Category Archives: History

Oscar Ethics 2015: The Unforgivable Dishonoring Of Maureen O’Hara

maureen ohara

Usually I follow the Oscars telecast with a post on the recently deceased actors and actresses the Academy unfairly snubs in its annual “In Memoriam” session. There is no excuse for robbing anyone of a last bow and farewell, despite the repeated claim that there “just isn’t enough time” to squeeze everyone in. Last night that dishonest excuse for disrespect and incompetence was rendered more absurd than ever: If there’s time for the longest, slowest, most repetitious speech yet by an Academy official, if there’s time for not one but two inappropriate political rants on the podium by award-winners, if there’s time for so many songs that the show seemed more like the Grammys than the Oscars, then there’s time to flash a couple more faces for a second or two.

This year, the omissions were minimal compared to recent years. I noticed the absence of Richard Kiel (1939-2014),

Jaws

…the giant actor who was best known for playing the James Bond villain “Jaws” in two films, as well as less celebrated monsters, aliens and goons. Marcia Strassman, (1948-2014),

Strassman

who made few films (she was predominantly a TV actress (“Welcome Back, Kotter”), but who was the co-star (with Rick Moranis) of the Disney hits, “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and “Honey I Blew Up The Kid,” also deserved inclusion, and Polly Bergen (1930-2014)

Polly Bergen

…who played the terrorized lawyer’s wife in the original “Cape Fear”(portrayed by Jessica Lange in the Scorsese re-make) and had significant roles in several other films, was a bad omission.

Because Twitter users are about 12 or have the memories of mayflies, there was much indignation last night over the absence of Joan Rivers and former SNL standout Jan Hooks. I’d leave the appreciations of both to the Emmys, especially Rivers. A couple cameos and doing the voice of the C3PO parody in “Spaceballs” doesn’t constitute a film career, and snarky red carpet interviews are not movie-making.

Those snubs pale in significance, however, to the disrespect shown by the academy not only to one of its all-time great stars, but to its own history, in the treatment of actress Maureen O’Hara. Continue reading

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Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Etiquette and manners, History, Popular Culture, Workplace

Rudy’s Heresy

Obama with-United-States-Flag

Hot on the heels of the Ethics Alarms Presidents Day celebration of the men who have held the office, which began with the premise that every one of them made a patriotic decision to attempt such a daunting job and deserves our respect and gratitude, comes Rudy Giuliani to accuse the current occupant of the office of not loving the United States of America. His accusation came not in a national address or an interview with CNN, mind you, but at a small, private dinner for nascent GOP Presidential hopeful Scott Walker. This sparked an over-the-top freakout by the mainstream media, which did everything from questioning Giuliani’s patriotism and sanity to accusing him of racism (but of course).

Then, because we all know Giuliani, who is neither a leader of the Republican Party nor currently an elected official, speaks for all Republicans, every Presidential contender had to answer the “when did you stop beating your wife” question of whether they also believed that the President didn’t “love” the U.S. Rudy was interviewed and re-interviewed to clarify his remarks, leading him to “explain” that he wasn’t impugning Obama’s patriotism, but would not apologize, and to speculate that Obama’s upbringing and past associations had produced a socialist/communist sensibility. Rudy also said that the President had rejected American “exceptionalism,” and that this was ominous.

Finally, in what was a foolish, unnecessary—but sadly typical for this President—“I am not a crook” moment, Obama felt it was necessary to rebut the former New York Mayor by declaring in a speech that he did love America.

Ick, yuck, uck, petooie, bleh, gag, yechhh.

What an ugly and destructive controversy.

