UNICEF and the Saint’s Excuse

Halloween’s editorial in the New York Times sings the praises of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, the initiative born in 1950 to help the  work of UNICEF by having children solicit donations in their All Hallow’s Eve’s journeys, instead of traditional candy. UNICEF, as the Times points out, does important things, and Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF raises millions of dollars annually for the organization’s agenda of saving  children overseas with medicine, food, clean water and vaccinations. Who can complain? Well, I can, and we all should. Good intentions and even good results do not justify coercion and abuse of power, and that is what Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF has always represented. Halloween is a tradition of childhood, and charity has nothing to do with it. It is about fun and fantasy, adventure and imagination. It is about conjuring a spooky atmosphere and dressing up in scary or whimsical costumes, ringing strange doorbells and miraculously receiving candy and sweets in return. Redeeming social value? Fond memories have social value. Community rituals and tradition have social value. Halloween is a good thing, for its own sake. According to the Times,  a minister named Clyde Allison and his wife, Mary Emma Allison, created Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF because they wanted to support the  United Nations charity in its efforts to combat child mortality. They also , the Editorial says approvingly, felt that “Halloween was a chance to inspire children to help other children, not just rake in candy.” Translation: they saw a clever way way to get children to work for their admittedly worthwhile adult objectives rather the children’s own trivial, childish ones. Halloween has as much to do with children helping children as Arbor Day does. But having small children, many of whom know nothing about UNICEF, become irresistible door-to-door solicitors for cash within a tradition where it is virtually impossible for the solicited to refuse to give..brilliant! Brilliant, but wrong. The children are shamed into forgoing candy—for their satisfaction—to acquire donations, for the plans and aspirations of adults. Instead of a night of innocent, liberating, childish fun, the children get the pleasure of becoming unpaid fundraisers for UNICEF. Instead of being part of the Halloween ritual, the homeowners find themselves pressured by pint-size shakedowns that are near resistance-proof. Has anyone, confronted with a goblin collecting for UNICEF, mustered the courage to say, “Sorry, I give out candy on Halloween.” Or, “I give to the charity of my choice, thank-you”?  I haven’t. Meanwhile, the adults perpetrating this bait-and switch use rationalizations to justify what is a really an exercise in arm-twisting. “The candy is bad for the kids,” they say. “The kids get more satisfaction from this.” Most of all, they say, “It’s for a good cause”—the classic rationalization known as “The Saint’s Excuse.” It is the self-serving philosophy that principles of ethics can be broken as long as the goal is lofty enough. As examples of  the Saint’s Excuse, the UNICEF caper is pretty mild; after all, it was also the rationalization for the Spanish Inquisition.  Still, children are being coerced to do the job of adults. Their fun is being altered to meet the charitable goals of someone else. And the rules are being changed on the people answering the door, so they virtually have to give. It doesn’t matter if it’s only spare change. It is coercive, unfair and deceptive. Some communities have Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF in addition to Halloween, on the day before or after. I’m still not fond of making kids ring doorbells for charities; I would suggest that the adults go door to door on UNICEF nights, if they are concerned about poor children overseas. Still, at least the two-night formula lets kids enjoy Halloween without being saturated with guilt. They’ll have plenty of time for that. The fact that adults like the saintly Allisons and the editors of the Grey Lady don’t care very much about the values of childhood, which include fantasy and pointless fun, doesn’t make it right. Let adults do their own work, which includes raising money for poor and endangered children. They should let children, in turn, do the job they need to do. Be kids.

Forgetting What We Know

Ethics evolves. It isn’t that what is right and wrong actually changes, but that human beings gradually learn, sometimes so slowly it can hardly be detected. For example, slavery was always wrong, but for centuries very few people who weren’t slaves understood that fact. There was never anything immoral about being born gay and living accordingly, but it has taken all of the collected experience of civilization to make this dawn on most of society. While we are learning, and even after we have learned, there are always those who not only lag behind but who work actively to undo the ethical progress we have made. We assume these individuals will come from the ranks of ideological conservatives, misapplying valid concepts like respect for tradition, suspicion of change for change’s sake, and a reliance on consistent standards, making them slow to accept new wisdom . Sometimes, however, the people who try to make us forget what we know come from the left side of the political spectrum, misusing values such as tolerance, freedom, empathy and fairness in the process. This is especially true when it comes to the topic of sex. Liberals fought so long and well to break down the long-established taboos about sex that many of them lost the ability to comprehend that unethical conduct can  involve sex in any way.

