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On Character, Public and Private



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I hold no brief for Donald Sterling. My storehouse of sympathy runs bare long before I get to billionaire bigots and loudmouths. But it’s worth pondering  the fact that Sterling’s loudmouthery was in a private conversation (unlike, say, Jesse Jackson’s “hymietown” remark which was made to a black reporter he just assumed he could speak freely to without being exposed). Mel Gibson’s damning remarks were made during a drunken rant. The Reverend Billy Graham, pretty much a moral hero and a great champion of religious tolerance in public life, said some awful things about Jews in a recorded conversation with Richard Nixon. Anthony Weiner, neither a hero nor a champion of much other than his own interests, never said anything bigoted, but he sent lewd pictures of himself to young women who were not his wife. Tiger Woods . . . well, you remember all that. 

I’m reminded of a wonderful op-ed the (wonderful) late Leonard Garment wrote in 1999 as then-new transcripts of Richard Nixon’s taped conversations were being released. Garment recounted how Nixon appointed numerous Jews in his administration and then concluded:

Thus we must face the Nixon Paradox. His anti-Semitic outbursts in the private conversations found virtually no correspondence in his speech or actions outside those explosions.

At this point in our politics we should find this juxtaposition less implausible than we once might have. President Clinton was impeached, partly for reasons having to do with the administration of justice, but largely because of his private actions. Yet the country, with unmistakable clarity, declared that his private failings were not to determine our judgment of his public character.

Those who consider this verdict reasonable should consider how much more forcefully its logic applies to the private conversations of public persons. The best expression I have found of this logic comes from Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist whose country under Communism learned some lessons about the consequences of trampling the distinction between public and private.

”In private,” Mr. Kundera wrote in an essay, ”a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language . . . makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he’d never admit in public.”

Mr. Kundera argues that this difference is not a mere curiosity but a fundamental fact: ”That we act different in private than in public is everyone’s most conspicuous experience, it is the very ground of the life of the individual. Yet curiously this obvious fact remains unconscious, unacknowledged . . . ”

Mr. Kundera worries about this obliviousness, as we should, because an understanding of the distinction between public and private speech is indispensable to a decent politics — one built upon respect for individual privacy, a fundamental ingredient of freedom. What is on the Nixon tapes is undeniably ugly. It is for us to decide, however, what effect this private talk should have on our evaluation of Nixon’s public life.

It says something about Sterling that you cannot offer the same defense of him. There is far more congruity between the public and private Sterlings than the public and private Nixons. Similarly, it’s interesting and even significant to note that Lyndon Johnson said some terrible things about blacks, but they hardly have any weight on the scales when put alongside his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act.

One last point. A common expression goes something like “character is what you do when no one is watching,” though I always preferred “character is what you do when only God is watching.” Neither aphorism is entirely fitting since all of these instances involved at least one other person. But it’s worth noting and pondering the fact that in an era of ubiquitous cell-phone cameras, recording devices, big data trawling, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter etc. the realm of what is truly private is shrinking by the hour and will likely continue to shrink in one way or another for the rest of our lives. Character may remain what we do when we think no one is watching — or listening or taking notes — but the likelihood no one is watching is increasingly remote. What that means for decent politics is anyone’s guess.



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