Conversation On Privacy
September 30, 1998
Part II in a series on coversations about issues raised by the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Phil Ponce speaks with Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter.
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JIM LEHRER: Now our series of conversations about issues raised by the conduct and the investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. Last night we talked to Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter. Phil Ponce has tonight's conversation.
PHIL PONCE: Joining me now for that is Orlando Patterson, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. He's written extensively on the subject of freedom. Welcome, Professor. You wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that one of the things about the Starr investigation that concerns you is a loss of privacy. Would you elaborate on that.
ORLANDO PATTERSON, Harvard University: Well, our privacy is very intimately linked to our liberty. And in many areas of American life we see an erosion of this fundamental right to an inviolable space, which we have a right to protect. And I see this certainly in the case of the treatment of the president.
PHIL PONCE: So you're saying that when there's a loss of privacy, likewise, what, there's a loss of freedom?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. Freedom is fundamentally, or at least one important aspect of freedom is the fact that ones owns oneself and one has the right to do what one pleases as long as one does not harm another person or the public interest. And yes, the two are very intimately linked.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, one of the very early points you make in your op-ed piece is that one reason African-Americans have so steadfastly stood by the president is that their history has been one long violation of their privacy.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. I mean, the treatment of the president is almost paradigmatic of the Afro- American experience. They were entrapped, enslaved, persecuted, and they were mocked and embarrassed, and dishonored, and what we see in the experience of public dishonoring and embarrassment of the president is, as I said, almost iconic, as far as the African-American experience goes.
PHIL PONCE: So you're saying that there is this sensitivity among African-Americans persists to this day that makes African-Americans as a group more sympathetic to the president?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. There are other aspects of the sympathy for the president. For one thing, he's the first president in the history of the nation to have African-Americans in a circle of friends. Secondly, the president is actually culturally very Afro-American. This ironically is true of a lot of southerners, but he's unusual in that, unlike other white southerners, he doesn't hide the fact. And then there's this experience, which he's gone through, which I think many Afro-Americans find easy to relate to.
PHIL PONCE: Stepping back a second, you're saying that the president's "southernness" makes him a more sympathetic character to African-Americans in this case?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. Southern culture is black. I mean, it is powerfully influenced by African-Americans and all southerners, all white southerners are very black. Most of them deny it; the president doesn't.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, you also wrote that many Americans object to the release of so much information, saying, "By objecting to publication and details of the president's sex life. Americans have acknowledged that his right to privacy justifies his attempt to conceal actions they consider to be his business and no one else's."
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Yes. I think it's important to emphasize the fact that there are no absolutes in our moral precepts. Kant may have believed that, and some fascists do. But all our precepts tend to be relative to each other, and there are many occasions in which there are clashes, and we have to decide which trumps the other, which takes precedence. And here we have a very good case where the right to privacy comes in conflict with the right, the obligation to tell the truth under oath. Now, you cannot just say in an absolute sense you should always tell the truth under oath because it depends on what you're trying to cover up and if you are an Al Capone who have murdered half a dozen people and murdered all the witnesses, your right to privacy is trumped by your obligation to tell the truth if you're in a perjury trap, because what you're trying to cover up is horrendous. If what you're trying to cover up, however, is a private indiscretion, which is nobody's business, then your right to privacy trumps your obligation to tell the truth under perjury, and by the way, this is recognized by prosecutors, which is why in many cases they do not prosecute cases where people are known to have committed perjury, because they feel like their right to privacy trumps their obligation to tell the truth under oath.
PHIL PONCE: So, Professor, just to make sure I understand you, you're saying that if it's on a matter dealing with privacy, particularly relating to one's sexual contact, is okay to lie under oath, in your opinion?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: If it's not - yes, because, again, perjury is not an absolute. You don't have absolute rules here. The right to privacy is a very important ideal in our culture, and if you've been caught in a perjury trap by a prosecutor, yes, you have to decide then which takes precedence. Am I going to perform this good, tell the truth under oath, or am I going to violate my privacy or insist on my right to privacy? And I'm saying the world is complicated, and in a case like that, it depends on what you're using the right to privacy to cover up. And if it's not a crime, yes, then you have the right to say my right to privacy trumps my obligation to tell the truth under oath.
PHIL PONCE: And you recognize, obviously, that a lot of people would disagree with you on that point?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Of course. But a lot of people tend to be absolutists. It's time they asked themselves the question in broader terms and to see that our ideals and our precepts are not absolutes but, in fact, must be seen in relation to each other.
PHIL PONCE: Professor, there's another quote of yours that I'd like to highlight, this one - and this one you say - like all other Americans, President Clinton was at liberty to make a fool of himself with a young lover. However shabbily he may have behaved, he broke no laws and it is politically unjust and legally improper to claim that he should be held to a higher standard of personal conduct than his fellow citizens. No higher standard of personal conduct for the President?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Absolutely, yes. You know, a very interesting thing has happened recently in our political culture. For a long time we held to the view that we elect virtuous men and men of culture to protect our institutions. There's another way of looking at it, and, in fact, James Madison said it many, many decades ago when he said that virtues lies in people, not in men. We rely on the virtue of the people to elect the right leaders, not on the virtue and character of men to protect our democracy. And what we have here is a situation which the ordinary electorate of ordinary people in the matter are simply saying that we will no longer have faith in men, in the character of men, but in the character of our institutions, and we are prepared to elect someone who will effectively run these institutions, because it is in that institution that we have trust, and we no longer trust the great man, the noble man whose nobility will protect us. Those days are over.
PHIL PONCE: So, Professor, you're saying that it's unrealistic on the part of Americans to expect their leaders to be personally moral in their private lives?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Well, it is good if that happens, and, in general, one would want them to be. But there are occasions when the electorate decides that, given a choice between a Bob Dole, who emphasizes the element of personal trust. "Trust me," he kept saying. A man known to have personal flaws but who is considered by the electorate to be an effective governor of the institutions of the country that they choose the latter in their wisdom - and their choice is sacred.
PHIL PONCE: So what you're saying then is that a president as a personal or moral role model, that concept is what, outdated?
ORLANDO PATTERSON: That concept is a dangerous one in a multi-cultural society, or what is a role model for a Southern Baptist fundamentalist may not be a role model for another New York working class Italian Catholic or Hassidic Jew, not to mention a Hispanic person. It's - what do you mean by a role model? You know, in a homogenous society, yes, in which everyone is Protestant and white and has the same set of values - yes, perhaps then - but not in this complex continental society of almost 220 million people.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Patterson, thank you for joining us.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: My pleasure.
JIM LEHRER: We will continue this series next week with William F. Buckley Jr. and Deborah Tannen, among others.