Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Politically Incorrect Trip Through Time

On a balmy day in May of 2014, a time capsule cracked open, revealing two relics of a bygone era: a pair of wealthy, old, white men displaying what was once a more common form of racism than the invidious, subtle bigotry of the post-racial 21st century.

Cliven Bundy is a Nevada rancher who has grazed his cattle on government land for two decades without paying grazing fees like thousands of his fellow ranchers. Some might label him a freeloader or moocher. Not me, of course. A rich guy like Cliven can afford much better lawyers than I can, so I wouldn’t want to offend him. On the other hand, when you’re rich, like old Cliven, you don’t necessarily care whom you offend.

I knew Cliven had stepped out from a time capsule when he told a crowd of reporters his views on “the Negro.” That word, commonplace during my youth, had fallen out of vogue decades ago. But Cliven didn’t stop there. “The Negro,” Cliven told the reporters, “abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.”  The 67-year-old added, “And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” This statement was a particularly impressive display of ignorance, because slave families were routinely shattered when their members were sold to different owners. The irony of Cliven equating “family life” with slavery was almost as great as that of  a freeloader complaining about others living on government subsidies.

Yet, the time capsule was filled with irony. Its other occupant, Los Angeles Clippers basketball team owner Donald Sterling, told his girlfriend he didn’t like her posing for photos with blacks: his half-black, half-Mexican girlfriend. My irony cup runneth over. The married, 80-year-old’s much younger eye candy (obviously dating him for his good looks and sexual vigor and certainly not for gifts like the $1.8-million Los Angeles duplex, the Ferrari, the two Bentleys, and the Range Rover he had given her) had posted a photo of herself with black basketball icon Magic Johnson, prompting him to tell her: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want (but) the little I ask you is ... not to bring them to my games.” We know Sterling said this because his girlfriend was prescient enough to record the conversation. And therein lies the true issue that should concern us.

We should not be surprised to find that all individuals harbor some degree of prejudice within their hearts. We are all tainted with a patina of prejudice; it stands to reason, some men raised 60 or 80 years ago might be clothed in a heavier coat of bigotry that they've failed to shed in the ensuing years. But, if they wish to think this way, that is their right. It’s as much their right to hold their own opinions and beliefs as it is yours and mine. Freedom of thought is a precursor to all of the First Amendment freedoms we hold dear: speech,  press, religion, assembly, and petition. Expression is preceded by conception. One cannot speak or write an idea until one has thought of it. Freedom of thought is the most important freedom of all, and the first to be eradicated in totalitarian societies. 

In an Orwellian dystopia, Thought Police punish unapproved thoughts – what we might label politically incorrect. But in a democracy, thoughts may be freely expressed and only unlawful actions are punished. Cliven Bundy is free to think and say whatever he wants without fear of punishment; only his actions – violating federal law by refusing to pay his grazing fees – are what should subject him to punishment. Likewise, Donald Sterling broke no laws by having a private conversation with his girlfriend. (Whether she did, by secretly taping the conversation, is another matter). He should not face any sanctions for remarks made in a private conversation. The issue is not What did he think? but rather, What did he do? The distinction between bigoted thoughts and racially discriminatory actions is of fundamental importance. The former – freedom of thought – is permissible and necessary for the existence of a free society, while the latter is actionable. Let us hope, when the time capsule of 2014 is opened generations from now, “thought crime” is still a term found only in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, and not a public offense.