Observations from the ethics perch: Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, History, Journalism & Media, Leadership, Love, Race, U.S. Society

A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 4 and Final): The Wild, Wild Ride From FDR to W.

smiling-presidents

All of the Presidents (except FDR) in this last section were alive and kicking while I was, and so to me they are both more real and less fascinating to some extent. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, a tendency not to idealize. These leaders are no more flawed than their predecessors, they just seem that way thanks to mass media.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt

Three terms plus, a World War, a Depression, a transformative Presidency and an epic life spent in public service: FDR is another President who can’t be summed up in an anecdote, one book, or a hundred. He accomplished enough great things to be a deserving icon; he committed enough wrongs to be judged a villain. (He was pretty clearly a sociopath, but a lot of great leaders are, including a fair proportion of ours, including some of the best.) The only completely unfair verdict on this Roosevelt is not to acknowledge the importance and complexity of his life. Here are some of my favorite items about him:

  • FDR wrote down a plan when he was still in school outlining the best way for him to become President. The plan was essentially to follow his distant cousin Theodore’s career steps: Harvard, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice-Presidential candidate, and President. (He skipped “Rough Rider.”) Amazingly, he followed it, and it worked.
  • Conventional wisdom holds that FDR’s polio transformed his character, and that without that crisis and challenge he would have been content to be a rich dilettante. I doubt it, but there is no question that he fits the Presidential survivor template, and that his ordeal made him stronger, more formidable and more determined.
  • Many Presidents had strong mothers, especially, for some reason, many of our Chief Executives from Roosevelt to Obama. Franklin’s mom, however, wins the prize. It’s amazing Eleanor didn’t murder her. But Mrs. Roosevelt is why Eleanor was there in the first place: all of our Presidents raised by strong mothers married very strong wives.
  • If a computer program were designed to create the perfect American leader, it would give us FDR. He was the complete package; his charisma, charm and power radiate from recordings and films that are 90 years old. That smile! That chin! That head! That voice! He is one of the very few Presidents who would be just as  popular and effective today as the era in which he lived.
  • And just as dangerous. FDR is also a template for an American dictator, which, I believe, he would have been perfectly willing to be. It’s no coincidence that Franklin was the only President to break Washington’s wise tradition of leaving office after two terms.
  • Political and philosophical arguments aside, at least four of Roosevelt actions as President were horrific, and would sink the reputation of most leaders: 1) Imprisoning Japanese-Americans (and German-Americans, too); 2) Ignoring the plight of European Jews as long as he did, when it should have been clear what was going on; 3) Handing over Eastern Europe to Stalin, and 4) Knowing how sick he was, giving little thought or care to who his running mate was in 1944.
  • Balancing all that, indeed outweighing it, is the fact that the United States of America and quite possibly the free world might not exist today if this unique and gifted leader were not on the scene. Three times in our history, the nation’s existence depended on not just good leadership, but extraordinary leadership, and all three times, the leader we needed emerged: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin. I wouldn’t count on us being that lucky again.

I left the bulk of reflection about the character and leadership style of Theodore Roosevelt to one of Teddy’s own speeches to embody, and I’ll do the same for his protege.

On September 23, 1932, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech at Manhattan’s Commonwealth Club. (Everyone, conservative, liberal or moderate, should read it….here.) It was a defining statement of progressive principles and modern liberalism, redefining core American values according to the perceived needs of a changing nation and culture.  It is a radical speech, and would be regarded as radical by many today, even after much of what Roosevelt argued was reflected in the policies of the New Deal.

After sketching the origins and progress of the nation to the present, he flatly stated that the Founders’ assumptions no longer applied:

A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have know it no longer exists. Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land. More than half of our people do not live on the farms or on lands and cannot derive a living by cultivating their own property. There is no safety valve in the form of a Western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines can go for a new start. We are not able to invite the immigration from Europe to share our endless plenty. We are now providing a drab living for our own people….

Just as freedom to farm has ceased, so also the opportunity in business has narrowed. It still is true that men can start small enterprises, trusting to native shrewdness and ability to keep abreast of competitors; but area after area has been preempted altogether by the great corporations, and even in the fields which still have no great concerns, the small man starts with a handicap. The unfeeling statistics of the past three decades show that the independent business man is running a losing race. Perhaps he is forced to the wall; perhaps he cannot command credit; perhaps he is “squeezed out,” in Mr. Wilson’s words, by highly organized corporate competitors, as your corner grocery man can tell you.

