This essay first appeared in Cliterati on May 4th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.
In cinema and television, the goodies and baddies are usually distinctly different and in opposition to one another; the enemy of the baddie is a goodie, and anything done to bring down the baddie is automatically good. But real life is rarely like that; in the real world, the enemy of a baddie is nearly always another baddie (often a worse one), and things done to bring down baddies often have such terrible implications for others that it really would’ve done less harm to simply let the baddie keep doing whatever it was he was doing. As I’ve pointed out before, “Oppressions always start with those nobody is willing to defend.” When civil rights are eroded to “catch” scoundrels, it’s never long before the precedent thus set is extended by stages to cover everyone; furthermore, when some awful behavior becomes acceptable for ordinary people who lack legal “authority” over others, it’s inevitable that government actors will start doing the same thing. In the recent controversy over the leaking of billionaire Donald Sterling’s racist rules for his mistress, virtually all the media attention has been focused on his behavior, as though it were the whole story; in fact, nearly every person involved in the sordid affair has behaved abominably, and the episode is part and parcel of a deep illness in modern society.
Though many people have incorrectly cast this as an issue of censorship, it’s actually much more insidious. As prominent free-speech attorney Marc Randazza explained,
The First Amendment protects you from the government punishing you because of your speech. The NBA is a private club, and it can discipline Sterling all it wants…The First Amendment does not insulate you from criticism…Nevertheless…What happened to him may have been illegal and was morally wrong…In California, you can’t record a conversation without the knowledge or consent of both parties…We all say things in private that we might not say in public…Think about what [Sterling’s] public character execution means. It means that we now live in a world where if you have any views that are unpopular, you…not only need to fear saying them in public, but…to fear saying them at all — even to your intimate friends. They might be recording you, and then that recording may be spread across the Internet for everyone to hear…The Sterling story is not that we found a bigot and dragged him to the gallows in the middle of the marketplace of ideas. The Sterling story is about how there is no more privacy. We live in a world where you can share your intimate photos with your lover, and they will wind up on a “revenge porn” website. We live in a world where our intimate conversations will be recorded and blasted to billions of listeners. We live in a world where, say a gold digger can spy on her sugar daddy, and the world says that the creepy old guy is the bad guy…In this story, there are two villains. Sterling represents the bad old days. But Stiviano’s behavior represents the horrifying future…
Actually, I think Randazza grossly underestimates the number of villains here. Since the entire media apparatus is already focusing on Sterling, I need not waste words on further commentary about him. But what about his treacherous mistress, Vanessa Stiviano? Let’s dispense with the “girlfriend” and “archivist” nonsense: she is a courtesan, albeit an amateurish, unethical one. She didn’t “fall in love” with him, and he wasn’t so impressed with her librarian skills that he gave her a Ferrari, two Bentleys, a Range Rover, a million-dollar Los Angeles duplex and $240,000 in cash. Maggie the Librarian finds the claim that we share a profession preposterous, and Maggie the Whore finds the claim that we don’t equally so; both sides are outraged by her lack of professional discretion. As an archivist she is duty-bound not to divulge private recordings, and as a harlot she is duty-bound not to divulge anything about her patron; if she has a moral issue with something he says or does, she needs to find another patron or another line of work.
But there’s no evidence that she revealed the recording out of some high-minded principle of justice or primitive impulse to defend “her people” (Sterling’s comments were anti-black and Stiviano is half black). Indeed, she claims that some other party stole the recording and sold it to the gossip website TMZ; if true, there are two more villains for our list. However, Sterling claims that Stiviano released the tape herself in retaliation for his wife’s lawsuit against her (more next paragraph); specifically, it’s because Sterling and the LA Clippers basketball team (which he owns) have publicly embraced the suit and claimed that Stiviano “embezzled” her various fees and gifts. Given that a settlement is already under negotiation to ensure that no more tapes are released, and that Stiviano appears to be shopping for a “kiss and tell” book deal, I find Sterling’s version far more credible.
About that lawsuit: in this whore’s well-considered and experience-informed opinion, Rochelle Sterling launched it as a petty and ill-considered means of revenge against Stiviano, and her husband went along with it under threat that an expensive and embarrassing divorce would surely follow if he did not. I say “petty” because the total value the wife seeks to steal from the mistress is a paltry $1.8 million; Sterling’s net worth is $1.9 billion. In other words, she filed an aggressive and high-profile lawsuit for less than 1/1000 of her husband’s accumulated wealth…the equivalent of a middle-class wife suing an escort her husband saw once or twice. In the past, wives had more sense than to risk the Streisand Effect by calling attention to their husbands’ dalliances; many now apparently lack the sense and dignity of their forebears, however, and have abandoned discretion entirely to the keeping of ethical sex workers.
The baddies listed so far represent only a miniscule fraction of the total number involved in this story. Whether the tape was released by Stiviano herself or by this supposed third party she has declined to name, it was the existence of the tabloid media which made the release possible; however, those media are only commercially viable because of the public’s taste for the lurid and its jackal-like desire to watch and even participate in the humiliation or destruction of others. If there were no audience for the salacious details of others’ private lives, no lust to fondle the dismembered bones of the skeletons in everyone else’s closets, there would be no tabloid press, no profitable gossip mills, and very little blackmail; unfortunately, we all have that shameful curiosity to some degree, so there will always be a ready market for stolen secrets. At one time, discretion was the mark of a professional or a person of quality; now it’s increasingly becoming a quaint relic of the bygone past. And though the mob may cheer when some awful person’s sins are exposed, it will react with equal exuberance when the blood on the sand is yours.