Comment of the Day: “Comment of the Day: ‘The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies'”


Does the truth matter?

No, that wasn’t a typo: Karl Penny just achieved a first for Ethics Alarms, a Comment of the Day in response to a Comment of the Day.

The COD at issue was Gary’s assertion that he had no obligation to align his ethical preferences according to my analysis (or any other) of the “Ina Garten rejects Make A Wish” dispute, and that to him it was “just a story” that he could use or ignore according to what he chose to believe.

This inspired Karl’s excellent Comment of the Day, which also contains one passage that would justify another Ethics Alarms first, an Ethics Quote of the Week in a Comment of the Day on a Comment of the Day. I bolded it. Thanks, Karl:

“I was a participant in a discussion recently that came up during a faculty inservice session.  Someone proposed that, whenever someone (authors, historical figures, etc) came up in a course, and that person was/had been a gay or lesbian, that fact should be pointed out.  This would, they said, provide positive role models for students, reminding them that gays and lesbians could be great and contributing members of society.

“OK, but one of the historical figures mentioned as a lesbian was Eleanor Roosevelt.  Someone pointed out that that wouldn’t be accurate, the evidence for Eleanor Roosevelt having been a lesbian being dicey, at best.  It didn’t matter, said the person making the proposal.  Essentially, saying that someone famous was a gay or lesbian fit a narrative, or story (see where this is going?), and that fact was less important than any concerns of factual accuracy.  If Eleanor Roosevelt had not been, in truth, a lesbian, it didn’t matter because it was a story that served the purposes of a larger truth.  It was, in essence, truer than true.*

“But the person making that proposal is not alone out there, as Gary just proved.  This notion that objective reality must take a back seat to stories that support a somehow larger and, presumably, more virtuous truth…well, that’s a rallying cry for bigotry, if ever there was one.  Ethics aren’t just subjective values, things that were once arbitrarily decided upon as good, and accepted as such ever since.  They serve demonstrable, objective purposes.  They allow us to live peaceably and sleep soundly at night, knowing that the world won’t fall irreparably to pieces while we do so.  The Barefoot Contessa isn’t selling a story, she’s making choices, just as Enzo’s mom is making choices, and those choices can be either ethical or unethical.  That’s not a story, that’s a fact.”


* Note from Ethics Alarms: The starred concept, some may recall, was the theory that initially prompted Oprah Winfrey to support author James Frey when it was first discovered that his best-selling Oprah’s Book Club selection (“A Million Little Pieces”) was not a memoir, as it represented itself, but completely fabricated. Oprah’s reaction was that the truth didn’t matter, if his inspiring story helped readers deal with their own lives. After this endorsement of lying if it makes people feel good earned Oprah her worst media criticism to date ( and an Ethics Dunce from me), she had a change of heart.

12 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Comment of the Day: ‘The Barefoot Contessa and the Compassion Bullies'”

  1. Teachers would push uncorroborated “history” because the essence of it is a good lesson? What will they do next, cheat on standardized testing? Oh wait…

    • We would have to admit, wouldn’t we, that teachers have been pushing uncorroborated history on schoolchildren for as long as there have been schools. I was taught, for example, that Abe Lincoln “freed the slaves,” not that he freed the Confederate slaves, over whom he had no power, and left, for good political reasons, the Union-loyal slaveowners’ slaves alone. Or that the heroes of the Alamo were fighting for freedom, when they (some of them, at least) were also fighting for the freedom to hold slaves. The real story is too nuanced and complicated, so teachers teach the iconic versions—false, but good values and inspiring. Is that wrong?

      • So I grew up in Texas and attended grades pre-K to 5 here. It wasn’t until I moved to Alaska that I learned that it wasn’t normal to only teach the history of your state in school. And it wasn’t until I moved to England for high school that I had a history teacher who taught us what really went on during the Texas Revolution and the Civil War. Depressing, isn’t it.

        • Heh, I’m not quite sure about the rest of the USA, but my public high school did teach some of the ‘seedier’ aspects of American history, though the comments I got from classmates and professors at university do seem to suggest that public schools as a whole are becoming more willing to present a somewhat more complicated view of US history, though there’s still might be a disconnect between what one learns in primary vs secondary education.

        • Only if you believe implicitly in your British mentor… who likely also believed that “the wogs begin in Calais”. Did he also mention that it was an early alliance with Britain that helped insure the independence of the nascent Republic of Texas? Or that the small Texas Navy, borrowing heavily from the doctrines and traditions of its Royal predecessor, defeated the much larger Mexican Navy at Campeche Bay and kept Texas’ commerce (and freedom) alive? Or that, to this day, Texas maintains a semi-official “embassy” in London in remembrance of the days of the “Auld Alliance”? Texas history may have been depressing to him and you, but it played nearly as much a role in the shaping of American history as a small San Jacinto like battle in England (called Hastings) did for the story of Europe. And Texas’ best days may be yet ahead… as they are likely not for England. Tell “Mr. Chips” THAT.

  2. (warning: the following was written while tired and standing up.)

    Didn’t someone just start a campaign for Bert and Ernie to get gay-married? Despite that the people who make Sesame Street have said that Bert and Ernie are just friends, and furthermore, are puppets and therefore not sexual beings? And even then, it’s up to Bert and Ernie themselves if they want to be married and not some jagoff trying to make a statement?

    Is it just because they represent positive values that they want them on the “gay team,” despite the fact that they might not be gay? Does this work in reverse, like with Anne Heche? Can they take the gay library card away from Boy George for his minor criminal transgressions, or from Rosie O’Donnell for becoming totally unlikeable? “Sure, we’ll keep Alan Turing, but the heteros can keep Michael Jackson.”

    It’s the same thing I think when people claim Jesus was ‘black.’ This is silly since the races didn’t exist exactly as they did 2000 years ago. Second, Jesus was likely not any race (since he was God and all). But even if Jesus was African, what difference does that make? Does that raise your stature to know that someone unrelated to you was virtuous and shared the same skin tone? Are you so bereft of positive qualities about yourself that you have to assign something of yours to an important historical figure and say it’s significant?

    Why don’t we all just worry about what WE are, instead of what other people are?

  3. ‘The COD at issue was Gary’s assertion that he had no obligation to align his ethical preferences according to my analysis (or any other) of the “Ina Garten rejects Make A Wish” dispute, and that to him it was “just a story” that he could use or ignore according to what he chose to believe. ‘

    I saw that. I wrote and erased 3-4 different replies to him, and finally gave up. Really weird logic, that. I was at a loss as to what to say.

  4. I hope that I did not leave the impression that the proposal made in that faculty inservice meeting was greeted with general acclaim. It was not. One person made the proposal, and she was alone in promoting and defending it, so it is not school policy. Still, I was (am am) a little nonplussed at the notion, so I used it as an illustration.

      • True, that, Jack. There is a large revisionist contingent to be found in the halls of numerous universities, arguing that objective fact is trumped by subjective interpretation, so essentially saying that history isn’t about what happened, it’s about what historians say happened. And I’m the rightful heir to the throne of Norway. OK, I promise to calm down, and soon. Thanks for the compliment, BTW.

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