The most striking recent example is the bizarre defense of Roman Polanski, best known as the director of the horror classic, “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Polanski has been a fugitive from American justice since 1978. In 1977,  he was charged with raping a 13-year old girl, who told a grand jury that the director had plied her with champagne and drugs, taken nude pictures of her in a hot tub, and then had sexual intercourse with her despite her pleas to be taken home. His lawyers negotiated a plea agreement that dropped the rape charge in exchange for Polanski pleading guilty to the lesser charge of “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.” ( Polanski was 44 when he had sex with the young teen.) When it appeared that the judge in the case might not accept the plea deal and force him to face the rape charge, Polanski fled the U.S. Since that time, he has directed in Europe, staying out of countries that could extradite him, and traveling primarily between France, where he was protected by that nation’s limited extradition practice, and Poland. He got careless this year, and on September 26, 2009, was arrested at the Zurich airport when he arrived to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Zurich Film Festival. Swiss authorities are preparing to send him back to the U.S.

This is not a complicated situation. Statutory rape. A rape under circumstances—drugging—that would be rape with an adult victim, with the drugs rendering consent meaningless. Fleeing from justice. By what logic could someone argue that Polanski is a victim, and that law enforcement officials are the wrongdoers? There is none. Logic will never lead us to such a conclusion. Despite this undeniable fact, many individuals with respect and following in the entertainment industry as well as some journalists, argued that Polanski was being mistreated.

Some arguments were offensive: on “The View,” Whoopie Goldberg argued that drugging and having sex with a 13-tear-old wasn’t “rape-rape,”  implying that statutory rape is an archaic crime rooted in outdated concepts of sex, rather than the real crime of forcing a woman to have sex in an alley at the point of a knife. Some were ignorant: the eminent legal scholar Debra Winger pronounced Polanski the victim of “technicalities,” and suggested that the case should be “dead” because it was three decades old. Winger is apparently unaware that major crimes like rape are not subject to any statute of limitations, and that’s no technicality. She and others also claimed that Polanski had a right to flee because the judge  “reneged” on the absurdly lenient plea deal agreed to by the prosecutor at the time. Wrong: judges are not bound by plea agreements that they feel are inappropriate; watching any TV lawyer show would teach them that. Some of the arguments for Polanski were just jaw-droppingly stupid, such as the claim by some of his fellow directors that international film festivals should be respected as sanctuaries from arrest, like a church.

Even more legitimate commentators lost their bearings. In a stunning Op-ed called “The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski,” Washington Post columnist Ann Applebaum argued that it was wrong to arrest Polanski because:

  • Polanski’s mother died in Auschwitz and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was butchered by the Manson clan. This is a non-sequitur. Personal tragedies and hardship never can justify or mitigate harm done to another.
  • Polanski has suffered for his crime “in notoriety, in lawyers’ fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film.” An astounding statement. He has lived well in Europe and continued to work as a film director. The justice system does not acknowledge lawyer fees as punishment, and rightly so. If fees, notoriety, and professional stigma are sufficient punishment for child-rape, surely Bernie Madoff, currently in prison for the remainder of his life, should go free for the lesser crime of defrauding investors out of billions of dollars.
  • His victim, now in her forties, says she forgives him. Victims do not, should not and can not waive the criminal laws. Forgiveness is an excellent ethical value, but there is understandable self-interest in Polanski’s victim’s attitude: she has moved on in her life and has no desire to revisit this traumatic experience. She is not the only stake-holder here, however. Society has a legitimate interest in prohibiting rape and sexual violence against children, and that means that rapists must not evade punishment, no matter what the preference of their victims may be.
  • Polanski is 75. The fact that Polanski is facing his just punishment for a crime he committed now, in his Golden Years, rather than when he younger is 100% his own fault. Applebaum made the equivalent of the apocryphal plea by the defendant who murdered his parents that he deserved leniency because he was an orphan.
  • If Polanski wasn’t famous, “no one would bother with him.” I think she’s wrong about this, but even assuming she is correct, famous fugitive rapists advertise to the world that if you are rich and powerful, you can get away with rape. There are excellent, practical, societally valuable reasons to take special care that famous criminals are brought to justice.

