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Donald Sterling’s remarks were bad, but what the NBA is doing is much worse


Donald Sterling’s remarks were bad, but what the NBA is doing is much worse

Three years ago, I wrote in National Review:

Let us accept for the sake of argument that racism is bad, that homophobia is bad, that Islamophobia is bad, that offensive utterances are bad, that mean-spirited thoughts are bad. So what?

As bad as they are, the government’s criminalizing all of them and setting up an enforcement regime in the interests of micro-regulating us into compliance is a thousand times worse.
Likewise, as bad as Donald Sterling is, what the NBA is doing is a thousand times worse:

“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful. That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage,” [Commissioner Adam] Silver said. “I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers association or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices, he may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or decisions involving the team.”

Everyone seems to agree that Sterling is a racist and always has been: He said he wouldn’t rent apartments to blacks because they smell; and he has referred to the players of his Los Angeles Clippers as “niggers”. All this has apparently been widely known for years, although not so well known that the NAACP hasn’t lavished multiple awards on him, including his now hastily canceled Lifetime Achievement Award. Which seems odd.

But Mr. Sterling’s peerless record for Extraordinary Achievement in Racism is not the reason he has been banned for life by Commissioner Silver. Mr Silver is exiling Sterling only because of what he said in a private shouting-match with his mistress recorded without his knowledge and leaked to the press. As I understand it, owning an NBA franchise is roughly analogous to owning a home in a gated community, and Commissioner Silver is the enforcer from the homeowners’ association. Even so, it is disturbing to see (as Bill Quick put it) “the use of a man’s property be taken from him because of the way he expressed himself.” And not just any property but a billion-dollar property the man has owned for a third of a century. Solely over views expressed in the course of a two-minute rant at his mistress about the other guys she pals around with.
I’m not so sure being an asshole is still legal in America. Mr. Silver has also fined Sterling $2.5 million – for something he said in his own home recorded without his knowledge. Kareem Abdul Jabar:

“Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way..? The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime.”
In a free society you should be able to make racist remarks in private without being fined and losing your property rights. Because the alternative is worse.

Years ago, I met with a Russian oligarch, which is to say a man far richer than Donald Sterling, and with plenty of enemies. At the start of the meeting, everyone switched off their mobile phones and put them on the table. So I did, too. Then everyone removed the SIM cards. Which I’d never seen anyone do before, but evidently was routine to these chaps. So I fumbled with the back of my phone, and got mine out, too. And afterwards I did something wrong trying to jam the card back in, and the thing never worked again. Which didn’t really bother me, as I barely make one cell phone call a month. But I was struck by the way these Russkie fellows lived their lives on the assumption that, wherever you were, whatever you were doing, there was always someone trying to record you, trying to get the goods on you.

Professional bodies in civilized societies should not be lending respectability to this practice. Technology is moving us inexorably into a world with less privacy. A world with no privacy at all – no privacy even to bawl out a lover – will change human behavior, and not in a good way. Donald Sterling’s weirdly refined sense of propriety derives in part from the bubble in which extremely rich men live, especially in America. The cautionary tale of his downfall will serve to drive the rich, simply out of self-protection, into even deeper insulation from ordinary life. That’s not a good thing.

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