In November 1993 an unlikely book appeared at the top of the bestseller lists. William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues was a tome: 832 pages of moral instruction. People ate it up. Newsweek called it “just what this country needs,” and Time said it “ought to be distributed, like an owner’s manual, to new parents leaving the hospital.” Looking at a copy of The Book of Virtues today is like examining a relic from some forgotten age. You pick it up, turn it over in your hand a couple of times, and think, People were so different back then. How did they live like that?
The answer comes in a few different parts. First, it really was a different age. Think for a moment about two years—1971 and 1993. In 1971 America was still celebrating having landed a man on the moon. The Watergate break-in wouldn’t happen for another year. Vietnam was winding down. The Department of Education didn’t exist.
By 1993 the Department of Education was an entrenched part of the federal government, and it was the almighty Soviet Union that no longer existed. The Cold War was in the rearview mirror, and with it the space program had begun to wane; an entire generation had never seen a live moon walk, and no American would ever again leave low earth orbit. Instead of looking to the skies, we were looking into screens: The World Wide Web was migrating into common use with the creation of the web browser. The two Americas of 1971 and 1993 were quite different. And here’s the kicker: We’re as far away from 1993 today as they were in 1993 from 1971.
Yet some human longings seem innate. The success of The Book of Virtues suggested that there was a latent demand for virtue then, which, at first glance, looks strange from where we sit now. Who would dare suggest today that parents be given a thick book of moral instruction for raising their children? But if you stare hard enough, the picture changes. If anything, we might be more puritanical and values-driven today than we were in 1993. We just adhere to different values. And boy, howdy, do we cling to them. People still believe in deep moral truths, you see. They simply apply those beliefs in the service of very different virtues.
The world is already en route to forgetting Donald Sterling. But the historical record will show that for two straight weeks in May 2014 he was the most important story, and the most reviled man, in America. Sterling was the 80-year-old owner of a professional basketball team, the Los Angeles Clippers. He had been married to the same woman since 1955, but around 2003, he began carrying on with a series of younger women. And by “carrying on” I mean buying them real estate and cars and bringing them to sit with him, courtside, to watch basketball games featuring the team he co-owned with his wife.
In 2014 the most recent of those girlfriends secretly taped a conversation with Sterling in which he said some not-very-nice things about African Americans. He used no foul language or racial slurs, but was demeaning and nasty nonetheless. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being your garden-variety bigot and 10 being a KKK Grand Wizard, Sterling was probably a 4. But the tape of that conversation became public, and the great machine that is American society lurched into action, its gears screeching and grinding. Television and radio hosts condemned Sterling; the public convened protests. Corporations that did business with Sterling’s team cut ties. The president of the United States—the president of the United States—interrupted an overseas trip to castigate Sterling at a press conference. And then the NBA announced that it intended to forcibly terminate Sterling’s ownership.
None of this is meant as a defense of Sterling. He seems by all accounts an unpleasant fellow who more or less got what he had coming. No, the point is to highlight America’s shifting emphasis on different virtues. Sterling’s infidelity and the public humiliation of his wife—the woman to whom he had been married for almost 60 years, who had borne him three children—was unremarkable. It was mentioned nowhere as a defect of Sterling’s character. His private, whispered racist thoughts, however, were important enough to elicit the displeasure of the leader of the free world. They were enough to cause his associates to expel him from their business and deprive him of his property.
In short, think of the litany of shame and approbation heaped on Hester Prynne and then multiply it by a thousand. Except that it wasn’t adultery that did Sterling in; it was racism. The scarlet “A” doesn’t exist anymore, but the scarlet “R” is very real indeed.