Category Archives: Literature

Lost Tuesday Ethics Scraps, 12/11/18: Statues, Tucker Carlson And “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Good whatever it is.

I guess I’m not as recovered as I thought: one high energy ethics presentation to a sluggish audience today and I was fried. This better not be encroaching old age, or I’ll be pissed.

1. Thank you for making the open forum this morning active: I wish you all had been in my audience today. I haven’t read any of it yet (I did finally get your excellent comment out of moderation, Michael R!); I’m trying to get my own posts up.

2. Stolen art ethics. No doubt: the looting of art from the Old World by American tycoons and museums is a long-time ethics scandal, and the international court battles settling the disputes will continue for a long, long time. The argument over a 2000-year-old bronze statue, known as “Victorious Youth between the Getty Villa and Italy, however, is not as clear as most. Italy’s highest court has ordered that the sculpture should be returned to Italy. Currently, it is on display at the villa on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which is part of the J. Paul Getty Museum. It was retrieved from Adriatic waters by Italian fishermen in 1964, and sold to successive collectors and dealers. After a decade-long legal battle, Italy’s Court of Cassation ruled  that the statue should be confiscated and brought back to Italy, rejecting the Getty’s appeal. Getty is not giving in.

The ethics as well as the law is murky. This is not a case like King Tut, where Indiana Jones-style archeologists and adventurers, just uncovered foreign cultural treasures and took them home. Before acquiring the prized artifact, the Getty undertook a comprehensive, five-year study of whether the statue could be purchased legally and in good faith. Their due diligence extensive analysis of international, Italian, American and California law and of Italian court decisions pertaining to the work.

In 1968, Italy’s Court of Cassation ruled that there was no evidence that the statue belonged to the Italian state; after all, it is Greek. Although the fishermen took the statue onto Italian soil, the court did not find that its brief presence in Italy transformed the sculpture into a component of Italian cultural heritage. Eventually the statue made its way to a German art dealer who put the statue up for sale. According to the Getty, in 1973, acting on a request from Italy, German police initiated an investigation into whether the German dealer had received stolen goods. The investigation was dropped for lack of evidence of wrongdoing. In 1977, the Getty purchased the bronze in Britain for almost $4 million from a gallery affiliated with the German dealer. The bronze has now been publicly exhibited, studied and cared for at the Getty for 40 years. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 12/4/18: The Red Sox Do The Right Thing, France Does The Wrong Thing, The News Media Does Their Usual Thing, And All Sorts Of Stuff In Between…

Good Morning!

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

1. The sad part is that this is newsworthy. The Boston Red Sox accepted their invitation to visit the White House and be honored for their World Series victory. In doing so, they buck the trend of the past couple years of championship teams “boycotting” what should be a unifying, purely ceremonial event of national pride (and fun, since that’s what sports are supposed to be about) in order to make some kind of incoherent statement of disapproval  regarding President Trump. Of course, this is all virtue-signalling, as if being expressly unpatriotic, disrespectful and divisive while insulting the President is a virtue. (Sportswriter love the boycotts.)

Boston manager Alex Cora is Puerto Rican, and had criticized the national response to the island’s hurricane emergency. Some thought that he would lead his team to snub the White House, but Cora is a smarter, wiser, stronger leader than that, as he showed all season long.

2. Great. France accepts government by mob rule. President Emmanuel Macron’s administration today suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months in response to weeks of  violent protests. The fuel taxes, which most heavily burden  French citizens least able to endure them, were expressly aimed at curbing climate change, though there isno evidence whatsoever that they would accomplish that. So it was a bad policy, but even bad policies should not be vetoed by mob rule. Macron’s capitulation to violent protests is cowardly—though so, so French—and undermines the rule of law, not just in France, but worldwide.

These are the times even the most hardened-Trump-hater should be grateful that the U.S. has a leader who cannot be extorted in this manner.

Should be, but, of course, won’t.

3. If they didn’t have double standards…well, you know the rest. Human rights groups say China has detained up to 2 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the country, to promote “ethnic unity” in the country’s far west. This week over 270 scholars from 26 countries released a statement drawing attention to “mass human rights abuses and deliberate attacks on indigenous cultures” taking place in China. “In the camps, these detainees, most of whom are Uighur, are subjected to deeply invasive forms of surveillance and psychological stress as they are forced to abandon their native language, religious beliefs and cultural practices,” the statement said.

