Friday, May 2, 2014

Another few inches down the slippery slope

     A bad guy does something bad. It hardly matters what. He robs a bank. That’s it. He robs a bank, at gunpoint, and now he’s standing on the sidewalk. One hand holding the big bag of loot with a “$” on the side; other hand whips out his smartphone and calls his accomplice to bring around the getaway car.
     Only there’s something wrong with the phone, a short circuit. The phone explodes. Blows out an eardrum. The bad guy’s writhing in a pool of blood when the cops screech up to haul him off to the hospital, then jail.
     We’re all happy, right? Justice done. Bad guy caught. Robbery thwarted. The world made better. On to the next topic . . . lunch.
     Oh wait. There is a qualm, one single, lingering, nagging little problem with this satisfying scenario. That robber’s phone. Why did it explode like that? What does it say, perhaps ominously, about my phone? Might it explode, too, not when I’m robbing a bank, but while I’m doing some mundane, good-guy activity? That’s a tad worrisome.
     The above summarizes my reaction to the Donald Sterling scandal, where—to summarize for those reading this in 2026—the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team, a nasty, despised billionaire (is there any other kind?) with a long history of racial callousness was recorded telling his much younger female pal not to take her black friends to games. On Saturday, it was broadcast on the celebrity dirt website TMZ, and there was a day or two of shock—shock!—that somebody could hold these opinions. Then Adam Silver, the new head of the NBA, banned Sterling from games for life, fined him $2.5 million and pushed him to sell his team and, I guess, slink off into the shadows so he will trouble us no more.
     All richly deserved, by all indications. If there are any mitigating circumstances—his work tutoring puppies, perhaps—no one has stood up to cite them. And I'm certainly not defending Sterling. The various complexities—for instance, the recording perhaps coming from a maybe mistress (or "archivist" she claims) being sued by his wife to regain whatever baubles Sterling lavished on her to entice her to keep his company (or his documents).
     But. It's the swift journey from private slur to public destruction that gives pause. What exactly is the new social standard here? Because most people are not tuning forks of consistency and unblemished civility. They say stupid, rude things in private. They make mean jokes and, I imagine, speak to their husbands, wives, lovers and archivists in a way they don't want on TMZ.
     This issue echoes beyond aged bigots. Just as this sordid saga was unfolding, the U.S. Supreme Court began deciding under what circumstances the cops can take your cellphone and squeeze out the many secrets it contains, then prosecute you for them.
     I don't want to get all 1984 doom and gloom here. Society has a way of balancing as we adapt to our pocket miracles. A few junior high school Romeos get prosecuted for pornography after sending nekkid photos to their Juliets, but eventually we realize this isn't the best use of the legal system.
     Heck, maybe shaming via smartphone, if indeed Sterling's rant was recorded on a phone; it's murky now, will turn out to be a good thing. If enough jerks are ruined by recorded misdeeds—the mayor of Toronto is finally getting help now that another video supposedly showing him smoking drugs has surfaced—enough careers torpedoed and money lost, maybe people will behave. Once God was watching over us, and we did right because He knew every wrong act, every truant thought that crossed our minds. Now everyone has an iPhone or a Galaxy, and if Rahm Emanuel picks his nose in public, he risks becoming the Booger Mayor.
     So let's all line up in the street with our pitchforks and issue a rousing "hurrah" as Sterling is paraded past, straddling a rail. No loss to me—I never heard his name before a few days ago. But as we return to our cobbler's benches and chicken coops, we should puzzle over that bothersome question: What is private? Does anything you say become a public statement that can wreck you just because someone else records it? Was there perhaps a teensy bit of transference in the swift justice meted out to Sterling? 
      We can't solve our racial divisions or address the skewed slaughter in our streets or fix our schools. But we sure can boot this racist into history over something he told his girlfriend and/or archivist. He seemed to richly deserve it. But maybe the next guy won't. Those glad it happened to him won't be so glad if it happens to them. I can't help thinking that this is one of those societal moments we will look back on with a shiver.


  1. Sterling agreed to abide by certain standards as an NBA owner. He'll have to be happy with the billion dollars he'll get for his team and return to being a full-time slumlord.

  2. A fine bit of exegesis Neil. Many "good" things aquire a different aspect when viewed in the rear view mirror. One thinks of Dr. Guillotin's laudable promotion of a machine that would spare miscreants the cruel and unusual punishment inflicted by oftern drunken executioners wielding swords.

  3. TMZ despite being as you put it a celebrity dirt website, takes the sort of stories it reports on very seriously (on their more news oriented Live show they say they had the tape for almost a week before airing it and spent the time vetting it). TMZ says they are fairly certain that Sterling was aware of being taped. If this is true how does it effect your feelings?


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