All of this later became grist for history's mill, long after his 1963 assassination. So, gossip remains an important, if sometimes startling and even inaccurate, historical reservoir. Because gossip is based on a common impulse--"Let me tell you a story..."--it becomes a basis for history, biography, autobiography, memoirs, romans à clef, novels, diaries and letters.
After the invention of the written alphabet by the Sumerians in 3000 b.c., the forward-looking Greeks adapted written language even further. The very first things we know of, written in Greek, are two incisions left on Mt. Hymettus near Athens. They date back to the eighth century b.c. Seldom cited because they are "dirty gossip," the first one states, "So and So is a cocksucker!" The second reads, "So and So is a pederast." So you see, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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