Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

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In Bad Faith

As a religion, why is Scientology any less legitimate than Christianity?

Watching the new HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, many questions swirled around my brain, but that was the one that kept bouncing back.  As a culture, why should we be any less respectful toward a belief system founded by L. Ron Hubbard than toward one founded by Jesus?  By what possible standard is one religion superior to another?

To be sure, Going Clear, based on the book by Lawrence Wright, makes an extremely valiant attempt to delegitimize its subject among the world’s organized moral philosophies—in part, by arguing that it is neither moral nor a philosophy.  Indeed, if even half of the film’s claims are true, then charges of false prophesying are the least of Scientology’s problems.

Then again, it is precisely because the Church of Scientology is so widely derided as a joke—some kind of weird Hollywood cult—that we need to more closely examine how and why certain faiths become worldwide phenomena while others never quite catch on.  The difference between the two might be a whole lot narrower than we think.

In fact, we can have no idea whether (and for how long) Scientology will endure.  It was only established in 1953, meaning it is still very much in its infancy.  Estimates of its membership vary wildly—depending on whom you ask, it’s anywhere between 40,000 and 15 million worldwide—but at this point, it hardly matters.

(Case in point:  The Mormon Church, founded in 1830, claimed roughly 200,000 adherents at the same point in its existence.  However, after another 62 years, the number had spiked to 1.3 million.  Today, Mormons number 15 million and continue to grow.)

So for all we know, the Church of Scientology may yet become the Next Big Thing in world theology.  No one can say for sure.  Beyond sheer size, the measure of a religion’s success resides in its benefits to its individual adherents—something that cannot be so easily dismissed by those outside the congregation.

On the other hand, there is one “official” means of ascertaining whether something is a “real” religion, and it lies in the U.S. tax code.

As we know, any organization can achieve tax-exempt status by convincing the Internal Revenue Service that it’s a charitable, non-profit enterprise, and this often comes through claiming to be a “church” of one sort or another.

As it happens, the Church of Scientology did exactly that, achieving tax-exempt status in 1954, losing it in 1967, then regaining it in 1993.  As far as the government is concerned, Scientology has been a religion for 22 years running, and the rest of us just have to accept it.

To answer my own question, then:  In practice, there isn’t any means for determining the relative legitimacy of different faiths.  You believe what you believe, and no one can tell you that you don’t.

Which brings us to Indiana.

Last week, the Hoosier State enacted a new law called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Mike Pence.  As written, the law stipulates that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

Crucially, the bill uses an extraordinarily wide definition of the word “person,” which it takes to include “an organization, a religious society, a church […] a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association,” and so forth.

Critics of the Indiana law have said that its true objective—or, in any case, its primary effect—is to allow businesses to discriminate against certain customers on the basis of their sexual orientation.  While many of the law’s supporters are at a loss for why anyone would think this, I would humbly volunteer the fact that when Indiana Democrats proposed an amendment to the bill that would have explicitly prohibited such discrimination, the bill’s supporters voted it down.

At the moment, the debate seems to boil down to one question:  “Does the RFRA protect religious liberty, or does it sanction discrimination against gays?”

This is an incredibly stupid question, and everyone should be ashamed for asking it.

The correct answer—as if I needed to tell you—is both.

Of course it ensures that individuals—or, in this case, corporations—maintain their constitutionally-protected right to exercise their religion of choice.

And of course it allows for denying service to gay people—just so long as the denier claims a faith-based reason for doing so, which he or she might do by citing the Biblical verses that proclaim homosexuality an abomination punishable by death.

Indeed, if I truly thought that a same-sex couple were morally defecating on God’s perfect design, I wouldn’t want to bake them a cake, either.

When Governor Pence (among others) insists the RFRA is not a license to discriminate, he either takes his audience for fools or cops to being one himself.  I cannot do better than The Onion, which mock-quoted Pence as saying, “The new law has nothing at all to do with what it was explicitly intended to do.”

We know the purpose of the RFRA isn’t simply to protect the free exercise of religion, because the First Amendment already does that.  If you want to attend Sunday Mass or abstain from eating pork, the law is resolutely on your side.

The tension—as with so many other things—comes when those same religious practices or beliefs affect someone else.  And, more importantly, when they come into conflict with established law.

In fact, there is no question about this.  Generally speaking, if a particular religious practice requires breaking the law, then the practice cannot be practiced.  America is an explicitly secular country, and you are not entitled to engage in illegal behavior just because your Bible says so.

