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Wal-Mart Heiress' Cultural Coarsening
Elizabeth Paige Laurie, granddaughter of Wal-Mart co-founder,
opens big box of trouble

by Bill Berkowitz
December 6, 2004

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EPL wanted it all, and she must have figured it out early on in her life that she could have it all. Now, she wanted a degree from a well-known private university, but she had more important things to do than perform the routine academic chores necessary to get that degree. Her parents had even bigger plans: By virtue of a $25 million donation to the University of Missouri, they received the naming rights -- and a bushel full of other perks -- to the University's brand new basketball arena, and they intended to name the arena after their daughter. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

EPL's dilemma? How to get her degree in communications without expending too much time and effort. She turned to hired help in the person of Elena Martinez, her first-year roommate.

For the next three-plus years, Martinez became EPL's academic proxy; she basically took care of many of EPL's assignments, including email exchanges with tutors on her behalf. For her services, Martinez -- who also joined the Army Reserves for much-needed extra cash -- received $20,000. The payment wasn't enough to keep her enrolled at the university, so Martinez transferred to Riverside Community College.

EPL got her degree in communications. End of story? No!

As often happens in a world saturated by the tabloid media, the story wouldn't rest in peace. That's because Elena Martinez got an offer she couldn't refuse -- although EPL's parents could easily have matched or exceeded it -- and she decided to "make things right." And friends, when you're making things right be sure to contact one of the television network's news programs.

That's what Martinez did. So, on Friday, November 19, in front of millions of viewers, Martinez told her story.

According to the Guardian, Martinez told ABC's 20/20 that she had initially helped EPL "with one paper, for which her friend had given her $25 as thanks. But from there things spiraled [out of control] until ... [she] was carrying out all of the heiress's assignments, even exchanging emails with tutors on her behalf."

EPL was a demanding boss: According to Martinez, EPL had the chutzpah to criticize her if she thought her work was not up to par. "She was a very demanding, expect-the-best boss," Martinez said. "I rarely got a bad grade, but if I did, she'd say, 'This was horrible.' She was pretty picky."

Even after Martinez was forced to leave school for not being able to afford the tuition, she continued receiving assignments from EPL. "I thought about quitting a lot of times, but I didn't know how. I was dealing with someone really powerful," Martinez said.

She was dealing with someone really powerful!

"She's always had everything done for her, I think," Elena told ABC. "I mean, when she first came, I taught her how to do laundry. I did some of it sometimes." Elena later told the Kansas City Star that Paige has "never expressed any guilt that I've seen."

The EPL of this story is Elizabeth Paige Laurie, the daughter of Bill and Nancy Laurie, and the granddaughter of Bud Walton, the brother and business partner of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

Elizabeth Paige Laurie is as genuine an heiress as one gets.

Earlier this year, EPL received her degree in communications from the University of Southern California.

Cultural Coarseness

The commonly held wisdom now being dispensed by pundits of all stripes is that 2004 was the year the "values voter" came out of the closet. And Team Bush was able to turn out the "values voter" thereby turning the tide in favor of the president. It is the "values voter" and their political spokespersons, also known as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his newly launched Faith and Values Coalition, Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins' Family Research Council and the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association -- which now expects some tangible political rewards for its efforts.

The "values voter" didn't fall from the sky. It was cultivated by events. 2004 was a banner year for "values voter" breeding, starting as it did with Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" -- ably assisted by Justin Timberlake -- at the Super Bowl, and ending -- although there's still time for a last-minute holiday season entry -- with Monday Night Football's Sheridan/Owens caper. In case you turned off the tube the day after Election Day and haven't found the remote yet, the Sheridan/Owens caper consisted of a bare-backed leap by Desperate Housewives star Nicollette Sheridan into the outstretched arms of the Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiver Terrell Owens during a cross-promotional advertisement prior to a recent Monday Night Football telecast on ABC.

Frank Rich, one of the country's eloquent cultural commentators labeled the NS/TO incident and its aftermath "The Great Indecency Hoax" in a recent column in the New York Times. Sheridan's naked leap was clearly aimed at "giv[ing] the declining weekly game (viewership is down 3 percent from 2003) a shot of Viagra," wrote Rich. The outcry over the Monday Night Football promotional spot "was a manufactured scandal" perpetrated by those "opportunistic ayatollahs on the right [that] have been working overtime to inflate this nonmandate [Bush's victory] into a landslide by ginning up cultural controversies that might induce censorship by a compliant F.C.C. [Federal Communications Commission] and, failing that, self-censorship by TV networks."

