I’m puzzled. As a fellow of reasonable intelligence (despite the claims of a few irrational friends), I do the best I can to understand the motivations that drive people to think and do as they do, but occasionally I encounter actions that make no sense to my need for sensibility. One such item occurred this past week in the strange case of Donald Sterling, current owner of the National Basketball Association L.A. Clippers. Now, before you quit reading this as another Sterling-bash, consider staying with me. Much has already been shared about the Sterling recording that should be insulting to every one of us, and I have little more to add to such perspectives about racism in the United States. But in addition to and beyond his racist tripe, Sterling has also managed to reveal something puzzling, something that should be uncomfortable for us for other reasons.
Actually, there’s probably not a great deal of similarity between Donald Sterling and the rest of us. He’s a billionaire, a high-profile owner of a professional sports team, a man who openly flaunts mistresses of his granddaughter’s age and who does so in full view of his wife. He’s not the first high-profile person to shoot himself in the foot, nor even the biggest. But when those infamous recordings were made public, Sterling also revealed himself to be a sadly myopic creature, one who is ironically unable to comprehend and capitalize on his own good fortunes. And this is where we might have something in common.
In just one recorded tantrum, Sterling managed to disparage an entire race of people, but also: insult the fan base that has fed his basketball investment, betray the human assets on whom he relies to conduct that business, cheat financial sponsors who have supported the team and enflame an entire nation which loves to feed upon the missteps and awkward utterances of those who should know better. In short, Sterling tore apart the foundation of his own well-being.
For the rest of us, our consequences may be less dramatic and immediate, but our stumbles are no less inscrutable. We humans possess the innate ability and curse to ignore our self-devised catastrophes despite the wealth of history, science, self-awareness and technologies available to us. We too easily look away from impending consequences of widening poverty, climate change, loss of liberties and other looming realities in the same way that Sterling dismissed the importance of a personal moral standard. Our blind tendencies are even endemic within the conduct and pronouncements of our nations.
For instance, the United States. It’s clear that our government is either oblivious to or content with the inexorable erosion of a middle class which has been the bedrock of the nation’s growth and strength for decades. As the disparity between the super-rich and the lower economic class continues to widen, only the wealthiest citizens will be capable of buying goods and services to fuel economic prosperity. That’s something which this small portion of the population is incapable of expanding, simply due to their limited number. It’s the death-knell to coveted growth. But like Donald Sterling, we seem to be unmindful of the very strengths that got us to this unprecedented level of national economic wealth. Like Sterling, we take for granted that such standing will always be there for us. Yet the illusion foreshadows a very Sterling-like destruction of our own well-being.
It’s no less true in a place like Nicaragua, where our human propensities play out in the very same ways. The powerful and elite systematically marginalize the powerless and peasantry, to the detriment of sustainable development. Meanwhile, this second-poorest country of the Western Hemisphere has been attempting for decades to build upon its foundational strengths- agriculture, natural resources, social and cultural heritage- while at the same time ignoring the reality that most Nicaraguan children aren’t even graduating from grade school. It’s like trying to lay a building foundation on wet sand, and it’s self-defeating. As in the case of Mr. Sterling, somehow it’s easier to ignore the truth rather than acknowledge the very elements necessary for survival.
Condemnation of Donald Sterling has been swift and nearly unanimous, even among those of us who do not follow the NBA or NFL, MLB or NHL. And I remain puzzled over this, not because I would in any way condone the boorish behavior of a clueless narcissist, but because I wonder whether we are not all guilty of the same kind of shallow, short-term and self-inflicting pain that Sterling has created for himself. Maybe we are galvanized in our collective emotions around all of this because deep down we fear that we see something of ourselves in the guise of an 81 year-old who surely, finally comprehends his own hubris, albeit too late….