Do we have aristocrats in the United States? Officially of course the answer is “no.” Unofficially we might reach a different conclusion. Many in entertainment, government, and even business think of themselves as entitled to the preferences granted the aristocracy in places like England. Worse, some of our citizens seem to defer to such people as they would to aristocrats in other countries.
For an example suppose a man tricks a thirteen-year-old girl by claiming he wants her to be a model. Then during a photography session he gives her alcohol and Quaaludes in order to have sex with her. She says that no, she doesn't want to do it but he pressures her to submit and does it anyway. Most men would spend many years in jail for statutory rape and would then have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. That is entirely appropriate, such predators are not to be trusted. Not so if he is one of our self-appointed aristocrats and if others of similar attitude have their way.
Of course I'm referring to the case of Roman Polanski, the actor and film director who did just that, then fled the country to avoid prison time. His arrest in Switzerland has prompted an outcry from many of the other Hollywood stars. For example Whoopie Goldberg said, “I know it wasn't rape-rape. It was something else but I don't believe it was rape-rape.”
I don't know what “rape-rape” is or how it differs from the regular rape Polanski committed. However I am convinced that Goldberg's statement reflects an attitude that Polanski can't be guilty because he is one of the elite. And Goldberg is not the only Hollywood star advocating Polanski's release. Can you imagine how those people would react if Joe the carpenter committed a similar crime and was released? They have a double standard, one law for ordinary people and another for themselves and other “elites.”
Nor is this attitude limited to entertainers. Richard Nixon famously said, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Of course Nixon learned that the people had a rather different belief about his aristocratic attitude.
Nixon was not alone. Remember Abe Fortas, William Jefferson, Alcee Hastings, Dan Rostenkowski, Timothy Geithner, etc. etc. etc? We've had myriads of government officials either convicted or obviously guilty of taking bribes, tax evasion, theft and other crimes. We've had one president impeached and disbarred but not removed from office. In every case, the politician had defenders who claimed he either could not be guilty or was justified in what he did. How could those criminals and their supporters not understand that they are subject to the law, just as the rest of us are?
In this country we have a concept called “rule of law.” That means, or is supposed to mean, that everybody is subject to the same laws – and the same punishment for breaking those laws. Anyone who commits a crime is supposed to be tried and punished, regardless of position in government or society. The thief, the murderer, the rapist, each should get the same treatment whether be he the school janitor, a football star, or the president of the country. The question should not be who he is but what he did.
I know that we will not be perfect in this. The rich can hire better lawyers than can the poor. However at a minimum, class-blind justice should be our goal.
In aristocratic governments there may be some special accommodations for the “upper class.” However our constitution specifically prohibits aristocracy in this country. Roman Polanski should receive the same punishment as anyone else for his crimes, as should a congressman, a football star, or a company president. Whoopie Goldberg should be regarded as a good actress (which she is) but she should have no more influence on public policy than Joe the Carpenter does.
Of course the other side of this coin is the number of people who go “ga-ga” over celebrities. Some people just lose their independent thinking in the presence of movie stars or other famous people. Many U.S. citizens even seem to think that there is something special about a foreign prince or duke. That attitude allows such people to exercise unwarranted influence. We must not only avoid trying to be aristocrats ourselves but must also avoid treating others as aristocrats. We must judge their actions and opinions the same way, regardless of station in life.
About two hundred years ago, economist David Ricardo said: "I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind."* We should take that admonition seriously.
Next time I plan to discuss the family that has the position of de facto aristocracy in the U.S. You can probably guess which family that is.
*As quoted by Thomas Sowell
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