We’ve heard a lot recently about what constitutes “going too far” when it comes to holding people accountable for their offensive beliefs—a lot of stuff about “freedom of speech,” a lot of stuff about “tolerance,” a lot of stuff about “political correctness run amok.”
Predictably relatively little of this has been said about Donald Sterling, of the Los Angeles Clippers. Sterling bears the dubious honor of being The Bigot Everyone Can Agree On; the very few, halfhearted defenses of Sterling out there, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s, are mainly asking whether our unseemly joy over finding someone we can all hate together serves as a dangerous distraction from problems with racism that’s more subtle than a crazy old white dude outright telling his mistress not to “associate with black people.”
Coming hot on the heels of another high-profile instance of a bigot being called out on bigotry, Sterling’s situation has prompted a lot of soul-searching from people who stepped up to defend Brendan Eich and lots of long-winded columns carefully explaining why defending Sterling is not at all like defending Eich.
By contrast, Sterling is a pretty tough guy to like. Indeed it almost feels like everyone in America was waiting for him to finally do something so blatant that the NBA finally had license to force him out, after he’d been effectively trolling basketball fans for years.
A notoriously penny-pinching owner under whose watch the Clippers were the laughingstock of the NBA for years, who was once fined in 1982 for actively saying he hoped the Clippers finished in last place to get a better draft pick the next year, he’s consistently won polls for “worst owner” and his Clippers have the worst winning percentage of not just any basketball team but any major American sports team. He heckles his own players from the owner’s courtside seats.
Before he was caught on tape spewing blatantly racist remarks, allegations have buzzed around his head like flies—Department of Justice lawsuits over racial profiling in his real estate business, a lawsuit from Elgin Baylor for employment discrimination, countless secondhand reports of him being, generally, a racist, abusive, egotistical jackwagon. These tapes were just the final straw.
So yes, it’s completely understandable that horrible people like Sterling get universally condemned while bad things happening to upstanding citizens like Eich lead to controversy.
But wait, hold up a second.
Brendan Eich donated money to a political campaign, Yes on Proposition 8, which served no other purpose but to overturn the 2008 California Supreme Court case In re Marriage Cases. It sought to invalidate the marriage licenses of thousands of people in the largest state in the Union and prevent all the future marriages of same-sex couples in that state.
You know, there’s a lot of nasty allegations about Sterling using his money and his power over private enterprises he owned—his apartment buildings and his ownership of the Clippers organization—to financially screw over people of color.
And that’s bad, don’t get me wrong. It’s really, really bad. But did Donald Sterling ever donate money to a campaign for a constitutional amendment to overturn Loving v. Virginia and make interracial marriages illegal? Did Sterling ever try to use the power of the state to annul the marriages of thousands of people he never met because he disapproved of them?
No, he did not. But Eich did.
As someone who isn’t gay but who is in an interracial marriage, my mind boggles at the fact that within my parents’ lifetime my relationship with my wife would’ve been criminalized in large swathes of the United States. The thought that there are people out there who morally object to my relationship with my wife and would prevent it if they could—people still out there like Keith Bardwell just five years ago in Louisiana—makes my blood boil.
You can argue that you’re taking that position based on religious grounds, or based on your beliefs about what’s best for society and best for my future children, or based on your beliefs about what the purpose of “marriage” is—arguments that have been used by both opponents of same-sex marriage and interracial marriage.
It doesn’t matter. It’s not something you will ever convince me is a “nice” thing to do. Whatever language you dress it up in and however civilly you present it, it’s an aggressive, offensive act—an attempt to do violence to the most intimate relationship in my life by forcibly severing it.
I invite all of you to imagine what it would be like to have someone try to forcibly annul your marriage based on their religious beliefs. And then imagine what it’d be like to be a gay person, still unable to marry your partner in 33 out of the 50 states, and being told that people trying to wrest that right away from you should be greeted with tolerance and understanding because they’re decent people with good reasons for their beliefs.
Look, as someone who was recently pilloried as a “villain” in the media because of my unorthodox-but-effective strategy to win money on a game show, I don’t put much stock in judging people based on how they superficially come across.
Any good student of TV and comic books knows that the most dangerous villains are not the mustache-twirling obvious kind, the kind who go on angry racist rants and are jerks to their own employees and regularly get voted onto “Worst Owner in the NBA” lists. Those villains limit the damage they can do by the very fact that they’re seen as villains—hell, you don’t even have to care about racism at all to hate Donald Sterling, you can just object to incompetence and unpleasantness.
Dangerous villains are ones who know how to make friends, how to add value to an organization, how to be respectable and likable people—all while working toward evil ends. Sci-fi nerds are familiar with this concept. The creators of the new Battlestar Galactica understood that Cylons are scarier when they look like your lover, your adviser, your best friend than when they look like gun-toting killer robots. The creators of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live understood that monsters are most frightening when they wear the skins of beautiful people.
Why don’t we understand this when it comes to villains in real life?
I hate Donald Sterling as much as everyone else, but I’m not scared of him. I am a little scared of Brendan Eich, because anyone who can repeatedly broadcast that, at best, he simply does not give a shit about gay rights but still get a bunch of people like Andrew Sullivan jockeying for the position of Most Reasonable Guy in the Room by defending him is clearly pretty good at playing the game.
If racism were only promulgated by obnoxious, incompetent, self-destructive petty tyrants like Donald Sterling, it would never have gotten off the ground. Racism was such a destructive force in our society because it was a system that infected the whole country, that was defended by honorable and decent people like Robert E. Lee, by people who were visionaries and geniuses, like Thomas Jefferson.
Homophobia works the exact same way. I’m not scared by people who proudly wear their reactionary redneck bona fides on their sleeves like Phil Robertson—but when I think about Brendan Eich doing good work, important work in the tech sector, making himself indispensable to vital projects, being a good boss and a well-liked colleague—and the whole time quietly working behind the scenes to strip away rights from people whose rights he considers less valid than his own…
Well, that scares the shit out of me. It should scare you, too.