Oh, Donald Sterling. You are a first-class case study in what’s amiss in today’s public square.
Let’s recap. Sterling, part owner of a professional basketball team, recently came under fire for some not-exactly-subtle racist comments he made. And apparently he has a long and unhappy history of such comments.
The Universe of Right-Thinking Individuals, in characteristic fashion, decided Sterling is not one of us and therefore should be forced to sell his ownership in the L.A. Clippers, and presumably to slink under a rock until he dies in disgrace.
Here’s the catch, though. Although I personally believe Sterling’s comments are idiotic, I have yet to see evidence* that he engaged in illegal activity that warrants such strong financial sanctions.
Did he engage in behavior, motivated by racial animus, that adversely affected the players, staff or fans of the Clippers? Did he engage in unlawful discrimination? Did he do anything that would be a valid cause of civil or criminal action before a state or federal judge?
Yes? Cool. Let’s collect the evidence and take it to a jury.
No? Then what’s the problem, really?
Many people would argue that the problem is the racist sentiments themselves — that the very possibility that someone, somewhere, could hold such a disallowed opinion is justification for radical public intervention. Although I firmly believe that racism is the last refuge of ignorant buffoons, I’m wary of inflicting economic harm against anyone who holds an unpopular opinion. If it’s OK to publicly browbeat racists — obviously an easy target that garners little sympathy — who else is it OK to browbeat and financially penalize in the court of public opinion? How about people who are iffy on gay marriage? (Hello, Brendan Eich.) How about people business owners who oppose abortion? (Hello, Hobby Lobby.) What about people who use words correctly that others misunderstand? (Hello, David Howard.) Should people who are skeptical of some policy positions of climate-change activists be tossed in jail because they’re “deniers?” I’m sure most of us have an opinion about something that doesn’t represent correct thinking. Would you want to be sanctioned or face financial harm not because of what you did, but because of what you thought?
As I said: Sterling makes a great case study, because no one but a Klansman can excuse his language. I certainly can’t. I think the man is a bloody fool and that his comments are indefensibly reprehensible. If ever there were a scenario where a near-majority of the public would agree on something, it’s that Sterling is an unrepentant racist. This case is black-and-white, open-and-shut, book ’em Danno.
But — isn’t it better to engage bad opinions than to dehumanize the people who hold them? Isn’t it better to let a jury, following due-process rules, decide whether a person ought to suffer financial penalty for committing an actual harm, rather than to let the justice of the mob inflict whatever sanctions it sees fit?
There’s an increasingly virulent strain of moral absolutism afoot in contemporary political discourse. It’s not isolated to the Left or the Right. Rather, it infests the entire debate. This absolutism casts people with whom we disagree not just as errant, but as inferior — as not deserving of basic human dignity and to whom no quarter shall be offered. The Left’s treatment of folks like Sterling and Eich and Howard is lamentable, but it’s no different in its way from the Right’s treatment of Bart Stupak or Alec Baldwin or Al Sharpton. ‘Tis easier to demean than to debate.
I abhor racism. I’m quite happy to condemn Sterling, or to debate him in order to persuade him to a more enlightened view of race relations. I am not happy, though, to acquiesce to mob justice. If Sterling is to lose his assets involuntarily, it should be the result of a court order, not a full-court press in the media. I felt the same thing about Eich.
Because eventually, the justice of the mob will move away from the black-and-white cases, like Sterling’s, and move to the grey cases for which most of us, in some way, serve as unindicted co-conspirators.
*I have been tracking the story, but not obsessing over it, so if such evidence exists, I’d welcome a hat tip.