Never mind. The news media is just thrilled that the President has called a temporary truce in the trade war with China, is meeting with its leader, and that the two countries may soon again be working together, creating jobs and wealth on both sides of the Pacific. Meanwhile, the same people cheering our efforts to accommodate China have pronounced the President a monster for not risking relations with the Saudi’s over the murder of a single journalist. Continue reading

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Ethics Alarms Sheepishly Presents Rationalization #69: John Lyly’s Rationalization, Or “All’s Fair In Love And War”

Why sheepish? Well, for an authority on rationalizations, it’s pretty embarrassing to have one of the most famous and oldest rationalizations of them all not appear until the 91st entry on a list being compiled for ten years.

Most people would guess that the old saying comes from Shakespeare. Nope: household name John Lyly, a poet, included the idea in his novel “Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit,” published in 1579, about ten years before the Bard wrote his first play. The novel recounts the romantic adventures of a wealthy and attractive young man, and includes the quote “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.”

As often happens, I stumbled on this prominent hole in the list while on another mission. A reader had questioned my criticism of George Bailey and his mother in the Ethics Alarms guide to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which they plot to snatch the lovely Mary (Donna Reed) away from George’s obnoxious  (“Hee haw!!”) old childhood friend and wheeler-dealer, Sam Wainwright. The reader’s argument was that Mary and Sam had made no commitment, and that she was obviously looking for a better match, so she was fair game for George. This sent me back to the movie, which I watched again last night. The key scene is this one: George is talking to his mother party for younger brother Harry and his new bride… Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/25/2018: Parlor Games! [UPDATED]

Good Morning!

I know that’s a photo from last night’s Red Sox World Series victory, but thinking about this catch by Andrew Benintendi it has certainly brightened MY morning…

(Psst! Joe, you idiot: George Wallace was crippled for life by an attempted assassination.) Said Joe Biden at a political rally two days ago, “This president is more like George Wallace than George Washington!” Long before Trump came along, Joe told African Americans that Mitt Romney would but them back in chains. I know it’s unfair to focus on Simple Joe (or Hillary, or Maxine, or Elizabeth, or Nancy, or Keith…) to characterize Democrats, but according to polls, this guy is currently the party front-runner for the Presidential nomination. [Pointer: Ann Althouse, who rejoined, “Because he doesn’t own slaves?”] Joe really is a boob, but he makes for good parlor games. My favorite comments in the Althouse thread…

“He’s more like George Washington…they both got elected president.”

“Trump is more like Elizabeth Warren because they’re both not Indians.”

“Because he doesn’t own slaves?” No, because he worries about black unemployment. Washington never worried about that.

“Because Wallace was a Democrat, like Trump was his whole life until 15 minutes before he ran for president?”

2. Fake News. New York Times headline:Pipe Bombs Sent to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and CNN Offices.”

How much more dishonest can a single headline be? There were no “pipe bombs,” but hoax bombs, and the hoax bomb sent to “CNN offices” was addressed to John Brennan. The headline deceitfully aims to suggest that the target was the news media.

3. I figured this out when I was 17 years old. A new book called The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, by Merve Emre, (Doubleday, 336 pages, $27.95) explains that the iconic personality test is junk science. I first took the test in high school, when my parents paid a psychologist to advise me where to apply to college. He complained that the battery of tests I took had contradictory results. Yes, that would be because it was so obvious how to manipulate them, and also how insulting they were, since any fool could see the little pigeon holes the tests were trying to stuff you into. Essentially, the test was designed to create bias on the part of employers. Writes Reason,

“This book is a useful study of how a dubious idea can gain traction if it arrives at the right time.”

There’s another parlor game: which dubious ideas are gaining traction now, supported by junk science, junk research, or false assumptions? Continue reading

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Comment Of The Day: “A Sudden Impulse Poll On Cultural Literacy”

To all of those waiting to have their Comments of the Day posted, all I can say is that I’m sorry, and that I’m having trouble getting my own posts up lately. The languishing COTDS will appear in unpredictable order, but they will appear.

Extradimensional Cephalopod had, as usual, fascinating observations to convey on the question of the importance of cultural literacy I raised based on a reference to “Alice in Wonderland.” I don’t agree with his position–some cultural scaffolding is permanent, and must be—but it’s well worth pondering.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “A Sudden Impulse Poll On Cultural Literacy.”

Incidentally, a majority of those answering the main poll recognized the quotes, which cheered and surprised me. As for the complaint that the second poll was limited to parents, that was the point. Do parents pass along cultural touch points like Lewis Carroll? Do the schools? That poll was for parents.

I’m eventually planning to write an article about this sort of thing. It’s essentially a concern that we’ll all end up like Ozymandias. (Cultural references can help compress concepts into easily transmissible packages, for better or worse, case in point.) For now, since I don’t have much time tonight, these somewhat disjointed thoughts will have to do.

