What Harding Case Means In Howard

COMMENT

January 30, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Last week I made a flippant comment to someone about the sad saga unfolding around figure skater Tonya Harding, of how entertaining it was during a dull week of ice and snowstorms.

As fascinating is as this melodrama, though, the Tonya Harding story is much more weighty than any soap opera. Its importance is part of the reason it attracts us as it repels us. As symbolism, it has all the ingredients. A made-for-TV movie to be sure. Tragic as Greek theater. Torrid as "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Ms. Harding, it should be said, has grit -- but not of the true kind.

Distinguished from courage, her unbridled determination and disregard for others come across as an assault on our psyches, if not on Nancy Kerrigan herself.

Ms. Harding had been unapologetic and lacking in remorse, at least until last Thursday, when she publicly apologized for the attack on Ms. Kerrigan. Ms. Harding admitted she learned of her acquaintences' alleged involvement in the assault days afterward, but maintained her own innocence.

Prior to that point, she had written a curt note to Ms. Kerrigan, described as considerably short of anything personal or compassionate.

She gives new meaning to the phrase "ice queen." Her bleached-blond hair and homemade costumes cast her as an outsider in the genteel world of figure-skating. She's the surly scrapper who crashes a tea party. She shoots pool, drives a truck and smokes cigarettes to boot.

Many have stated that Ms. Harding is in desperate need of a publicity agent, to coach her through the land mines of this public scandal.

She needs more than that, however, to deliver her from the abusive upbringing she received, which continues to mar her life.

Her mother, who married seven times, by all accounts took stage mothering to the point of psychosis; beating Tonya with a hairbrush when she didn't perform to standard, telling her her routines "sucked."

In one sense, Ms. Harding rose above her circumstances. In other ways, she clearly never escaped.

Whether guilty or not, she has become a symbol of violence in America -- a poster child for the disintegrating family and testament to the erosion of values.

Hers is a story as right for Howard County as anywhere.

From here, the Harding saga reads like a cautionary tale.

How safe really are our children within the cocoon of their middle-class existences? Have they been given the proper moral code that serves as a stop sign to inappropriate behavior?

Tonya Harding is a child of poverty. But money can bring a poverty of riches, as corrupting as any vice. After all, it is the pursuit of millions that has driven Ms. Harding's pursuit of the gold.

In Howard, we push our children to excellence, insisting that they are in all the right classes, enrolled in piano as well as sports. And yet we must be mindful of when the drive to succeed crosses the line into torment and excess.

Our pride in finding answers within an intellectual framework seems sometimes in conflict with our values.

A proliferation of massage parlors that have been accused of being fronts for prostitution confounds our elected officials, who are torn between legislating an outright ban and a desire to spare even one business that might be legitimate.

Nude dancing at the Good Guys Bar proves an elusive target to laws that were never meant to legislate morality.

The sex and violence from which we attempt to shield ourselves creeps into our homes via the air waves, and we have no control over the invasion.

Attempts to crack down on movies and television come across as censorship, and free speech has brought us talk shows on the bizarre and worse.

Howard Stern is a best-selling author.

The president talks about restoring family values as if it were a government prescription for an ailing bureaucracy.

Some how, we know the problem is bigger than that; we are frozen by the enormity of it. And then suddenly a Tonya Harding happens and, for a moment, the problem comes into focus. Good versus evil on ice.

But even as we judge her, we watch with the uncomfortable suspicion that the outcome will send the wrong message and we will be left trying to explain to children the importance of values.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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