You may recall that the biggest Top 40 musical hit of last summer was a steamy, hip song by Robin Thicke called, "Blurred Lines". That song could just as well be the title song for the entire 21st Century. Blurred Lines -- like whatever happened to the line between "private" and "public." After the events of the past week, I am pretty sure that the very idea probably now belongs somewhere buried in the back room of the natural history museum. "Private" and "public," where did they go?
In what may become THE defining characteristic of the 21st century -- like it or not, "blurred lines" are now where every one of us lives. We live in the uncharted waters of a TMZ world where everything you say, everything you do is open to public scrutiny, whether boldly declared in a formal interview on camera, or whispered in the privacy of your home. In fact, in an all-too-real sense today, there is no such thing anymore, as "the privacy of your home." What you say in public or what you do in private is virtually the same. Whatever it might be, millions of people throughout the world may hear it, or see it, and judge you accordingly, whether you intended your words and deeds to be shared publicly or not.
It seems to me these days that the very notion of what we used to call "invasion of privacy" seems to be a non-existent concept. As I watched the drama of Donald Sterling's private racist rant gone public unfold this past week, culminating so far, with his lifetime ban from the NBA and $2.5 million fine, I kept thinking of what I have spent the last 37 years of my life as a rabbi teaching my congregations of all ages, that "What you say, and what you do, and who you are really matters." How true, now more than ever.
It's not just "what you say" in public anymore, it's what you say anywhere, and what you do anywhere that now defines who you are everywhere. Someone I know recently received a birthday gift of a pen, with a video camera inside to secretly record any conversation or interaction whether public or private, anywhere. And endlessly circling the globe every single day are satellites whose cameras are so sophisticated, that they can tell whether you are cooking hamburgers or hot dogs on your backyard barbecue.
The most famous Jewish philosopher of the 12th century, Moshe ben Maimon (known as "Maimonides,") once said, "What is noble can be said in any language, and what is mean should be said in none." Now, more than ever, the Jewish ethical concept of shmirat Halashon, "Guarding your tongue" is a necessity for every one of us. How many times in the past have I, and probably many clergy spoken from the pulpit about the frightening power of the internet? How often have we reminded people that with one push of a key you can send any thought or accusation around the world in an instant, destroying reputations and even lives in a moment? Well, it isn't simply the destructive power of cyberspace that haunts us -- it is the new reality that our salacious society has a bottomless appetite for gossip, and a "no-holds-barred" attitude that everything and anything is fair game for our 21st century tabloid mentality.
The traditional Jewish notion of "Lashon Ha-ra" -- "evil tongue" -- was not limited to the spreading of false rumors and negative gossip about another. In our tradition, even sharing the truth can be considered "evil," if the intention of sharing it is to denigrate, and destroy the reputation of another. Clearly that was the intention of Donald's private "girlfriend" gone public -- to destroy his reputation -- and she has. Obviously this isn't in any way to justify racism, sexism, or prejudice of any kind. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, "An act of injustice is wrong not because the law is broken, but because someone has been hurt." Donald Sterling's racism is offensive and inexcusable. This is simply to raise the challenging question of what ever happened to privacy, and what does it mean for us to live in and our children to grow up in such a world?
Donald Sterling is such an easy target. He's a bully, he's a lousy husband, with the kind of ego that thinks it is classy to take out ad after ad in the LA Times touting his own philanthropy. He appears to be a bigot and a racist. But his over-the-top drama raises questions about the nature of our society, of what ever happened to discretion, and what exactly do we mean by treating others with respect? What kind of society are we creating for ourselves and our children when our primary form of entertainment seems to be "Real Housewives of Wherever," and TMZ?
Perhaps it's time to once again remember that the wisdom of Albert Einstein wasn't simply E=MC2. More importantly, his real wisdom is found in one of his most often quoted and powerful sayings that should have been engraved in every room of Donald Sterling's house: "Try not to become a person of success, but rather a person of value."