“Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn’t steal the cake but we’re all gorging ourselves on it. So, if we’re all going to be outraged…Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. Let’s be outraged that whoever did the betraying will probably get a book deal, a sitcom, trade recipes with Hoda and Kathie Lee, and soon appear on “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Dancing with the Stars.”‘
-—Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in an essay pointing out some of hypocrisies and excesses in the reactions to the Donald Sterling saga.
Good for Kareem. I was just about to make this point myself, and preparing to be pilloried for making excuses for a racist. Kareem is a lot bigger than I am, and I’m happy to stand behind him.
I watched two African-American lawyers on CNN today erupt in over-the-top outrage that has become the norm in the “finger-wagging Olympics” that Abdul-Jabbar decries in the rest of his article. One of the lawyers called Sterling’s remarks defamatory—“defamatory?” Sterling didn’t say a word that was negative about blacks; he just said he didn’t want his girl friend taking photos with them. His comments constitute smoking gun proof of racial bias, sure, but they aren’t “defamatory.” The other lawyer called them “the most vile, disgusting...” on and on and on, comments that he had ever heard. Really? I doubt that. You know, once you award the prize to Sterling’s racist comments, you have no more superlatives left for really horrible racist remarks. The two sportswriters, Christine Brennan and Bill Rhoden, who preceded my commentary on NPR today, did the same thing. It was a contest over who could express the most outrage.
It is a small surprise, then, in this hyper-charged atmosphere, that the conduct of V. Stiviano is getting an ethics pass, as if betrayal doesn’t matter as long as the betrayed party is despicable, and what she did was justified because she exposed a racist to the world. It’s not justified. The ends don’t justify the means, when the means are betrayal and mean-spirited vengeance, and when the methods used threaten to become a social norm, turning American homes and bedrooms into Stalinesque trap where no secret is safe. We’ve seen this practice before and I’ve condemned it before: the Harvard Law student turned into a campus pariah by a jealous rival circulating a private e-mail to the people most likely to be offended by it; Alec Baldwin’s daughter releasing private communications with her intemperate father to harm his reputation; Mel Gibson’s girlfriend doing the same; e-mail jokes being intercepted and sent to political enemies as a tool of personal destruction; clumsy suitors having their fumbles turned into national ridicule by the objects of their affection.
I admit it: in the course of my life I have said some terrible, cruel, ugly things in the privacy of my home, to loved ones, close friends, and those who I knew understood the context, my tone, my meaning and intent. So have you. And if one of those comments had been secretly recorded and maliciously publicized and circulated, my career, reputation and life could have been destroyed. Do we really want to live in a society where a hidden microphone or camera and an avenging censor lurks in every corner, where there is no such thing as a comment that is intended for one individual and one individual only, where trust is for suckers, where no place is safe,and every one of us must live in fear of stumbling onto a fatal landmine of society-dictated political correctness? I don’t. Encouraging the slimy likes of Stiviano, however, will get us there fast; I think we are perilously close to that speech and thought-suffocating state already.
In a more ominous statement in his essay, Jabbar writes, “Racists deserve to be paraded around the modern town square of the television screen so that the rest of us who believe in the American ideals of equality can be reminded that racism is still a disease that we haven’t yet licked… Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.”
First signs?Like, say, opposing Eric Holder? Criticizing Obamacare? And who can guarantee that the vigilante exercise will stop at racism? If someone makes a gay marriage-mocking joke in the bed room, and a jilted ex- puts it on Facebook, is that to be applauded too?
Once rung, the bell can’t be unrung: Sterling should not be able to get a do-over because he was tricked and betrayed. (As Abdul-Jabbar notes, he’s had do-overs already). As I wrote in an earlier post, racism triggers strict liability: if you can hide it and overcome it in your conduct, fine, but if it gets out and harms others, no matter how it happens, you are strictly liable. I don’t feel sorry for Sterling in any way. But I feel sorry for the rest of us, and the nation, and our future as a free society, if we fail to condemn the way he was finally, decisively exposed.
Graphic: Silicon Angle