Recently a careful study was made of the concentration of business in the United States. It showed that our economic life was dominated by some six hundred odd corporations who controlled two-thirds of American industry. Ten million small business men divided the other third. More striking still, it appeared that if the process of concentration goes on at the same rate, at the end of another century we shall have all American industry controlled by a dozen corporations, and run by perhaps a hundred men. Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.

Clearly, all this calls for a re-appraisal of values.

So Franklin Roosevelt re-appraised them: Continue reading

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A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 3): When The Going Got Tough

 presidents.

The Presidents really get interesting now, as a political leadership culture in the U.S. matures, the stakes of failure become greater, and technology, labor upheaval, expanding big business and greater influence on world affairs transforms the Presidency into truly the toughest job on earth.

Grover Cleveland

grover

Another one of my favorites, Cleveland was known for telling the truth ( he as called “Grover the Good”), but he participated in one of the most elaborate deceptions in Presidential history.

As explained in historian Matthew Algeo’s 2011 book, “The President Is a Sick Man,”  President Cleveland noticed an odd bump on the roof of his mouth in the summer of 1893, shortly after he took office for the second time. (Cleveland is the only President with split terms, the hapless Republican Benjamin Harrison winning an electoral college victory that gave him four years as the bland filling in a Cleveland sandwich.) The bump was diagnosed as a life-threatening malignant tumor, and the remedy was removal. Cleveland believed that news of his diagnosis would send Wall Street and the country  into a panic at a time when the economy was sliding into a depression anyway, and agreed to an ambitious and dangerous plan to have the surgery done in secret. The plan was for the President to announce he was taking a friend’s yacht on a four-day fishing trip from New York to his summer home in Cape Cod. Unknown to the press and the public was that the yacht had been transformed into a floating operating room, and a team of six surgeons were assembled and waiting.

The 90 minute procedure employed ether as the anesthesia, and the doctors removed the tumor, five teeth and a large part of the President’s upper left jawbone, all at sea. They also managed to extract the tumor through the President’s mouth while leaving no visible scar and without altering Cleveland’s walrus mustache. Talking on NPR in 2011, historian said,

“I talked to a couple of oral surgeons researching the book, and they still marvel at this operation: that they were able to do this on a moving boat; that they did it very quickly. A similar operation today would take several hours; they did it in 90 minutes.”

But the operation was a success. An artificial partial upper jaw made of rubber was installed to replace the missing bone, and Cleveland, who had the constitution of a moose, reappeared after four days looking hardy and most incredible of all, able to speak as clearly as ever. How did he heal so fast? Why wasn’t his speech effected? He endures doctors cutting out a large chuck of his mouth using 19th century surgical techniques and is back on the job in less than a week? No wonder nobody suspected the truth.

Then, two months later, Philadelphia Press reporter E.J. Edwards published a story about the surgery, thanks to one of the doctors anonymously breaching doctor-patient confidentiality. Cleveland, who in his first campaign for the White House had dealt with Republican accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child by publicly admitting it, flatly denied Edwards’ story, and his aides  launched a campaign to discredit the reporter. Grover the Good never lies, thought the public, so Edwards ended up where Brian Williams is now. His career and credibility were ruined.

Nobody outside of the participants knew about the operation and the President’s fake jaw until twenty-four years later, after all the other principals were dead except three witnesses.  One of the surgeons decided to  publish an article to prove that E.J. Edwards had been telling the truth after all.

This is a great ethics problem. Was it ethical for Cleveland to keep his health issues from the public? In this case, yes, I’d say so. Was it unethical for the doctor to break his ethical duty? Of course. Was Edwards ethical to report the story? Sure.