The real, and true conclusion, is that if Polanski’s crime didn’t involve sex, neither Applebaum nor his other defenders would lift a finger to support him. It took liberals and women’s rights advocates decades and decades to get across the concept that rape, sexual domination, sexual discrimination and harassment were not about sex, but about misuse of power, abuse of trust, and the disrespect and unfair treatment of women. Yet all it takes is a popular and artistically respected director to make some forget that lesson.

Or a popular TV talk show host. David Letterman, forced by an extortion scheme to admit on the air to a series of sexual affairs with staffers, was able to cast himself as the victim and avoid professional consequences. Yet he was essentially no different from the infamous male corporate executives of the pre-sexual harassment era, using their female subordinates as company-paid harems. Gloria Steinem and other feminists fought to hammer into American culture the concept that when an individual has power over one’s livelihood, there can be no true “consent” to sexual relationships initiated by the boss. I would have written “successfully hammered,”  but the lesson vanished when the boss was funny old Dave.

Talk show host (and Letterman employee) Craig Ferguson tut-tutted against “holding late-night talk-show hosts to the same moral accountability as we hold politicians or clergymen.” The code word here is “moral”: Ferguson and others were suggesting that objections to Letterman’s conduct were rooted in moral rectitude, the idea that sex—recreational sex, older man/younger woman sex, adulterous sex— was wrong. But Letterman is accountable, exactly as any supervisor (including a politician or clergyman) is accountable when he abuses his position and influence to turn the workplace into a personal sexual hunting ground. His escapades weren’t “personal conduct”—another of the bogus defenses raised on Letterman’s behalf—because they occurred in and affected the workplace. Letterman’s predatory sex was thus workplace conduct, and legally prohibited conduct at that. This was classic third-party sexual harassment under Title IX, a “hostile work environment” created when other female employees receive the message that they are required to be sexually accessible in order to succeed. Letterman’s conquests’ “consent,” invalid anyway because of his position, couldn’t mitigate the toxic and inherently unfair culture the illicit relationships created.

It should have been no surprise when former Letterman writer Nell Scovell, writing on Vanity Fair’s website, recently revealed that the sexually-charged atmosphere on Letterman’s show caused her to feel demeaned as a woman and led to her resignation. All those “consenting personal relationships,” in other words, caused her professional hardship. Yet even Scovell, good industry liberal that she is, has forgotten the lesson. “I don’t want compensation. I don’t want revenge. I don’t want Dave to go down (oh, grow up, people). I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect,” she wrote.
“Oh, grow up people.” Grow up: don’t require accountability or consequences when unethical, harmful workplace conduct involves sex…because sex is good, remember?  Remember the pill, abortion rights, Woodstock? Except that sex, like many good things, can be involved in very unethical, harmful conduct. Until individuals like David Letterman and Roman Polanski “go down” for such conduct, it will continue, and innocent people will continue to be hurt.
We should have learned that by now.

President Obama and the Peace Prize

There are several ethical issues raised by the stunning announcement that President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. More, perhaps, were raised by the reactions to it.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a cast member in a Hollywood movie of dubious quality. Personally, you think the director is in over his head and that the movie is an empty, pompous failure. To your amazement, however, critics like the film. It is a surprise winner at an international film festival, and the director wins the “Master Film-maker” prize. Are you outraged, or pleasantly surprised? Do you congratulate the director for the honor, or do you tell him he is an undeserving fraud? Do you feel pride for your own connection to the award—you were in the cast, after all—or do you feel resentment? I would think the answers to all these questions are obvious. The civil, fair, respectful and kind response, the Golden Rule response, is to feel pride because your leader and colleague has been recognized for an enterprise in which you played a role. You should offer congratulations, and mean it. Whatever doubts you may harbor about the judgment of the award-giving panel should remain unexplored and unexpressed until another day.

