LOS ANGELES, May 15, 2014 — Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are living fossils, remarkable relics of times long gone.
Paleontologists and zoologists sometimes discover plants and animals they believed to have been extinct for millions of years — the coelacanth, the ginkgo, the tuatara. The discovery of a living fossil is always a public sensation.
Sometimes they survive because they became lodged in an unchanging parcel of habitat; the environment around them stayed still while the world moved forward through eons of change. Because the coelacanth’s environment remained unchanged, the coelacanth remained unchanged, even though its Jurassic seas gave way to modern oceans filled with modern fish.
The pressures of natural selection which either forced the evolution or extinction of species all around it somehow missed the coelacanth, and by the time we found it, it was like finding a dinosaur grazing through Loch Ness.
This phenomenon occurs in human communities as well. You see it, for instance, with certain tribes in the Amazon and New Guinea, whose members remain in the stone age while the internet expands its web all around them. They live in jungles literally too dense and too remote for modern society to penetrate.
In such cases, as with the Hadza people in Tanzania, their way of life is unchanged over centuries and millennia. The Hadza are surrounded by a changing world which continually shrinks their world; farming, missionaries, tourism and development relentlessly surround and encroach upon it.
But they still resist, preserving themselves as they have been for countless generations, even as similar tribal people have been changed or obliterated.
This is exactly what we see with Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy. And while their genus of thinking is one that most of us should like to see become extinct entirely, we should not judge them for being products of the past.
They are from their time and place.
It may seem like Donald Sterling, owner of a basketball team in the most modern and diverse city in the world, could hardly have come to the year 2014 with the sort of distasteful and antiquated notions of social division between races that he has, but to think so is to ignore some more fundamental dynamics of who he is and where he comes from.
The Los Angeles Clippers owner (the longest reigning franchise owner in the NBA) was born at the beginning of the Great Depression in an immigrant Jewish family that, like many Jewish immigrants, kept close to its own traditions and identity. He grew up in a Los Angeles that was much more segregated than it is today, became financially successful during the 60’s and much more so during the 80’s.
That success delivering Sterling into to a social circle that, from a socio-economic standpoint, would have allowed him to further distance himself from a black and Latino community that broadly was not following him and his white social circle so quickly up the ladder of success.
It’s true that many white people have similar stories and cast off the prejudices of a Donald Sterling, or at least learned to control them earlier on, just as a few of the Hadza’s had likely found their way in to modern life.
But there is a world in America, a world not just in Donald Sterling’s mind, that has not changed much since the decades of the 50’s and 60’s which he remembers. It is an old world, made up of old people largely, but in his closest circles and in himself it survives, though the progressive social forces of modern life can now be seen crashing in upon it.
Cliven Bundy is an even more extraordinary example, for whereas Donald Sterling is a product of the 1950’s, Bundy is a living preservation of an American mind from the 19th century. Most of us believe the debate over segregation is dead and gone, so much more the debate over freeing the slaves.
But for a man who has not absorbed in his thinking the racial progress of the 20th century, it somehow remains an open question.
Cliven Bundy’s family, according to him, has tilled the land at the heart of the original (non-racial) Bundy controversy since the 1880’s, thirty years or so before Arizona became a state. They were Mormon settlers looking for their own land.
Bundy’s claim therefore with response to land taxes he refuses to pay on this property that he literally does not “recognize the United States government as even existing,” connects to the larger point, for the right of the government to exert any control over his land and property would have been a disputable issue for his ancestors.
Locked into a family culture sprouted up from a plot of land both remarkably unchanged from that time, we see the sociological thought processes of a man for whom the defining social movements of the 20th century barely reached the periphery of his conception.
These two men are remarkable specimens in the context of our modern America. But what is to be gained by reviling them? Nature and nurture alike define a man before he has the opportunity to define himself, and in that craft the tools that wll forever limit him.
It may say something good about our society that right and left can largely unite in their rejection of views teetering fortuitously on the brink of extinction. That we are so bitter in doing so shows we all have some room to grow.