Donald Sterling’s Illiberal Zionism Part of Racism Controversy with Magic Johnson

(By Juan Cole)

Major political ideas and philosophies are complex and ambiguous, not straightforward. American conservatism is an alliance of economic conservatives and cultural conservatives. Economic conservatives are champions of entrepreneurs and business, seeking low taxes and little regulation and opportunity for risk-takers from all persons of all backgrounds. Their ideology contains contradictions. Economic conservatives imagine that they uphold individual rights against government intrusion, but they are perfectly happy to get up a war of choice and coerce people into paying for it. (Libertarians are an exception here, being mostly anti-war, but they are a minority of economic conservatives).

Economic conservatism contains an implicit hierarchy. The rich are better and more deserving than the poor of political influence because they are hardworking and wealth-creators and the actual tax-payers. That most of the rich are increasingly born with a silver spoon in their mouths and many haven’t done a day of honest physical labor is covered up. That many make their money in finance in ways that actually destroy jobs or ship them abroad is covered up. That the wealthy get the lion’s share of benefit from government, so that it is only just that they pay most of the taxes, is covered up. The working poor, who are poor because they aren’t paid a living wage (as with Scrooge Walmart), are covered up.

In contrast, cultural conservatives highlight identity issues, especially racial and gender hierarchy. Cultural conservatives implicitly believe that men are superior and should be in control, and are threatened by professional and by powerful women, as well as by developments (such as abortion and birth control) that free women from patriarchy and from religious control. Cultural conservatives say they are committed to democracy, but they are convinced that half the population is freeloaders who don’t really deserve the vote, and lately they’ve been trying to figure out a way to keep that half from voting.

There is an implicit racial hierarchy in cultural conservatism. Whites (increasingly including Jews and non-Latino Catholics) are at the top of this hierarchy and disproportionately wealthy; they are the ones alleged to have a powerful work ethic. African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans are at the bottom. It isn’t acceptable for racial conservatives to voice these sentiments openly any more, but the sentiments are widespread and powerful, and communicated through racial codes known as dog whistles. Thus, minorities are disparaged for needing food stamps or welfare. A phrase such as “welfare queen” is racially loaded even though it lacks an explicit reference to race (in fact, half of the American poor are white and many European-Americans need public assistance at some point in their lives).

Since American discourse changed with the Civil Rights movement, when conservatives slip up and say what they actually privately think, they get into trouble. Thus, conservative radio and t.v. personality Don Imus, who was among the more powerful men in Washington, referred to African-American women basketball players as “nappy-headed ho’s.” He disparaged them as racially distinct because of their hair, and as morally inferior (implying they were from poverty-stricken backgrounds and forced into at least occasional prostitution.) Being rich and being moral and being white all go together in this primordial American conservatism. The women athletes in question were in fact mostly from middle class families and were outstanding students who made time and effort to excel in sports as well. They exemplified the values of hard work and entrepreneurial spirit that conservatism purports to uphold, but Imus put them down because their character was over-ruled by their (low) place in the gender and racial hierarchy of cultural conservatism.

Donald Sterling’s leaked comments and his interview with Anderson Cooper betray this conception of racial hierarchy, which is more widespread in the contemporary US than is usually admitted, but which is seldom publicly articulated.

He told his girlfriend V. Stiviano, after complaining about her posting photos with African-Americans like Magic Johnson to the internet,

“Donald Sterling: It’s the world! You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs.
V. Stiviano: So do you have to treat them like that too?
DS: The white Jews, there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?
V: And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?
DS: A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred percent.
V: And is that right?
DS: It isn’t a question—we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.”

Although Sterling maintained that he was not making a value judgment in upholding the discrimination in Israel against Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen, and Morocco (and against non-Jewish black African immigrants, not to mention against Palestinians), he clearly was. He was saying that Israeli society is characterized by a racial hierarchy which is “natural” and must be accepted. Further, he was comparing that Israel racial hierarchy to the one in the United States and arguing that both are “natural” and must dictate behavior if one is to get along.

In his ill-considered interview with Anderson Cooper, Sterling again brought up Jews: “That’s one problem I have. Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people, and some of the African-Americans — maybe I’ll get in trouble again — they don’t want to help anybody…”

He condemned Magic Johnson for sleeping with too many women and contracting HIV (he incorrectly said “AIDS”) and for not helping his people. All of Sterling’s assertions about Magic are incorrect– he has a major charity. And, Sterling allegedly has been with many escorts himself. Cultural conservatism always involves a great deal of hypocrisy, such that breaches in conventional morality are mercilessly condemned in others but forgiveness is always sought for the conservative. As for Sterling’s assertion of the virtuousness of American Jews, in fact there are plenty of exploited working class Jews, and there are poor Jews, and it isn’t the fact that the wealthy in the community necessarily take care of their own. As comedian Lewis Black points out, “it’s not a team.” But the myth of Jewish communal solidarity is important for Sterling as a contrast to feckless minorities, in order to maintain his hierarchy. A similar myth of the virtuous, generous white wealthy elite exists in WASP circles.

The invocation of HIV is also part of this racial hierarchy. The lower races, Sterling is saying, cannot contain their appetites and so are exposed to debilitating disease. But HIV is a virus and does not care about morality or race, and 1.2 million Americans have it. We need to devote societal and government resources to defeating it for the sake of humankind, and out of empathy for all its victims, rather than using it to denigrate people.

As with American conservatism, so with Zionism, there are many strains. But a Zionism that is latently about racial hierarchy is an important such strand, and my suspicion is that it is among the attractions of it for “Christian Zionists” in the US south, not just its messianism.

