Jewish World Review March 22, 2001 / 27 Adar, 5761
But, you protest, I do protect my loved ones: I watch my health, I carry insurance, I drive defensively, I do not swim for an hour after eating, I use sun block even at night, I avoid mad cows. That is all fine and good, but what about jail? In America these days, it is very, very easy, for most people, to go to jail. It used to be much harder. One reason for that was a matter of political balance. Conservatives, for conservative reasons, liked to send people to jail, but liberals, for liberal reasons, liked to keep people out of jail. The result was a country where you could reasonably count on not going to jail unless you did something really quite horrible, and even then you probably would get off, or get out early, especially if you gave large amounts of money to Hugh Rodham.
But then, liberals decided that they liked to send people to jail too, for liberal reasons. Jail, it occurred to them, was just the ticket for certain people -- corporate polluters and drunk drivers and deadbeat dads and gun owners and people who hate other people. After all the liberal reasons for going to jail were added to all the conservative reasons, it turned out that pretty much everything you could think of to do in America could land you in jail.
It could land you in jail, that is, unless you had taken the precaution of getting famous. Social scientists are not sure precisely when we, as a people, decided that we would simply no longer incarcerate famous people. Some believe it was at about the same time that we decided that Roseanne Barr was in acceptable taste, and indeed it has been suggested that a causal relationship exists between the two. This may be so, or it may not.
Nor do scientists know precisely why we decided this. There are differing theories. One, put forward by the remaining Duke deconstructionists, has to do with clothes. We respect nice clothes, although we ourselves wear hideous purple artificial-textile leisure suits even to church, and (the theory goes) it seemed to us just plain not right that someone who had invested a lot of money in his appearance should be put away for years and forced to wear orange jumpsuits while his entire wardrobe inexorably fell out of fashion. This theory certainly explains the Combs case, in which the defendant essentially was a wardrobe. But it does not satisfy in the case of Clinton, a man who routinely wore nylon running shorts that exposed very large amounts of white thigh-flesh.
A more complete explanation probably lies in a profound but gradual and still not fully appreciated change in the national character. At some point in a century that saw the country's most important industry shift from steel to entertainment, we came to accept the idea that famous people -- vital profit centers in the new entertainment economy -- constituted a special class: an exempt class. They were just too important to be held to the same standards to which we held ourselves.
Those standards are the standards of what used to be called Decent People, and they are, if anything, more exacting than ever before. We are much less tolerant of a much wider range of social sins (bigotry, adultery, drunkeness, sloth) than we were 30 years ago. But, we have decided, the Decent People standards do not apply to famous people. Famous people get a pass. They are our betters -- they have, after all, been proven so; they are famous -- and it is not our place to judge them. It is as if we are all living in a national, American version of "Upstairs, Downstairs." Downstairs, we are appalled if the chauffeur is caught tickling the parlor maid. Upstairs, meanwhile, his Lordship and Lady are playing naked Twister with three members of Parliament, two choirboys, their cocaine dealer and a large Rottweiler -- but that is different, because they are different.
And this is good. It is good that Puffy and Juice and Stain walked. It is good because the business of America is business, and Puffy and Juice and Stain (and Martha and Madonna and the Donald and everyone on "Survivor") are the business. The nation can't put the business out of business; it can't put the business in jail. That's for the rest of us -- and the sentences are getting longer all the time. Protect yourself. Protect your loved ones. Cut that disc
03/15/01: A fine foreign policy mess