Free market of ideas should punish racism and stupidity


I’ve been thinking about Donald Sterling. I’ve also been thinking about Ted Nugent.

Yeah, I’m gonna go there. With some fear and trembling.

But if we are to converse about race, and learn from it, we need to be less quick to take offense, and trust the marketplace of thought and speech.

When I think about America and race I think, first, about a level of disrespect for our President that I have not seen for any president in my lifetime.

This disrespect — worse than anything I remember for Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon — has been tolerated by the right. And the depth of hate on the part of the far right in this nation clearly has to do with the President’s skin color.

I think also about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008, and Barack Obama’s subsequent dissertation on race.

The Wright controversy reminds me of reaction to Mr. Sterling now. I would call it theatrical outrage. And I wonder if it connects to anything real.

People went crazy about Mr. Wright. One of my sisters told me she could not vote for Barack Obama because he was a friend of the Rev. Wright, who seemed to her a black racist.

I could not make that connection then and I can’t now.

Mr. Sterling’s thoughts seem racist and embarrassing. But they were uttered in private, and we all say things in private we would not wish to make public.

Above all, they are thoughts. And we ought not to criminalize thought.

Moreover, how does banning Mr. Sterling from the NBA bring us more African-American coaches or owners? (There is one African-American principal of 30 owners in the NBA.)

Will any of Mr. Sterling’s $2.5 million fine go to alleviating poverty in Los Angeles? That’s the form of oppression that counts: structural poverty; economic apartheid, which exists in every city in this nation. Mega-capitalism is fed by — indeed seems to require — an underclass. That is far more significant than a brain burp by a decrepit NBA billionaire.

The Rev. Greg Boyle was here a few days ago. He works to create an extended family and jobs for gang members in L.A. He said he could use an endowment. I’d love to see Mr. Sterling’s guilt money go to that rather than a fine that punishes his private resentments and fears.

Mr. Nugent is a different case. His hateful comments, calling the President a “subhuman mongrel,” were intended to be public remarks. They chilled and sickened me. Yet Mr. Nugent is coming to Toledo to entertain, and The Blade is putting on the event.

For African-Americans, Mr. Nugent’s comments are reckless, unpatriotic, and a racist affront.

Former Mayor Jack Ford told me: “Nugent goes too far. If someone had called President Bush a mongrel after 9/‚Äč11, he probably would have been thrown in jail.” Mr. Ford said he thinks Mr. Nugent’s words constitute actual hate speech, and Mr. Ford has made a pact with Ray Wood, president of the NAACP and of UAW Local 14, to picket Mr. Nugent’s concert here, even if it means arrest.

The Rev. Otis Gordon of Warren AME Church says Ted Nugent has advocated violence against the President, and that should always be unacceptable — from any entertainer, regarding any president.

Doni Miller, CEO of Neighborhood Health Associates told me: “I don’t think about Ted Nugent. A person who looks like me has to navigate people like him every day.”

But, she adds, we need to consider the people we invite to our community, just as we consider seriously the people we invite to our homes for dinner. An invitation always reflects on the host.

All that said, and well said, I have bet my professional life on free speech. I have to believe the antidote to hate speech is civil speech and the answer to ignorant speech is enlightened speech. Let speech answer speech.

I wish Mr. Nugent had not been invited here. But now that he has been invited, I am troubled by the idea that he should be disinvited, again, based on his thoughts and opinions. They are deplorable opinions, but he is entitled to them. And my right to think him a cretin and a bigot is inseparable from his right to say and think what he wants about our President.

I think we are justified in regulating the free market only because there are some things it just won’t do on its own, like hot lunches for poor children or inspection of food and drugs. But the free market of thought does not need regulation. It modulates itself.

Ted Nugent has diminished his fan base and marginalized himself.

I won’t go hear him. Most won’t. I doubt he will be back.

And the best solution for Mr. Sterling would be if no one went to Los Angeles Clippers games and he was forced to sell the team.

That would make more sense than banning the owner of an NBA team from the NBA. How does that work anyway? He watches the games at home and continues to pocket millions? We cannot take his team from him — his property — because he thinks and says stupid things.

The solution is for Magic Johnson and a group of investors to buy the team.

I liked what President Obama said about Mr. Sterling: Such people reap what they sow.

Let free speech and association answer hate speech and bigotry. The unfettered play of thought should trump people being offended. These things work out in their own time. Good ideas rise and idiocy sinks.

We ought to have a little confidence in liberty.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.