Any time a fifteen minute conversation between the owner of a sports team and his mistress is a national news story for several days running, you can be pretty sure the story gives you a telling glimpse into the American soul. A week ago, it is safe to guess, hardly anyone outside serious basketball fans (and even relatively few of them) could tell you who owned the Los Angeles Clippers. But no longer.
As everyone knows by now, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined 2.5 million dollars by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and banned for life from the league for racist comments he made to his mistress in a phone conversation she recorded. His derogatory comments about blacks, in addition to being deeply offensive, were also highly ironic since his coach, along with most of his players, are black, not to mention that his mistress is half black! Indeed, the overwhelming majority of NBA players in general are black.
Now what is striking about this story, but altogether predictable, is the unanimous, passionate condemnation of Sterling’s comments. Everyone from Charles Barkley to Bill O’Reilly and virtually everyone else in America is in agreement that Sterling’s comments were outrageous and indefensible. Americans, like most westerners, can be counted on to roundly reject and condemn racism any time it rears its ugly head.
But what is really interesting is the depth and zeal of the moral condemnation that is elicited by the attitude Sterling conveyed. Indeed, the reaction seems to flow out of the deeply grounded moral conviction that such attitudes are egregious and profound violations of standards that must be upheld. It is not just that Sterling’s comments are distasteful or personally offensive. The severity of condemnation and the punishment exacted suggests that Sterling did something that is deeply WRONG, in the strongest sense of that word.
In other words, it suggests that Americans believe there are real moral truths, truths about things that are objectively right or wrong, and not just matters of personal opinion or perspective. And if you asked WHY racism is wrong, you would likely be told that everyone is equal, that differences like skin color have no bearing on a person’s value or dignity. It is deeply inscribed in our national DNA that that “all men are created equal,” and that racism is a glaring violation of this self-evident moral truth.
Here is where Nietzsche joins the conversation. He viewed the modern idea of equality with disdain, and as anything but a self-evident moral truth. Indeed, he saw the idea of equality as a dishonest and sentimental product of Christian morality that began in a “slave revolt” led by the Jews. This “slave morality” was fundamentally opposed to the aristocratic morality that valued strength, power, domination, and beauty, and looked down on those who lacked these things as inferior beings.
Nietzsche put the matter like this: “The doctrine of equality!…But there exists no more poisonous poison: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the termination of justice….’Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’—that would be the true voice of justice: and, what follows from it, ‘Never make equal what is unequal’” (Ellipses in original).
As he saw it then, the notion of equality is a fiction invented by the weak to protect themselves from the strong, It has no basis in reality. And certainly, if you try to make the case for equality on empirical or scientific grounds, it is a hard case to advance. All people are most certainly NOT equal in strength, ability, talent, intelligence, health, beauty, and so on. That is the reality that was recognized and exploited with no sense of shame by the aristocratic morality that Nietzsche celebrated.
Of course, many Americans might appeal to the larger context of those words I cited above from The Declaration of Independence, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We are all created equal by God, it might be urged, and He has endowed us with certain rights, and THIS is why equality is not merely a sentimental or patriotic slogan. We are equal in dignity and value before the Creator of the universe and that is far more profound reality than any differences that can be measured in terms of strength, intelligence, beauty, and so on, not to mention even more superficial differences like skin color.
Certainly the idea that we are CREATED, that we were deliberately designed to exist by an intelligent Being who is perfectly good, provides a powerful resource to ground human dignity and equality. Such a God is better equipped to endow us with rights and dignity than any merely naturalistic process of evolution guided by nothing more than impersonal forces of natural law.
However, a serious appeal to a Creator comes at a price. For any Creator worthy of serious belief must be acknowledged as far more than a guarantor of human equality. More specifically, any God worthy of belief will ground other moral obligations as well as the obligation to oppose racism.
And here is where our divided soul is painfully obvious. Our culture is deeply relativistic on many, perhaps most moral issues, ranging from abortion to marijuana use to extramarital sex. Indeed, part of the irony in the Sterling story is that the person who made public the tape of the phone conversation is Sterling’s mistress! Now the fact that this woman is allegedly having an extramarital affair with Sterling, who is still married, is not even an issue. That does not even register a blip on our moral radar.
Indeed, the mistress culture is part of the norm in the NBA, where many players are notorious for having multiple children with multiple mistresses. Moreover, the mistress culture is arguably itself a version of domination and exploitation by the powerful. Every now and again, there is a story about this, but it hardly raises an eyebrow. Worse, we are a nation that tolerates late term abortions, including partial birth abortions. But let some public figure utter racist sentiments in a personal conversation, and it will create a national furor, and the condemnation and punishment will be swift and severe.
Again, what makes this so ironic is that Nietzsche is one of, if not THE, main fountainhead of the moral relativism that is so prevalent in western culture. His radical rejection of Christian morality, and his claim that morality is very much a historically conditioned phenomenon with a thoroughly human “genealogy” is a widely entrenched belief in contemporary secular culture. Nietzsche urged “free spirits” to throw off the yoke of traditional morality, and heartily indulge their natural instincts, whether the instinct to fornicate or to dominate the weak.
Here in a nutshell is the divided soul of western morality. It wants no moral restraint on the first, but absolute moral restraints on the latter. The question is how long we can sustain our moral outrage for selected issues, while lacking a principled reason for doing so.
Nietzsche would chide contemporary culture for affirming the instinct to fornicate, but lacking the courage to affirm the instinct to dominate. He poured his scorn on his fellow modern Europeans for rejecting belief in Christianity, while holding to all or parts of Christian morality. He was convinced that the two stand or fall together, and it was only a matter of time until the moral principles which seemed so self-evident to them would lose their luster. He wrote: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality….If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.”
America is still a nation of selective moral passion. We can still get worked up about certain issues. But it’s much less clear how much moral substance we have left in our hands.