This is why, no matter how strongly the Old Testament endorses rape, slavery, genocide and the stoning of disobedient children—all of which it does—there is no immediate danger of any of those pastimes roaring back into fashion.  You cannot get away with murder by saying that God (or the devil) made you do it, much as some people try.

On the other hand, there have been many recent examples of wiggle room in the church-state divide, in which the government has given “accommodation” to certain practices that, while otherwise frowned upon, are probably reasonable in a religious context.  These include, say, allowing a prisoner to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with Muslim teaching, or permitting a practicing Sikh to carry a ceremonial dagger in certain public venues.

This, it can be fairly said, is what the Indiana law means in instructing the government to use “the least restrictive means” of interfering with a person’s faith.  There is little reason to restrict personal behavior that is unlikely to cause anyone any harm, and the government is very much responsible for making everyday religious customs as easy to observe as possible.

However, this arrangement is completely irrelevant to the matter before us.  However much some argue to the contrary, there is no way around the fact that the belief in the inferiority of gay people, when put into practice by an organization or business, will axiomatically require violating the core American principle that everyone be treated equally in the public square.  Denying service based on sexual orientation is discrimination by definition.  I have yet to hear even a sliver of an explanation for how it’s not.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your right to practice your faith does not override my right to live in a free and open society.

Then again, this brings us to the real scandal, which is how, in Indiana and many other states, such anti-gay discrimination is actually legal, with or without a religious freedom law.  As many have now pointed out, Indiana offers no legal protection to gay patrons who might be turned away by businesses that don’t approve of their so-called “lifestyle”—a fact that the RFRA has reinforced.  To paraphrase an old cliché:  If Indiana thinks all people are created equal, it sure has a funny way of showing it.

However, my overriding concern—apparently not as widely shared as I’d have thought—is that, in practice, the RFRA will not just be about gays.

Supporters point out that the word “gay” does not appear in the Indiana bill, and it’s true that it does not single out gays and lesbians—or anyone else, for that matter.

To the contrary, what the law does is provide cover for anyone who wants to discriminate against anyone else for any reason.  As previously stated, all they need is a religious justification and they’re home free.

I began by illustrating how easy it is to invent a religion from whole cloth.  (L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology, was by every account a liar and a fraud.)  And yet, once you’ve accomplished that, you are accorded an elevated level of respect and privilege that enables you to do just about anything you want.

Without specific protections in place, what would prevent, say, a bakery run by ultra-Orthodox Jews from refusing to serve a woman wearing a skirt?  What would stop a restaurant run by strict Muslims from withholding business from any woman?

What would stop a store owner from inventing his own religion on the spot and deciding to turn away every customer with red hair, on the grounds that his faith teaches that redheads are possessed by Satan?  If religion is the only basis for making these decisions and religion is a personal matter, on what basis could you tell this man to take a hike?

Such scenarios might not be terribly likely, but with legislation like Indiana’s RFRA, they are now possible.

Are we sure we want to live in a society in which one person’s beliefs, however sincere, hold veto power over the values of the entire country?

Call me old-fashioned, but I would wager that the right to individual freedom does not include the right to abolish the freedom of another individual.

A Frank Appraisal

I’d nearly forgotten how much I adore Barney Frank.

The Massachusetts lawmaker retired from Congress in January 2013 after 16 terms representing the state’s fourth House district.  He had kept relatively quiet in the two years since, but has suddenly been popping up in TV and radio interviews in conjunction with the release of his new memoir, Frank.

His reemergence into public life should function as a reminder of how unique, entertaining and indispensable he still is.

To many, Barney Frank may well be known simply as the co-author of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which attempted to right the American economy amidst the Great Recession by dramatically shaking up the inner workings of the country’s regulatory agencies.

While Frank’s role as chair of the House Financial Services Committee will undoubtedly be a major component of his legacy as a public servant (for better or worse), his special place in my heart—and in the hearts of countless other government nerds—was secured through a lifetime of advocacy for causes and principles that precious few other congressmen have ever bothered to take seriously.

And—it must be said—for his being such a cranky, insufferable firewall against those who have stood in his way.

As a Massachusetts Democrat, Congressman Frank was, in some ways, completely predictable.  On matters of policy, he took an unambiguously liberal view on nearly every issue, from economics to foreign policy to climate change to abortion.

But it wasn’t just that he held clear political stances and stuck with them (rare as that is nowadays).  It’s that he defended his worldview with guns blazing, arguing for his side until his throat grew hoarse—often to the point of rudeness—never giving an inch and never entertaining any doubt that, in the end, he was right.