The tough question is: Was Cleveland ethical to deny the story and undermine the reporter’s credibility? I think it was a valid utilitarian move, and barely ethical: it was better for the nation to distrust one reporter than the President, especially when his secret was one he responsibly withheld, and his doctor unethically revealed. Continue reading

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A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 1): I Love These Guys, I Really Do. Yes, Every One Of Them.

Hall of the Presidents

I have a lifetime love affair with the Presidents of the United States.

I love these guys, every one of them. The best of them are among the most skilled and courageous leaders in world history; the least of them took more risks and sacrificed more for their country than any of us ever can or will, including me. Every one of our Presidents, whatever their blunders, flaws and bad choices, was a remarkable and an accomplished human being, and exemplified the people he led in important ways. Every one of them accepted not only the burden of leadership, but the almost unbearable burden of leading the most dynamic, ambitious, confusing, cantankerous and often unappreciative nation that has ever existed. I respect that and honor it.

I have been a President junkie since I was eight years old. It’s Robert Ripley’s fault. My father bought an old, dog-eared paperback in the “Believe it or Not!” series and gave it to me. It was published in 1948. One of Ripley’s entries was about the “Presidents Curse”: every U.S. President elected in a year ending with a zero since 1840 (William Henry Harrison) had died in office, and only one President who had dies in office, Zachary Taylor, hadn’t been elected in such a year. The cartoon featured a creep chart—I still have it—listing the names of the dead Presidents, the years they were elected, and the year 1960 with ???? next to it. When Jack Kennedy, the youngest President ever elected, won the office in 1960, my Dad, who by that time was sick of me reminding him of the uncanny pattern, said, “Well, son, so much for Ripley’s curse!”

You know what happened. (John Hinckley almost kept the curse going, but Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, finally broke it.) That year I became obsessed with Presidential history, devising a lecture that gave an overview of the men and their significance in order. My teacher allowed me to inflict it on my classmates.  Much later, Presidential leadership and character was the topic of my honors thesis in college. When I finally got a chance to go to Disneyland, the first place I went was the Hall of Presidents. When the recorded announcer said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States!” and the red curtain parted to show the audio-animatrons of all of them together, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

Today I will honor our past Presidents with some of my favorite facts about each of them, trying hard not to get carried away. Is it ethics? It’s leadership, which has always been the dominant sub-topic here, but yes, it’s ethics.  I know I’m hard on our Presidents, as I think we all should be: supportive, loyal, but demanding and critical. I am also, however, cognizant of how much they give to the country and their shared determination to do what they think, rightly or wrongly, is in the country’s best long-term interests. File this post under respect, fairness, gratitude, and especially citizenship. And now…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States!

Continue reading

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Now THIS Is An Ad Hominem Attack! or “Boy, Is Howard Dean An Ass, or What?”

 

"True, Harry didn't go to college, but he's a Democrat."

“True, Harry didn’t go to college, but he’s a Democrat.”

People commenting on Ethics Alarms constantly accuse me of making ad hominem attacks, when what they mean to say is “You’re name-calling.” I’ll cop to name-calling. It’s can be a bad habit, but it has its uses, best illustrated when President Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The description was true, and it immediately focused values-based criticism on a government and culture that needed it and deserved it.

Ad hominem, in contrast, is a logical fallacy in which one attempts to counter a substantive argument by attacking the character or other aspects of the advocate that can’t possibly have any bearing on the argument’s validity. For example, “you’re uglier than a pug” does nothing to disprove the substance of your adversary’s position, even if he is. Similarly, Bill Cosby has argued, even before 34 women accused him of raping them, that his advocacy of black community responsibility should not be undermined because of questions about his own rectitude.

There is nothing inherently fallacious, however, about diagnosing the conduct or statements of someone as proof that he or she is a fool, or a liar, or a jerk. It may not be civil, and it may be unfair, but it is not an ad hominem attack. As I have  explained it before, if I say you are an idiot because I think your comments are idiotic, that is a legitimate, if rebuttable assumption. (I may also be using “you are an idiot” as shorthand for “you are talking/sounding/acting like an idiot, and should avoid that.”) If I say you are an idiot, and therefor everything you say must be dismissed and ignored as the rantings of an idiot, that’s an unethical debating technique, ducking the argument by impugning the advocate.