The peculiar heartlessness of American cultural conservatives toward Palestinians in Gaza, who are being kept stateless and in a large concentration camp that is rapidly running out of potable water and other resources can only be understood by the implicit racial hierarchy of this ideology, which it shares with racist strands of Zionism. Palestinians in this telling are racially inferior, beset by raging passions, guilty of irrational violence, and therefore must be contained (or even deprived of food and weakened) by the superior “white” Israelis. That 70 percent of Gaza families were expelled from their homes with no compensation by Israel and herded into refugee camps and then surrounded and further besieged is never admitted. Racial essentialism depends on erasing context.

Sterling doesn’t speak for all conservatives or all cultural conservatives or all Zionists. But he does speak for a not insignificant number of them, even if they would publicly deny it. That is a problem for conservatives. It is a problem for all of us.


Related video:

CNN: “Boycott threat lingers if Sterling remains owner. ”

14 Responses

  1. My wife and I watched Cooper/Sterling last night. and we both had the same impression…..What a whiner!. Interesting that the quotes Prof. Cole highlighted about Israelis treating blacks like dogs has been completely ignored by the media. Quite different from Mel Gibson who has been blackballed for making drunken comments about Jews and their affinity to start wars.

    • Well, the common thread here is that Jews/Israelis are a protected class. The Media must jump on Mel Gibson with both feet because Gibson said hateful things about them. The Media must also ignore/not air Serling’s admiring statements about Israeli racism, to protect the Israelis/Jews, because by now, most Americans know that anti-black racism is unacceptable.

      It’s not a contradiction; it’s the same thing.

  2. Good analysis Dr. Cole, thanks. But keep in mind that, unfortunately, the practical moral of race-specialness is on who control the guns.

  3. Seriously, Juan?

    Sterling’s an undeniable ass but you’re using the guy’s idiocy as a platform to launch into your familiar roster of betes-noire.

  4. “DS: It isn’t a question—we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.” ”

    Unfortunately, a sizable portion of the victims of this authoritarian/conservative philosophy go along with it.

    • —Do they not go along because it is set up to be in their interest to do so–the elites ensure that is the case in other words?

      …Along the lines of: George Bush gave them a nickel for granting huge tax cuts giving millions to the wealthy. Do they not go along rationally even if they also know better otherwise because ….overall they are not that well off and secure to not take their crumbs to their corner and cry out instead?

      It certainly is part of Freudian psychology to accept the Reality and go along–so it is part of secular religion of Judeo-Christian culture to go along. To not go along is hubris, anti-authoritarian narcissism. Sterling seems to enjoy this.

      So, I am just taking issue with your first word “Unfortunately” although I am not sure what we should put in its place.

      • After I posted my comment I reconsidered “Unfortunately” and thought “ironically” would have been a better choice.

  5. The other anti-Semitic bigotry and colonialist narrative against ‘dirty, degenerate, barbaric, etc’ natives, i.e. Palestinians, has been propagated for a long while by racial/religo-political ideologues.

    Was surprised that the bit on racism in Israel slid by the media too (also the overt continuous sexism). But he did still end up making it worse for the Jewish community with his ridiculous hypocritical charity claim to Anderson Cooper, where his contributions, considering his own huge wealth and compared to Johnson’s contributions, are peanuts.

    And him making issue and degrading another’s sexual exploits…he’s certainly not being shy about sharing his own…even when not asked and no one wants to know…in a courtroom. Its classic despicable and delusional Sterling comedy.
    link to

  6. As a way to test most everyone’s limits to free speech and to keep their food down: “More anti-Islamic Metro bus ads on the way in D.C.” Advertisements to go on the side of buses in Washington DC to charge Islam with Jew-Hatred and of course they just have to bring Hitler into this.
    See link to
    I believe this is related to Professor Cole’s points.

  7. Many years ago a friend of mine joked that the most discriminated person imaginable must be a gay, black Jew. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a joke but reality.

    • You forgot to add “female,” or maybe “transgender”… And which of “young” or “old” is more appropriate to the list, too?

      Interesting that “discriminated” has become an actual word…

  8. Donald Sterling reminds me of growing up a really confused child with my extended family of origin in the late fifties and early sixties. But I have to admit one caveat, They were quite anti-Semitic besides being racists. They were working-class immigrants trapped within their fears having never recovered from the Great Depression. And they always talked about going back to the “old country.” Sterling may be a wealthy Jew beyond all their wildest dreams of avarice but he would fit right in at the dinner table among the adult males. They would be called today, given the pervasive influence of the recovery movements on our culture, functioning adult alcoholics. They were characters one would find in one of the novels written by Louis Ferdinand Cline, a French author from the thirties, who is the literary father of the modern black comedy. I thought I had to be an orphan because I just couldn’t be related to them,

  9. > “Cultural conservatives implicitly believe that men are superior and should be in control, and are threatened by professional and by powerful women, as well as by developments (such as abortion and birth control) that free women from patriarchy and from religious control. ”

    Juan, Juan, Juan: why the wan and whiny stereotyping?

    What is “patriarchy”?

    How many of the 300 “miners” killed in Turkey were female?

    Women live longer than men, get kids and cash post-divorce, and are spared the dirty, dangerous jobs men are expected to do to create civilizations that pamper females.

    Is it THAT hard to be honest about airing the real lives of real men instead of repeating Steinem’s lies?

    • “Women live longer than men, get kids and cash post-divorce, and are spared the dirty, dangerous jobs men are expected to do to create civilizations that pamper females.”

      This is a charade that could be played interminably. Women put their lives at risk bearing children. Not so much as in the past in the technologically advanced nations, but it is still a risk. If marriages don’t work out women become single moms often living in poverty while their exes are often marginally better off.

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