Specifically, Frank made himself a champion of two would-be lost causes:  Government and liberalism.  That is to say, on the former, he advocated not merely for his own particular government-led solutions to various national ills, but also for the notion that government should be in the business of helping people whenever it possibly can.  On the latter, he not only gave voice to left-wing ideas, but to liberalism itself as a noble means of seeing the world and running the country.

In short, he was (and still is) a big government Democrat and damned proud of it.

For any left-wing politician, this should go without saying.  But it doesn’t.

Unlike most Republicans in Washington, who fall all over each other to claim themselves as the most “conservative” person in the room, today’s Democrats do a fairly rotten job of sticking up for their own brand.  As Frank himself has disapprovingly observed, most Democrats attempt to have it both ways by championing government programs but then echoing the GOP mantra that government should be as small as humanly possible.

They do this out of fear—namely, fear that voters are too conservative to ever be sold liberalism as a governing philosophy.  They have effectively ceded the moral high ground that, in the Roosevelt and Johnson eras, liberalism so firmly held.

Instead, they have adopted non-ideological centrism as their M.O.—a tactical approach that, to be sure, helped to elect Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to four combined presidential terms, but which has also left the party vulnerable to the charge that it doesn’t believe in anything except winning elections.

Barney Frank had no truck with this lame political maneuvering, and instead took the gamble that he could convince people that his left-wing views were the right ones, not least by showing that he believed in them himself.

Indeed, when speaking on issues about which he was passionate, he was seemingly a man without fear.  Even when he knew his position was unpopular—and he certainly had a knack for skirting popularity—he went right ahead to make his opinion clear.  Morally speaking, he didn’t care if he was the only one stumping for this or that cause.  He was determined to say what he truly thought and shape America into what he dearly wanted it to be.

The results were mixed.  In his 32 years in Congress, Frank notched some glorious victories and some devastating defeats.  The real challenge—for him and for any intellectually honest public figure—was to emerge from a lifetime of political and ideological battles with his dignity intact.  On balance, he succeeded.

At this moment, it’s worth appreciating just how difficult it is for a lawmaker to remain true to his convictions while also logging some genuine legislative accomplishments along the way.  For most congressmen, it’s one or the other:  Either you hold firm to your principles and get nothing done—newly-minted presidential candidate Ted Cruz is a sterling example—or you bend and compromise, effecting laws that are not quite what you had in mind but are, under the circumstances, good enough.

In fact, Frank spent a great deal of his tenure bowing to certain political realities, acknowledging that politics is always a mixture of idealism and pragmatism and that intractable opposition cannot simply be wished away.  When push came to shove, he would opt to cut a deal with Republicans to get half of what he wanted, rather than obstinately sticking to his guns and ending up with nothing.

He tried hard not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and it resulted in an awful lot of good.

The key, through all of it, was that Frank almost always came clean to his constituents as to why he acted as he did.  This would often require an explanation similar to the one I just gave—that politics is the art of the possible—and if the voters didn’t accept that, it was just too bad.

Frank has always prided himself on intellectual honesty, and on the basis of his collected public statements over the years, there may be nothing he despises so much as disingenuousness and hypocrisy—character traits that he still takes enormous joy in calling out.

To wit:  Before his surname became synonymous with financial reform, there was such a thing as the “Frank Rule,” which stated that a congressman who was secretly gay could be “outed” by others if said congressman publicly opposed gay rights and/or supported anti-gay legislation.  As Frank put it, “The right to privacy does not include the right to hypocrisy.”

In a fair way, the Frank Rule is where all the elements of Barney Frank’s awesomeness converge.  It demonstrates his searing disdain for double standards—the practice, in this case, of a lawmaker privately engaging in behavior that he publicly condemns.  It underlines Frank’s penchant for loudly and consistently condemning such conduct when it occurs.

In addition, it alludes to Frank’s outsized concern for ordinary people—especially members of minority groups—who are left vulnerable by unprincipled politicians who consider themselves to be above the law.

And, of course, it concerns the most important cause of Frank’s life and career:  Legal equality for gays.

Frank was America’s second openly gay congressman.  When he came out in 1987, the most pressing civil rights issue was amending the Immigration Act of 1965, which had classified homosexuals as “sexual deviants” who could be denied entry to the United States.  Same-sex marriage was scarcely an idea, let alone a reality.

While Frank has not been personally responsible for every civil rights victory in the quarter-century since, his fingerprints are everywhere, and his public oratory in defense of legal equality for gay people is among the most arresting and passionate as that of any public figure.  In an interview shortly after retiring, he cited the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, on which he played a part, as possibly the finest moment of his career.