In today's multi-media world, monitoring the "coarsening" of America's culture is certain to keep the "opportunistic ayatollahs on the right" busy. Bare-breasted babes and naked actresses seducing wide receivers are more than enough to spur high-powered Christian right organizations like the American Family Association (AFA) to action.

In fact, the AFA is up to its eyeballs combating "cultural coarseness." It's currently targeting Procter & Gamble -- the maker of Crest, Tide and Pampers. According to the AFA's web site, the company "is the leading sponsor of two TV programs that continually push the homosexual agenda." The company has sponsored both Will & Grace -- which "regularly promotes homosexuality and explicit sex-talk with jokes about male and female genitalia, masturbation, oral sex... and even anal sex" -- and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which "depicts five homosexual men remaking the 'cluttered, straight men of the world' so that they look, dress and act in the manner of the 'cool' and, by implication, superior 'gay' community." Citing Broadcasting & Cable Online magazine, the AFA claims that P&G was Will & Grace's top sponsor between September 2003 and February 2004, spending some $8.2 million. During the period between September 2003 and February 2004, P&G also spent $2,000,000 in sponsorship of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

The Reality-Based World Just Doesn't Cut It

The Bush Administration has just about bombed Fallujah into oblivion, while reporters embedded with the U.S. military have yet to report on the massive destruction that has taken place and the number of civilians killed in the onslaught. News that U.S. casualties in Iraq -- which reached 135 by the end of November thereby tying the previous monthly record set in April of this year -- appears to be evoking less media attention than post-Thanksgiving Day sales reports. While the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal has basically disappeared from the mainstream media's radar, the New York Times reported that the International Committee of the Red Cross has charged the U.S. with numerous practices that are "tantamount to [the] torture" of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Martha Stewart may be serving time in prison, but the past decades' most celebrated corporate criminals, including Halliburton's own Dick Cheney, remain free. New congressional rules will make it more difficult for students to qualify for Pell Grants and could cause more than 85,000 students to become ineligible, and another 1.2 million might have their grants severely cut. And this is only the beginning.

None of the above stories have had the bounce or buzz necessary to attract sustained attention from the media.

Wal-Mart, the Bentonville Beast

Given what's really going on in the world, why pay any attention at all to the shenanigans of Elizabeth Paige Laurie? Unlike the JJ/JT Super Bowl incident, the NS/TO bare-naked Monday Night Football leap or the recent fights at the Vibe Awards and at The Palace in Auburn Hills, where the National Basketball Association's young basketbrawlers -- joined by an assortment of beer throwing, chair chucking out-of-control Detroit Piston fans -- reeked havoc a few weeks back, EPL isn't a celebrity (though she might become one now), isn't a television star (though she might become one now), hasn't cut an album (though she might now), and isn't a high-profile athlete.

EPL is merely the heir to one of the world's great fortunes. A fortune built on a deeper and more enduring type of "cultural coarsening."

Consider, if you will, that Wal-Mart's cultural coarsening has little to do with the "F" word, fist fights, bared breasts or faux on-screen nudity. It's a more insidious form of cultural coarsening because while the Walton gang of mega-billionaires brings the public uber-discounted merchandise through Wal-Mart -- the world's largest retailer and largest company based on revenue, with more than $250 billion in sales -- it comes at an extremely high price: Underpaid labor in overseas sweat shops, non-union workers at home that can't afford healthcare for their families, discriminatory workplaces, censorship policies regarding the books and records it carries, and a profit margin built around the soaking up of hundreds of millions in public tax payer subsidies extracted from cash strapped county budgets.

Oh yes, the arena naming rights? The Laurie family, which owns Paige Sports Entertainment -- named after their daughter -- and the St. Louis Blues professional hockey team, had contributed $25 million in 2001 to launch the building of a $75 million basketball arena on campus and intended to name the building for their daughter. A "what were they thinking" would suffice here. However, when the good folks back at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., found out about 20/20's revelations, the governing Board of Curators made things right by immediately voting, without dissent, to change the arena's name from the Paige Sports Arena to Mizzou Arena.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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