Distinguishing between these very different but similar-appearing phenomenon can be a problem when trying to be fair to someone whose prior statements and conduct have already generated a negative diagnosis, and thus a bias. I have concluded, for example, that Joe Biden is a dolt, that Michele Bachmann is not playing with a full deck; that Sarah Palin is intellectually lazy and irresponsible, that Newt Gingrich is manipulative and untrustworthy, that Bill Maher is a pompous, none-too-bright blowhard and that Howard Dean is a vicious and unscrupulous ideologue. Nonetheless, I have to fight to assess what they say on the basis of merit, not my well-considered assumptions. It’s hard. When an idiot asserts something, is it unreasonable to be more skeptical of the statement than one would if, say, a brilliant, credentialed, unbiased observer said the same thing? (Wow—I can’t think of a single one!) No. And this is why ad hominem attacks, especially coy, subtle, clever ad hominem attacks, work so well in politics.

This brings us to that vicious and unscrupulous ideologue, Howard Dean. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Train Wrecks, Government & Politics, History, Journalism & Media, Leadership, Science & Technology, U.S. Society

Instant Ethics Train Wreck: The Alabama Gay Marriage Stand-off

What does Dred Scott have to do with the Alabama gay marriage mess? Absolutely nothing.

What does Dred Scott have to do with the Alabama gay marriage mess? Absolutely nothing.

This summer, the Supreme Court will again take up the issue of the Constitutionality of state gay marriage bans, having left the question open (why, I don’t know) after striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Since that ruling, the states have been busy little bees, some passing laws banning same-sex marriage, some doing the opposite, then fighting out multiple appeals at various levels of the judicial system. Three things are certain: the cultural and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage looks unstoppable; all states need to agree on what a legal marriage is; and some faith-based same-sex marriage opponents will not give in until the last dog dies.

Beginning at the end of last week, a messy situation in Alabama involving all of these factors burst into a full-fledged ethics train wreck. The links in this post will let you immerse yourself in the mess if you choose: I’m going to try to be clear. Here is what has transpired so far:

1) A federal judge, District Court Judge Callie V. Granade,  struck down the state’s ban  on same-sex marriages in January and said that Alabama could start issuing licenses last week unless the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and stayed her order. A stay was immediately requested by the Alabama Attorney General, who properly defended the state’s law.

2.) The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to step in and stop her order from going into effect.

3) The U.S. Supreme Court also refused the stay request, allowing marriages to proceed in Alabama.

4) Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, reminded everyone that probate judges report to him, not the federal judge and not the Attorney General, and do not have to issue marriage licenses to gay couples until he tells them to. He told them not to.

5) Some Alabama probate judges followed Moore, and some went ahead and issued the licenses. Mass confusion reigned.

6) Meanwhile, the refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay pending its ruling on state same-sex marriage laws later this year was widely interpreted as tantamount to SCOTUS deciding the case before it was even argued.

7) Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissent from the  majority’s rejection of the stay (we don’t know what the vote break was), argued that “This acquiescence may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution of that question. This is not the proper way to discharge our . . . responsibilities.”

8) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, meanwhile, appeared to endorse gay marriage in an interview.

9) Attempting to break the impasse, U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade ordered Mobile County, Alabama to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, paving the way for resistant officials across the state to follow suit, in a decision stating that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage had been struck down and that ­Mobile County’s probate judge had to adhere to that decision.

10) Chief Justice Moore remains unmoved, but now most of the probate judges are following the federal order.

Got that?

Good, now you can explain it to me.

What a mess.

Here are the ethics verdicts on the participants so far: Continue reading

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Filed under Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Train Wrecks, Government & Politics, History, Incompetent Elected Officials, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, Religion and Philosophy, Rights, Romance and Relationships, U.S. Society