Nick Ut / The Associated Press

Leon Jenkins, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, announces that he is rescinding a planned lifetime achievement award to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Jenkins resigned Thursday due to the controversy.

Viewpoints: The thought police got Sterling

Published: Saturday, May. 3, 2014 - 12:00 am

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks offended most Americans and led to a lifetime ban from the NBA. But there is a deeper issue involved in this controversy, and a number of outspoken critics have missed it entirely.

The liberal denunciation of racist remarks by Sterling, made in a private conversation, raises a serious question about the sincerity of their condemnation of government snooping into Americans’ communications. At least the government snoopers so far have not released any embarrassing private thoughts they have uncovered.

Liberal opponents of spying by the National Security Agency and of government thought police need to reconsider their knee-jerk response to Sterling’s comments because it weakens their legitimate fear of loss of privacy in thought or speech.

It is inconsistent to argue that a private conversation should be protected from the NSA and at the same time welcome the release of Sterling’s comments to the Internet and mass media. Does it really matter whether his derogatory racial remarks were picked up and released publicly by the government, by a private citizen or by a for-profit social media outlet?

It is not a crime in America to be a bigot, at least not yet. One can still say distasteful things about ethnic minorities, various religious groups and those with a different sexual orientation. What you can’t do legally is discriminate, in most cases, against those whom you have denigrated.

Sterling has followed the rules. He hires black athletes and coaches, pays them as well as other owners do and happily takes the cash that minority fans shell out to see Clippers games. If individual fans want to boycott his team by not attending their games, that’s their right. But when they begin to put pressure on commercial firms with ties to Sterling, or when they organize other fans into refusing to attend the games because of Sterling’s private comments, they have become thought police.

The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP had planned to give Sterling a “lifetime achievement award” for promoting civil rights, until rescinding the offer Monday. His public persona on this subject must have been more than satisfactory until that ugly recording was released. Surely Sterling held those beliefs long before. But what he thought and what he did in public were different. In essence, the withdrawal of the award is because of his thought, not his public action or speech.

Why, then, oppose snooping by the government or police? If it is good for us to know what Sterling thinks and says in private, then shouldn’t we want to know what unacceptable views everyone else thinks or speaks privately?

Wouldn’t it be helpful to know what candidates really think? Shouldn’t we let the government snoop as much as possible instead of relying on some private snitch to post a recording on the Internet?

A few years ago, a bill by then-Rep. Jane Harman would have set up a committee with the power to inquire about private citizens’ views that might support terrorism. Liberals found that frightening. In light of the Sterling fiasco, it now appears that a large and vocal segment of the liberal community does not object to policing private speech.

It’s not what people do, but how they think. What has liberalism come to?

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.

Read more articles by Ralph E. Shaffer

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