This is exactly the situation that Americans faced with Obama’s honor. He’s our president and leader, and the award honors us by honoring him. Regardless of our current feelings about his health care reform plans, war policies or choice of family dog, there is no reason not to applaud and feel good about his good fortune. Adversaries like GOP Chairman Michael Steele, who used the award to ridicule the gap between Obama’s aspirations and his accomplishments, show that they do not comprehend, or possess, the ethical values of civility, courtesy, decency, self-restraint, prudence, graciousness, empathy, and, yes, citizenship. We should be glad for anyone’s good fortune, even a stranger. This man is the elected leader of our nation, and to treat him worse than a stranger is indefensible.

Steele and the others who immediately protested Obama’s honor are little better than Kanye West, leaping on stage uninvited to scream to the audience that Taylor Swift, supposedly a professional colleague, didn’t deserve her MTV VMI award, as poor Swift stood ready to make her acceptance speech. West’s disgraceful conduct wouldn’t have been any more palatable or ethical if he were clearly correct. It was a miserable, unfair and disrespectful act toward a singer who had nothing to do with determining her honor, deserved or not.

All right: what about the Nobel committee? It may well have been wrong, as in mistaken. I do not believe its action was wrongful. Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s favorite speech-writer-turned columnist, called their honor “ a wicked award,” designed to manipulate U.S. foreign policy. I don’t think it is correct to call a sincere attempt to influence a nation’s foreign policy toward what a group believes will advance world peace “wicked.” Naïve, perhaps; misguided, maybe foolish. Even bizarre: why is Obama’s call for nuclear disarmament more praiseworthy than the similar calls by so many U.S. Presidents before him? Arguably, his is the least realistic and justified, for we are entering a time when rogue states and terrorist groups will have access to nuclear arms, hardly the wisest or safest time for us to give up our own.

As for the committee’s justification that President Obama has given the world hope for peace, this demonstrates a stubborn refusal by the Norwegians to learn from the past. President Woodrow Wilson was given a Nobel Peace Prize too, for the hope he created with his aspirations for a World War I peace treaty, and his bungled idealism greased the world’s slide into World War II. Faith healers create hope; con men create hope; liars and fools can create hope. Hope can blind people to reality, or lead them to dangerous complacency. I think the Nobel committee places far too much value on hope.

The real ethical dilemma posed by the award faces President Obama, if he is even slightly tempted to let the ideological message of the award interfere with his independent judgment as he makes decisions that must be in the best interests of the United States of America. The award is irrelevant, or should be, like every award. It is, like every award, arbitrary, biased, simplistic, and nice to have on one’s resume. Obama has nothing to “live up to” or justify; he doesn’t report to Norwegians. It should not make him feel inadequate or undeserving, nor should it make him feel anointed or validated. He ought to accept the prize, say thank-you, and forget it, just as all Americans should say, “Congratulations!” and leave it at that.

Then, with the encouragement, trust and respect of the American public, President Obama should do his job, the best he can, for as long as he is the president.

Ethics Dunce: Tony Kornheiser

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” is a talented professional football player whose specialty is self-promotion and media buzz. (His silly name change to reflect his uniform number is an example: his real name is the unspectacular “Chad Johnson.”) Several of his stunts have gotten him fined by the NFL, but he has received generally good reviews for his latest: a “Lambeau Leap” into the hometown Green Bay Packers crowd following a touchdown.

Ochocinco vowed to score a TD and then make a “Lambeau Leap” into the Green Bay crowd when the Bengals played the Packers. (The “Lambeau Leap” is a traditional celebratory maneuver reserved to Packer players, as Green Bay fans are not inclined to be hospitable to opposing team players invading their domain.) Johnson did make a touchdown, and did leap into the arms of fans in the end zone, some of whom appeared to be Bengal fans. It was an immediate sports show highlight. A few days later, the truth came out: Ochocinco had planted four fans for the purpose, buying them tickets and having them ready to catch him. The whole thing was a set up.

But Tony Kornheiser, the former Washington Post humor writer turned cuddly sports commentator on ESPN’s breezy show,“Pardon the Interruption,” pronounced the stunt “cool.”

