Great minds-our deep thinkers, brilliant intellectuals and philosopher kings-have always believed that the world can be divided into two categories:
Those blessed with the genius to recognize that everything in the world can be divided into two categories.
And everybody else.
Now admittedly, some might call this labeling naïve, simplistic and ridiculous.
But for me, it accurately reflects the bifurcated history of civilization on our march to enlightenment:
In the beginning, God divided the light from the darkness.
Then, Moses parted the Red Sea. After that, CNN begat Crossfire , Bill Clinton addressed the great boxer-versus-briefs divide, hip-hop split into East Coast and West Coast camps, and-before you knew it-the M.T.A. established E-ZPass lanes at our major bridge and tunnel crossings.
Such is progress in our civilization: slow, steady and always divisive.
As we all know, a little over a year ago, George W. Bush-he of the Republican Red states (as opposed to the Democratic Blue)-divided the world once again, this time into “Good” versus “Evil.”
Now, personally, I have no quarrel with most of these vital and imperative cultural distinctions: In vs. Out. Renter vs. Owner. Beatles vs. Stones. Windows vs. Mac. Time vs. Newsweek . Window vs. Aisle. Summer people vs. Year-rounders. Paris vs. Milan. Manolo Blahnik vs. Jimmy Choo. Token vs. MetroCard. And the all-telling French fries vs. a side of tomatoes.
But it occurs to me that, as we approach the first anniversaries of Sept. 11 and then Enron, an entirely new set of categories is in order. Because it seems to me that the world can now be divided into two completely different kinds of people:
Those who rise to a challenge with the words “Let’s roll.”
And those who answer a call from on high-usually in the form of a judge or a federal prosecutor-with the words “Not guilty.”
Sam Waksal? “Not guilty.”
Martha Stewart? “Not guilty.”
Don Rumsfeld, the Fire Department of New York, Janet Reno, J. Lo and MSNBC’s Jerry Nachman? “Let’s roll.”
Yes, friends, bear with me here. Because I’m talking about something higher than truth, higher than wisdom, higher than the highest closing price of AOL before the Time Warner merger.
I’m talking about people who, when they get caught red-handed, refuse to take responsibility for the kind of nonsense they knew they shouldn’t have been trying to get away with the first place.
Dick (Halliburton) Cheney? “Not guilty.”
John (Bill of Rights) Ashcroft? “Not guilty.”
Hillary (“It would be illegal to accept those gifts of furniture and china once I’ve been sworn in, so make sure your checks are dated before Dec. 31”) Clinton? “Never guilty.”
Bill Clinton? “I suppose that depends on what your definition of ‘not’ and ‘guilty’ is. Meanwhile, let’s roll, babe.”
Yes, my friends, what I’m talking about here is something worse than narcissism, worse than hubris, worse than the self-deluded bombast that passes for good publicity today:
I’m talking about people, places and things with no apparent moral compass, and no sense of right or wrong-as opposed to those with an inner global-positioning system that always finds true north.
The entire kingdom of Saudi Arabia? “Not guilty.”
New Jersey Senator Bob (“Make that a 40-regular”) Torricelli? “Not guilty.”
The parents who let their preteen daughters appear in that insanely inappropriate Sunday Times Magazine fashion spread last August? “Not guilty.” In this post–JonBenét Ramsey era, just how striving, how grasping, how starved for attention are you?
New York State? “Let’s roll.” New Jersey? “Let’s roll.” Florida, Nevada and Delaware? “Not guilty.”
Every S.U.V. on every road in America? “Not guilty.”
Microsoft: “Not guilty.” AOL: “Not guilty.” Merrill Lynch: “Not guilty.” Arthur Andersen: “Not guilty.” Bear Stearns: “Not guilty.” The Red Cross: “Not guilty.” The United Way: “Not guilty.” Apple, Home Depot, American Airlines and Costco: “Let’s roll.”
Yes, my friends, let me be clear. What I’m really talking about here is the new definition of weaselhood in America.
Ken Lay? “Not guilty.” Jeff Skilling? “Not guilty.” Andrew Fastow, Jack Grubman, Peter Bacanovic, Bernie Ebbers, Alfred Taubman, Dennis Kozlowski, Gary Winnick, Richard Grasso and the Rigas family? “Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.”
Cardinal Law of Boston? “Not guilty.” Cardinal Egan of New York? “Not guilty.” Cardinal Mahoney of L.A.? “Not guilty.”
Jean Marie Messier? Mike Ovitz? “Not guilty.” Edgar Bronfman Jr.? “Clueless.”
The trustees of our art museums, who put Messrs. Messier, Ovitz and Kozlowski on their boards? “Not guilty.”
Terry (“I made $18 million on Global Crossing, but I’m preachin’ populism now”) McAuliffe? “Not guilty.”
Al (“No controlling legal authority”) Gore? “Not guilty.” I mean, did you read his New York Times Op-Ed piece, decrying “those who believed they were entitled to govern because of their station in life”? Oh, please. If you’re going to go this route, at least have the grace to say, “As a child of privilege, I know what it was like to be treated better than others-and it was wrong.”
Dan Rather? “Let’s roll.” Tom Brokaw? “Let’s roll.” Peter Jennings? “Hmmm. What did Rather and Brokaw say?”
All five boroughs of New York City? “Let’s roll.” Chicago? “Let’s roll.” Cleveland? Detroit? “Let’s roll.” Seattle, Phoenix and Santa Monica? “Umm. Not guilty.”
Amagansett? “Not guilty.” Wainscott? “Not guilty.” Sagaponack? “Not guilty.” Hampton Bays? “Let’s roll.”
The Boss-Springsteen-is obviously a “let’s roll” kind of guy. But Bono is way too preening to be anything but “not guilty.”
Noam Chomsky? “We’re all guilty.” Phil Donahue? “What do you mean by ‘guilt’? Do we really need to roll?” And wouldn’t MSNBC have been smarter to challenge Bill O’Reilly with Brian Williams-hard news-rather than another chattering head, particularly one who voted for Ralph Nader and opposed our action in Afghanistan?
Yasir Arafat is not guilty. France is never guilty. The United Nations? The vote was 188 to 1, not guilty.
Winona Ryder? Not guilty-at press time. Lizzie Grubman? A plea bargain.
All forms of professional sports? Nobody’s ever guilty of anything. And what about the first set of proposals for rebuilding a certain 16 acres in lower Manhattan? A little too much “not guilty,” and not nearly enough “let’s roll.”
So where, you ask, does your diarist fit into all this? Not guilty? Let’s roll? Personally, I’ve always believed that discretion is the better part of valor. So I leave you with these two words: No comment.