The Shrinking Private Sphere

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Condemn Donald Sterling, but don’t applaud the means of his exposure.

‘All human beings,” the late Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “have three lives: public, private, and secret.” Alas, the lines of demarcation are fading, the abundance of cheap recording technology and the relentless voyeurism of the Internet conspiring to abolish our penetralia. The latest victim of the tiny microphone is Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who has been revealed beyond reasonable doubt to be a racist. In the course of a telephone conversation that was taped and then released into the public domain, Sterling can be heard telling his mistress that he doesn’t want her “associating with black people,” bringing them “to my games,” or “taking pictures with minorities.” For this, he has been effectively expelled from the NBA.

It is difficult to work up much sympathy for the man — a billionaire with a history of rank intolerance and questionable business ethics. And that his remarks came from a conversation with a woman who is not his wife does little to help his cause. Nevertheless, one should be a little reluctant to applaud the recording and dissemination of a private telephone conversation simply because it has skewered someone unpleasant. At yesterday’s press conference, one especially earnest member of the audience asked whether the powers-that-be at the NBA intended to conduct an investigation to find out if anyone else involved with basketball had ugly views — an instinct that, when coupled with the performance-art outrage and glancing-at-the-cameras indignation that are the hallmarks of our age, carried with it a whiff of inquisition. This feeling, that everyone involved with the sport had been put on notice not to deviate from the zeitgeist, was not assuaged by a statement from Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star who was given the task of representing the NBA players’ union. “I hope,” Johnson announced, “that every bigot in this country sees what happened to Mr. Sterling, and recognizes that if he can fall, so can you.” This rather set my teeth on edge. “Bigot” is a broad term nowadays, and its meaning changes by the day. Is anyone safe?

The considerable fine that has been levied, the lifetime ban that has been imposed, and the forced sale that is threatened are the products of a contract that Sterling signed and not a law that he broke. The First Amendment thus does not come into play here, this being instead a good example of the private sector working as it should. Progressives who like to ask skeptically what someone could possibly say to convince conservatives that it is time for the market to clear out the undesirables now have their answer: This. This was a step too far. The pressure was too much for an organization the size of the NBA to resist, and probably rightly so.

Still, to agree that Sterling had to go once the tape had been leaked is not to agree that such a process is welcome in and of itself, nor is it to presume that the instinct to burn the witches that always accompanies such freak-outs is a virtuous or praiseworthy thing. Donald Sterling did not make these comments in public, nor did he act upon them in any documented manner. (His record as an alleged “slumlord,” although appalling if true, predated his role at the Clippers and is wholly separate from it.) Once again, a man has been pushed out of his job for his private views — held up as a bigot who could not be permitted to be around others. This at least should give us pause — even if his words should not.

Cato’s Julian Sanchez argued early on in the brouhaha that Sterling’s “right response here is; ‘It’s none of your business what I said or why during a private phone call’.” Alas, we do not live in a world where this reaction is likely to obtain. But perhaps we should? Privacy of all sorts is indispensable to a diverse and free culture — a vital means of ensuring that individuals may behave as they wish in their own space without being punished for it. There is a reason that our courts are obliged to discount evidence that has been taken illegally, and that the process by which information is obtained is typically considered to be important regardless of what it reveals. The more myopic among us find this frustrating, arguing invariably that advocates of privacy should explain what they have “to hide.” But, both in cases where the states is involved and in cases where it is not, the simple answer to this is that what a private citizen elects to hide in his private space is no concern of anybody else’s. Does this standard not apply if the offense is too great?

Imagine for a moment that the press-conference questioner’s idle wish for purity were to be fulfilled, and the innermost thoughts of basketball’s luminaries were revealed for the world to see — their wives, friends, or girlfriends being tasked with recording their transgressions and exhibiting them on the Internet. We would see more people treated to general opprobrium and hounded from office, as any such search would doubtless reveal another Donald Sterling or two — some domestic violence, some drug use, some bribery, and, without question, some homophobia. But it would reveal much more besides, and therein I think lies the trouble: In all likelihood, we would also learn of financial troubles, of psychological issues, of marital problems, of health concerns, of indecipherable and easily misinterpreted in-jokes, of preferences that lie outside the mainstream, and of a lot more that is quotidian besides. There is, simply put, no way of getting one’s hands on the salacious material without also collecting the sacrosanct. Are we prepared to take that risk?

The owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, this week condemned Sterling’s words, but noted too that “you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do.” Doubly so when those people are saying and thinking in private — away from the press, away from their workplace, and away from society’s prying eyes. Donald Sterling is an unlovely man, and his repugnant words have proven to be fatal. In a vacuum, a small celebration that he has gone may well be in order. One may wonder simultaneously, however, what message the affair sends to the next disgruntled caller, who henceforth might think less hard about picking up the phone in anger, and quietly pressing “record.”

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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