Since at least the Salem witch trials, Americans claim a long, sordid history of aggressively accusing and investigating persons for allegedly unconventional views and opinions. This tradition (which we can term McCarthyism after one of its enthusiastic practitioners) includes the use of snippets of private conversations among friends and family. The accused has little chance of exoneration in the court of public opinion whipped up to righteous frenzy. Her former friends and allies quickly abandon her, lest they also be tainted by association.
Defenders of liberal democracy distinguish between speech and action; and between the private and public spheres. In his veto of the McCarran Internal Security Act, President Truman wrote, “In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have.” The sanctity of opinion seems even more compelling expressed in a private, intimate setting, not for public consumption. Pericles famously contrasted Athenian liberty to Spartan totalitarianism: “We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep the law.”
In the 1960s, the FBI director Hoover secretly recorded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, private words and actions (e.g., adulterous affair) that would have destroyed his public reputation; however, the mainstream media rightly refused to accept and to publicize these recordings. (Moreover, a federal judge sealed the FBI recordings from public access until 2027.) They understood that a liberal democracy, and especially its leading institutions, needs to protect a zone of privacy that nobody can invade. Otherwise, anyone with a vindictive agenda can selectively record and publicly release private words and actions that put the subject in the worst light. This is what informants in totalitarian societies do everyday. True liberals understand that the ends do not justify the means: the means is what constitutes liberal democracy.
Still, the temptations of McCarthyism—to investigate and publicly destroy those who hold private opinions contrary to the enlightened, conventional wisdom—remain strong, perhaps more so than in the 1960s. Today’s politically correct wisdom includes racial non-discrimination, and its holders include the mainstream media, large corporations and the US Presidency. They have not hesitated to make an effective public pariah of a man whose private ramblings with his mistress were selectively recorded and illegally released to the media.
McCarthyism erodes the boundaries between the private and public, and politicizes our most intimate, private affairs for the public causes of activists (e.g., combating communism, institutional racism). It is also highly arbitrary and biased. Private discourse among immigrants and minorities can be often racially exclusionary, including stigmatizing those friendly with whites as ‘Bananas’ (yellow outside, white inside) or as Oreos. If you secretly record the private discourse of elderly men, including immigrant shopkeepers, you can find much material that, if translated into English and publicized, would cause tremendous anger and retaliation from offended groups. Fair-minded journalists and academics generally do not expose the intimate discourse of private citizens; not only is this unethical and illegal, they recognize what is said in an isolated, private moment do not necessarily reflect one’s whole persona or actual actions.
The vast majority of citizens talk freely with intimates without fear of exposure. This is the reason that the sudden, public shaming of Don Sterling seems so arbitrary and unfair. How many of Sterling’s critics can claim that they, or their elderly relatives, have not made racially exclusive comments in the past? With sufficient time, the investigative media could find private, incendiary comments or actions from members of any race, any team owner, any NAACP honoree. One wonders if the media would have acted similarly if NBA players or owners privately castigated WASPs.
The prosecutors of Mr. Sterling likely act on the noblest of motives: to purge racism, to promote a more equal society, and to foster a more united NBA. However, one can argue that this will actually have the reverse effect, as whites feel more cautious and resentful, everybody puts on a façade of tolerance, and nobody says what they really feel.
In McCarthyism, the accuser has no mercy or empathy for the accused. I would ask would-be accusers to step back and consider how, in modern times, the scarlet letter changes so quickly: communist in the 1950s, racist since the 1970s, homophobic since 2000s. What is conventional wisdom one day becomes pariah the next. In Sterling’s youth, racially exclusive comments were commonplace; a decade ago, one could promote traditional, heterosexual marriage without being labeled homophobic. Perhaps the future will bring new forms of wisdom and scarlet letters: the esteemed Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, for example, has argued that opposition to zoophilia (aka. bestiality) is a form of speciesism.
A liberal society arguably requires a certain degree of restraint and tolerance. It respects the right of every law-abiding citizen—including Mr. Sterling–to a zone of privacy that nobody can violate. I do not want media or advocacy groups starting a tit-for-tat war of recording the private conversations of whites or nonwhites, heterosexuals or homosexuals.
On a personal note, I feel a certain sadness and empathy for Mr. Sterling, who also came from a struggling immigrant family. He bought the Clippers in the early 1980s, when my family immigrated to the Los Angeles area. Growing up, the Clippers have always been my favorite underdog team. Like many of his generation of Jewish immigrants and business owners, Sterling held a mixed record in terms of race. He privately expressed antiquated views and was sued for housing discrimination; he was also a generous and visible donor to migrant and minority communities and offered rental housing for thousands of migrant families. Personally, I prefer immigrant business owners who may hold antiquated views but regularly interact with and offer valuable services to minority communities to politically correct, urban professionals who lack any such interaction.
After three decades of struggle, the Clippers are finally a championship- caliber contender, its owner on the verge of personal triumph. In the space of a week, he has been cast away by every member of polite society, including by his own team, and the main spur were private comments that could have been made in one form or another by nearly anyone in the NBA. I feel great sadness for the state of liberty in an America that has such little mercy or tolerance.
This work was supported by Hanyang University Research Fund.