Is the ultimate fate of all classics to become footnote? To a large extent, yes. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb would put it, fame is in Extremistan. For comparison, Mediocristan is the domain of physical properties, which often follow a normal distribution (e.g. most people are average height, and there are fewer and fewer people at heights that vary more and more in either direction from the average). Fame, however, doesn’t do that. Necessarily you have many people who are known by few and the people with the most fame are few in number.

My perspective on this issue is that everything in civilization is a scaffold. It exists to help us to get to the next place, hopefully a better one, and then it is taken down. This includes even memories, since memory is a resource that culture uses and we only have so much memory to go around, at least in our day-to-day lives. What we remember must have some functional benefit, even if that function is nostalgia. We can learn about the past, but only inasmuch as we enjoy it or as it helps us create the future. Its value is considerable, but can be concentrated more efficiently than having everyone know all the esoteric details of it at all times. Anything about the past that doesn’t help us or make us feel anything can be temporarily forgotten until such time as it becomes relevant again (hopefully before it’s too late for us to use that remembered knowledge). Continue reading

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A Sudden Impulse Poll On Cultural Literacy

I am increasingly depressed by the widespread cultural illiteracy of the public, and not just the younger generations. I do believe it is an ethics issue, because, as Prof Hersch wrote decades ago, a lack of historical and cultural perspective makes competent citizenship, critical thinking and effective participation in society difficult if not impossible. It is a life skill that we all are ethically obligated to acquire, and that society is obligated to help us acquire for its own health and survival.

In a comment today, slickwilly wrote,

You are both mad.

“Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

It suddenly occurred to me, with horror, that a majority of the public probably can’t identify the origin of those quotes. I wonder how many Ethics Alarms readers can. Here’s a couple of surveys/poll. No cheating, now. You’re on an ethics blog.

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 8/27/2018: Petards, Conflicts, And Bullshit Edition

Good Morning!

1. Oh no! Hoisted by my own petard! I’m pretty certain that Clinton fixer Lanny Davis has an unwaivable conflict of interest in his representation of Trump fixer Michael Cohen. The legal ethics establishment is soft-peddling the issue because most legal ethicists apparently hate President Trump more than they like ethical lawyering, but I’ve been wrestling over whether to file a disciplinary complaint. The problem is that any complaint that has even a tinge of political motivation won’t be touched by the Bar (if prior performance is any indicator), so a complaint by me would be the proverbial lonely tree falling in the forest. The remedy would be to issue a publicity release about the complaint, but I’ve criticized that tactic as unethical right here, on more than one occasion. Rats.

It might be just as well. After the mere hint that I was defending Donald Trump (I was not) on NPR appears to have gotten me blackballed there after many years as an ethics commentator, I probably should not criticize the lawyer for the most popular sleaze in D.C. these days.

2. Neil Simon Ethics. In an alternate universe, my still operating professional theater company, dedicated to keeping unfairly buried, forgotten or unfashionable American theater works of the past in front of audiences who deserve a chance to see them, is looking at a lot of Neil Simon productions. The works of the —by far—most successful writer of comedies in Broadway history are already sneered at as sexist and “outdated,” and I can vouch for the fact that all it takes is one militant female board member with a checkbook and a chip on her shoulder to kill a production. Remember S.N Behrman? Seen any Philip Barry plays lately? How about Kaufman and Hart? Simon just died, and he’s already heading to obscurity along with those guys, and most of their plays are still funny too.

3. Here’s another topic it’s dangerous to get intoFrom CBS:

A pregnant Washington state woman said she was fired via text message from a sub shop where worked, with a store manager telling her “it’s not a good time to have somebody who is leaving for maternity leave in several months anyway.” Kameisha Denton told CBS Seattle affiliate KIRO-TV that she had told the manager she was pregnant and due in December, asking for maternity leave.

Denton said she realized that she hadn’t been assigned shifts at Jersey Mike’s sub shop in Marysville, Washington, so she sent a text to her manager inquiring about the hours. The response she says she received was shocking.

When Denton asked for her “updated schedule” she received something a bit different. The store manager named only as “Marcos” in Denton’s phone responded, “I am sorry to inform you but it’s not going to work out with Jersey Mikes. It’s not a good time to have somebody who is leaving for maternity leave in several months anyways. You also failed to tell me this during your interview.”

Denton posted the exchange on Facebook in a post that had garnered over 1,000 shares in just two days.  

Denton told KIRO-TV,  “I was just like in shock, it took me a minute to face reality — I was like this is really happening.”

Continue reading

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