JANUARY 21, 2015
THERE IS ONLY ONE WORD to describe Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s paean to patent and copyright law and their influence on American history.
“This country was always cool,” she writes.
Everything we do here is cooler than everything they do everywhere else, and so it will ever be. We will never necessarily be more compassionate or more intelligent, but we will be more grand and creative. Maybe the Chinese know math better because they count grains of rice or something, but American sixteen-year-olds invent apps on a dime — and America invented the sixteen-year-old.
Read aloud, the passage works equally well as a TED talk, a role-playing exercise on identifying racial stereotyping, or an audition piece for the lead in Legally Blonde.
Until now, scholars have been loath to consider where, exactly, our national coolness came from. Wurtzel believes it is the product of Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, alternatively known as the Intellectual Property Clause or Progress Clause.
“Whatever you call it, its implications have been larger for the economy of this country than the whole of the Constitution constituted together.”
Her brisk, bracingly opinionated analysis of American history and the Constitution is certainly never boring. Drawing on the writings of the Founding Fathers, the evolution of Thomas Jefferson’s views of intellectual property, labor statistics, Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” and modern art, she makes a captivating, if not wholly convincing, argument that, by protecting ingenuity and creativity, the Constitution created “a democracy of ideas and not a plutocracy of provenance. Here, ingenuity is everything.”
Not capital, nor ideology, nor public education, nor military power, nor self-representative government makes America cool (and thus great). Wurtzel argues that what makes us cool is that we are free to make cool things that we can then own and sell. In a Creator and Consumer Nation, life, liberty, and the pursuit of stuff is the ideal, and going to The Mall is an act of patriotism.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the author’s view of the American identity:
The defining characteristic of America is our fanaticism: We dream big, we think large, we create grandeur. We invented Hollywood, rock ’n’ roll, blue jeans, the Gold Rush, cable TV with thousands of channels, a military that is larger than those of the next ten combined, the shopping mall, and a store that sells nothing but socks. We invented Elvis Presley and teen idols, we invented the phonograph and the movie camera, we invented Disneyland and the roller coaster, baseball and apple pie. We invented the Internet — oh, yes we did — and the anonymous comment. We didn’t invent the wheel, but we did come up with the Model T; we didn’t invent the wing, but we did give the world the airplane and the miracle of flight. We didn’t invent the computer, but we did invent the PC and everything that everyone can do at home; we didn’t invent the telephone, but we did invent the iPhone and everything that everyone can do in the palm of his hand. We invented Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Steve Jobs: so there. We invented the world we live in: so there.
It is generally unwise to quote the publicity release accompanying a book. One can never know if or how much of it was written by the author herself. In this case, however, the release does the book more justice than any reviewer could. Indeed, the publicist nails the tone and content of Wurtzel’s book just right:
Creatocracy takes everything you thought you knew about pilgrims and their plainly puritanical sensibilities, flips it on its head, throws glitter on it, sets it to a flashy pop score, then throws it a big coming out party. In a movie version of this American origin story, Baz Luhrmann would be calling all the shots. Elizabeth Wurtzel has masterfully written a crash-course in American history and the arts, wise and witty, full of humor and insight. This is pop patriotism in book form.
Only a cynic, a sexist pig, or the author herself could countenance the porn-style photograph of Wurtzel on the front of the book. The author stares into the camera, her carefully made-up face framed by a Veronica Lake hairstyle, a graceful lock of blonde shades half her face, the unobstructed other side offering an arched eyebrow and come-hither look, her lipstick-etched lips set on full pout.
Fabulous. Pure, unadulterated, John Waters–level, camp, fabulous. What else could it be?
Wurtzel is a brilliant woman and an insightful writer. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, described in publicity material as “a lawyer at Boies, Schiller & Flexner.”
She is also the author of the groundbreaking memoir Prozac Nation, appropriately lauded in a New York Times review as possessing “the raw candor of Joan Didion’s essays, the irritating emotional exhibitionism of Sylvia Path’s The Bell Jar, and the wry, dark humor of a Bob Dylan song.”
Wurtzel knows that, other than ERISA or other pension-related matters, patent and copyright are among the driest of subjects. She also knows putting a picture of a pretty woman up front is a tried-and-true, lowest-common-denominator way to bring the masses into the tent. Preaching in simple, accessible language is also part of the pitch.
The terms “glib” and “shallow” are only pejorative to those who overvalue the importance of depth. As a television writer and author — my first book on the power of storytelling was described by one reviewer as “breezy” — I happen to live and work on the corner of glib and shallow. The pay is good, the audience is bigger, and in our tawdry world of short attention spans and slobbering social media, it’s the only business to be in.
Not that I can’t be pedantic. Almost as well papered as she is (we’re tied at Harvard; does a Rhodes Scholarship trump Yale Law School? Probably not), I can lay down ponderous prose with the best of them. I bet she can, too. Good for her for not doing so.
It takes guts to write about a serious subject with a sense of humor. It takes skill to do so while still making your point. Her goal, to lighten up and demystify an important and relevant subject in order to serve the very worthy purpose of making intellectual property accessible and meaningful to consumers and citizens.
She is, therefore, that rare commodity: a member of the elite class, seeking to use her talent and smarts to deliver a populist message.
At a time when intellectual property law is the domain of high-priced experts, prohibitively expensive lawyers, and Ivory Tower academics and regulators who seem to only write and speak to and for one another and their corporate clients, Wurtzel is exactly what we need more of.
As a feminist, however, not to mention the father of a daughter, I wish we lived in a fairer, more just, more enlightened world, one in which Wurtzel wouldn’t need a pretty face to deliver her message.