A few thoughts on the Donald Sterling scandal, but first a personal disclosure: I have sometimes uttered words in the heat of a domestic squabble that I later regretted. I have expressed thoughts in personal conversation that I would never want to share with the world. On occasion I have yielded to impulses in private that I would be loath to be judged by in public.
Maybe you have too.
Torrents of contempt have been raining down on Sterling since the release of an audio recording, apparently genuine, in which the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers tells his mistress to stop posting online pictures of herself with black men, including Magic Johnson, “and not to bring them to my games.” Sterling’s comments are repulsive, vulgar, and saturated with bigotry. His girlfriend — who is black and Mexican — effortlessly goads him. “If it’s white people, it’s OK?” she asks at one point. “If it was Larry Bird, would it have made a difference?”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver yesterday suspended Sterling for life and imposed a $2.5 million fine as a penalty for “the hateful opinions” heard on the recorded audio clip.
My sympathy for Sterling is nonexistent. His racist remarks are odious, and they couldn’t have come as a shock to anyone who has followed his career. Yet the most alarming part of this story has less to do with basketball or the racial prejudices of an 80-year-old plutocrat than with what it says about the rapidly disappearing presumption that things we say in our personal lives will stay personal.
Of course any decent person should be disgusted by the gross things Sterling allegedly said to the girlfriend. But as former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote on Monday: “Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizens’ privacy in such an un-American way?”
There is good reason why it is illegal in many states (including California and Massachusetts) to surreptitiously record a private conversation, just as there is a good reason for the traditional common-law privilege that protects certain kinds of confidential communication — like that between husband/wife, priest/penitent, or attorney/client — from being disclosed unwillingly in court. They reflect a value critical to a free society: Private lives and private thoughts aren’t supposed to be everyone’s business.
But everywhere today that value is being eroded by the intrusions modern technology makes possible. It is becoming harder than ever to be sure anything you say or do is being said or done in true privacy. Creeps with cellphone cameras take “upskirt” photos. Intimate encounters end up on YouTube. Tens of thousands of surveillance cameras combine with ever-more-sophisticated facial-recognition software, and the upshot is that no matter where you go, you’re on candid camera. And websites like TMZ encourage the exploitation of personal embarrassments for public entertainment.
Prudent politicians must assume that everything they say is being recorded and may be used against them. Presidential candidates no longer have the luxury of speaking in privacy to groups of supporters, a lesson learned by Barack Obama from his “bitter clingers” experience in 2008, and by Mitt Romney when his “47 percent” remarks were secretly taped and disseminated. Louisiana Representative Vance McAllister announced on Monday that he would not run for reelection after a security surveillance camera showed him kissing a married female staffer, and someone leaked the video to a local newspaper.
Do you bear in mind at all times that your words, actions, and whereabouts are being captured for posterity on security cameras?
None of this is meant in defense of Sterling’s bigotry or congressional hanky-panky or any other dishonest activity. It is meant as a reminder that it isn’t only other people’s dirty laundry that the whole world can get a good look at. It is yours and mine, too. Once our privacy is gone, don’t count on getting it back.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.