And his concern for fellow gays is really just one component of his work to secure civil rights for all oppressed groups, itself motivated by his most zealously-held, and seemingly contradictory, belief:  That people should be left the hell alone by the government.

For all his true blue liberalism, Frank is a social libertarian of the first degree, defending the right of individuals to engage in any activity they want, provided that it doesn’t directly harm anyone else.  For him, this includes the right not just to marriage but also to gambling, to drug use, to prostitution and, fittingly, to free speech.  When the Westboro Baptist Church came under fire for its anti-gay demonstrations at the funerals of soldiers, Frank was one of only three congressmen to side with the church, arguing that even rank homophobia is not a sufficient cause to stifle free expression.

This is precisely the sort of nerve and political boldness of which Congress has been deprived since Frank departed its storied halls, and of which it could not possibly have enough.

We need more public servants like Barney Frank to defend the lost causes that will always need a champion.  For the time being, we can be thankful that, even in retirement, we still have Barney Frank himself to fill the role.

Buying Free Speech

There’s something I finally realized about Donald Sterling:  He just doesn’t care.

And far more important:  He doesn’t have to care.

Here is a guy—the for-the-moment owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers—who is worth somewhere north of a billion dollars.  Who could own a home in every state and park a yacht in every port.  Whose $2.5 million fine from the NBA for telling his mistress not to associate with African Americans is proverbial chump change, compared to what remains in the Sterling family vault.

Indeed, Sterling could continue to say horrible things about black people for the rest of his natural life, and he would go right on marinating in a lap of luxury the rest of us can scarcely even conceive.  He could be fined and otherwise “penalized” over and over again for his abject wretchedness, and it would all be nothing more than a drop in the financial bucket.  In the grand scheme of his lavish lifestyle, Sterling wouldn’t feel a thing.

Over the years, we Americans have come to grudgingly accept that there are certain things rich people can get away with that the rest of us cannot.  For instance, wealthy folks have a way of manipulating the U.S. tax code in ways the less well-off tend not to do.  The haves can afford the high-priced lawyers and endless litigation processes that often enable them to evade well-deserved time in prison—an advantage rarely heaped upon the have-nots.

But what the Sterling episode so handsomely illustrates and underlines is an equally (if not more) worrisome facet of America’s class divide, and that is the fact that, in practice, rich people have a disproportionate right to the freedom of speech.  As with so much else, the ability to escape the consequences of unwelcome free expression is something that can ultimately be bought.

Consider:  Were some fast-food employee, living on minimum wage, to be found to harbor and express the exact views presently attributed to Sterling, such a person would presumably be dismissed from his job for reasons of fostering a hostile work environment—and justifiably so.  From this point, he would then be unemployed and possibly unemployable, getting by on practically nothing and becoming extraordinarily hesitant (not without reason) to exercise his First Amendment rights ever again.

For this hypothetical working man, the presence of nasty, ignorant views is very nearly a matter of life of death.

For a guy like Sterling?  Not so much.

To be sure, $2.5 million is one heck of a sum to surrender for the “crime” of being a bad person, and one with which a lower-class person would obviously never be slapped.  As well, no one has credibly argued that racism in the workplace is acceptable under any circumstances.  Whether the racist in question is rich or poor, the basic rules of social etiquette are the same.  The right to say what is on one’s mind does not imply the right to avoid the consequences of doing so.

But let us not pretend that there is not a universe of difference in the real-world application of this principle.

The NBA’s exorbitant fine for Sterling’s ugliness—or, say, the comparable figures leveled upon Howard Stern for “indecency” at various points in his career—only goes to show what blessed lives our most wealthy brethren lead.  To restate my original point:  If you’re a billionaire, can a loss of $2.5 million really be considered a “punishment” at all?

No.  Rich people’s well-being cannot finally be put under threat because of what they say or think.  They’ll always be able to pay their way to ever more freedom.

In the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court established the principle (at least in the popular mind) that money is a form of speech, and therefore that campaign contributions need not be subject to certain limits.  This implied that the more money you have, the more “speech” you are able to express in the midst of a political campaign, meaning that the degree of one’s influence on public officials is dependent almost entirely on one’s wealth.  More than ever, Citizens United demonstrated that money equals power.

Alarming as this was (and is), the dynamic of which I speak is slightly different and even more invidious, because it extends this premise well beyond politics and into every sphere of American life.

It’s one thing for wealth to inflate the lengths to which your free speech might extend.  It’s quite another for that wealth to determine whether you have the right to free speech at all.