After a long day on the road Friday, I stopped for dinner at a Chinese mega-buffet. It was one of those restaurants that have closed-captioned TVs on every other wall. Barely had I sat down with a plate of lo mein when CNN flashed an attention-grabbing “Breaking News” banner on the screen. Goodness! This looks important! Wait, Donald Sterling speaking out for the first time since the scandal? Are you kidding? This is why you interrupt my dinner, to try to feed me more useless drama?
I turned back to my plate, certain that I could find more illuminating perspectives on the latest morality play later if I wanted. And so it proved:
I guess it’s brave to ignore an important dude who pays your salary being a major league asshole until it becomes a big media story and you have to suddenly be outraged. The definition of bravery is pretty whimsical. It used to be the first man rushing into the breach. Now it’s disassociation as fast as your little chicken legs can carry you. I’m not saying Donald Sterling is not a racist asshole. I’m saying if you’ve waited until he was 81 to make first mention of it, you need to do a little Michael Jackson man in the mirror self-reflection time. Not that that stopped Michael from clown bagging little boys, but you get the idea.
As Liberal Puritanism and other forms of self-indulgent, lazy morality become normalized, and as the science of manipulating the public becomes more refined, and as our systems become more corrupt, what the powerful do, in terms of helping and hurting other people, is becoming irrelevant. It will just occasionally matter what they say. You can actively promote elements of institutional racism against poor blacks, be caught and have it all proven in court. Just don’t say anything ugly about a famous, rich black guy. You can plunder struggling local governments to increase wealth that already vastly exceeds what you can spend in a lifetime. Just make sure to read a book to a kid on TV in a school that has less money because of you.
The rich and powerful can do whatever they want and hurt as many people as they want and we’ll continue to celebrate them. Just as long as we get the chance to screech at one here and there for making some stupid faux pas that doesn’t really harm anyone.
For our part, we’ll be able to agree on easily digestible, trivial moral problems that have to do with the individual failings of some villain du jour. We’ll be right, he’ll be wrong. We’ll congratulate ourselves for promoting justice. He’ll liquidate a billion dollar asset and pretend to go to rehab or something. Then he’ll return to alternately enjoying total opulence and buying press and politicians to use as weapons against the rest of us. And when we get hung up on one dickhead saying one shitty thing, we’re playing that game just as much as he is.
This is going to happen: sooner or later, some CEO or sports team owner or similar is going to get ousted because he or she supports a woman’s right to an abortion, or the cause of Palestinian statehood, or opposes the death penalty. It’s inevitable. I can easily see someone suggesting that, say, Israel is an apartheid state, and watching as the media whips itself into a frenzy. And when that happens, the notion that there is no such thing as a violation of free speech that isn’t the government literally sending men with guns to arrest you will be just as powerful, and powerfully destructive, as it is now. So what will these people say? I don’t have the slightest idea how they will be able to defend the right of people to hold controversial, left-wing political ideas when they have come up with a thousand arguments for why the right to free expression doesn’t apply in any actual existing case. How will Isquith write a piece defending a CEO’s right to oppose Israeli apartheid? A sports owner’s right to do the same? I can’t see how he could– unless it really is just all about teams, and not about principle at all.