No, it’s not cool. Athletes staging “moments” in games using paid confederates undermine the integrity of sports. There are people—my own father is one of them—who have reached the point of cynicism where he believes most, and maybe all, sports are like professional wrestling, staged for television and gullible fans. The fake “Lambeau Leap” reinforces his conviction, and makes even more trusting fans wonder, “What else is staged?” For his own publicity and fame (and the resulting increase in his value for endorsements), Chad Ochocinco took all of professional sports a little further down the road away from athletic integrity toward ersatz drama. And the reaction of Tony Kornheiser (not just Tony, to be fair; call this “selective ethics prosecution”) was that it was “cool.”

Fake masquerading as genuine and spontaneous is never “cool.” It is always unethical. In sports, fake threatens to permanently reduce the thrill and enjoyment of sports for everybody, by making fans wonder whether the amazing moment they saw was real.

People like Tony Kornheiser, who are paid to help us enjoy sports, should at least understand that.

The Bank of America Teller and the Thumbless Customer

You may have heard the story: a branch of the Bank of America in Tampa refused to cash a check for Hillsborough County public works employee Steve Valdez, because the bank required a thumbprint from non-account holders, and Valdez has no arms. No arms, no hands; no hands, no thumbs; no thumbs, no prints; no prints, no cash.

“Sorry sir; it’s bank policy!”

The various news accounts of this classic tale of bureaucratic idiocy concentrated on the fact that the bank was violating the American with Disabilities Act. Voila! This is how law obscures ethics. Would the bank’s actions have been any more reasonable, fair, caring, kind and responsible if there was no law? Why should anyone with a brain, a heart and a sense of humanity require a law to look at a man with no arms and decide, “Gee, I guess the thumbprint requirement doesn’t apply in this case.”  This isn’t a legal matter. It’s an ethics question, and a really easy one, because the Golden Rule was invented for situations like this. If you were in the place of the thumbless man, Mr. Teller, what would you want someone in your position to do?This isn’t a legal matter. It’s an ethics question, and a really easy one, because the Golden Rule was invented for situations like this. If you were in the place of the thumbless man, Mr. Teller, what would you want someone in your position to do?

Nobody’s suggesting that the Bank of America should have suspended its policy out of pity or sympathy. This isn’t a bleeding heart argument: “Oh, the poor guy: he can’t hitch-hike or signal to a gladiator that he wants him to kill his opponent. I’ll cash his check to be a nice guy.” It has nothing to do with being nice. It has to do with recognizing when a policy is absurd in application, unjustly causing inconvenience and humiliation to another human being. Consider these dilemmas:

  • An attendant at a movie theater allows a patron to leave briefly to deal with an emergency. He returns to get back into the movie theater and join his family, but has somehow misplaced his ticket.  Should the attendant, who recognizes him, refuse to let him enter?
  • A driver enters a parking garage, then has to leave a few seconds later because of a medical problem. Should the parking attendant insist that he still pay the full-day minimum fee? (This one got an attendant shot by Steve Buscemi in “Fargo,” you’ll recall.)
  • A woman, obviously ill, staggers into a restaurant and begs to use the rest room. The establishment has a “patrons only” policy for its use. Should it refuse her?A student finds a knife in the hallway of a school, and immediately hands it over to the teacher. The school has a strict “no tolerance” policy on weapons, and the student is technically in possession of the knife: policy dictated that he not touch it, but alert an administrator. The teacher is certain that the student did not own the knife. Should the student be punished?
  • An adult dwarf on the Olympic riding team wants to buy a ticket on the carnival horse back ride to be with his child, but he doesn’t come up to the height mark on the sign designed to screen out young children. Should the operator tell him he can’t ride?

Answers to the above: “No way,” “Certainly not,” “Never”, “No,” and “Don’t be silly!”

Policies can’t be perfect. Human beings have an ethical obligation not to stick to them when they result in outrageous consequences to others, and there is no counterbalancing benefit to be gained by doing so, other than not varying from the policy.The teller should have asked for sufficient identification to satisfy himself that Valdez has a valid check. Valdez had it: he had his driver’s license with an address matching his wife’s on the check. That’s what the would have wanted, reasonably, if he was the one with no arms. And there was absolutely no reason not to bend the rules. The ADA wasn’t necessary to solve this. People need to know when to consider the impact of their conduct on others when there are no laws involved.

Any individual, and any bank, that needs a law to remind them not to insist on a thumbprint from a man with no thumbs is ethically impaired, and has no common sense. And having no common sense is a much greater handicap than having no thumbs.