Ethics Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

I watched last year’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” twice, just to make sure it was the profound ethics movie I thought it was. It is. None of the reviews described it that way, of course. Here is the New York Times:

“The movie opens on low boil with Mildred behind the wheel of her station wagon near three derelict billboards…she uses the billboards to announce her crusade … a way to get things jumping (the investigators, the tale) and splash some foreboding on an outwardly pacific scene. Much of the story involves the ripples of outrage, confusion and buffoonery that the billboards inspire and that soon envelop almost everyone Mildred knows. Months after her daughter’s death, grief has walled her in; isolating and seemingly impenetrable, it is inscribed in the hardness of her gaze and in her grim new identity as a mother of a dead girl. The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in….”

None of which addresses what is remarkable about the film, which is that it shows what causes our ethics alarms not to ring—Frances McDormand as Mildred and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, a racist and vicious deputy, in particular demonstrate  what it is like to be driven by non-ethical considerations of the darkest and most passionate sort—and more important, what causes them to start ringing again. Most reviewers described this as a dark and depressing film. The ethics alarms are mostly off again as the film ends, and that is ominous, but its main ethics message is uplifting in many ways. “Three Billboards” teaches us that even broken, ignorant, alienated human beings have the capacity to access their innate instincts for compassion, justice, forgiveness, selflessness and kindness, and even when our ethical selves seem permanently overcome and decisively defeated, they can burst out again, in control, salvaging what’s best about the species.

There is a moment early in “Three Billboards” that signals that it is not only going to show us what monsters anger and grief can transform us into, but also that what George Washington’s list of 110 Rules called “that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” is remarkably resilient.  A sheriff—the ethics compass of the story, played by Woody Harrelson— visits Mildred after her billboard messages embarrass him and roil the town. She is hard and cold as marble as he tries to explain his failure to find her daughter’s rapist/killer, even after he reminds her that he is dying of cancer. Suddenly the sheriff has a violent  spasm: he coughs up blood on himself and Mildred. And we see her fury evaporate in an instant. The compassionate and caring mother she once was emerges, if only for a few moments. ( McDormand is such a superb actress that she pulls off the sudden transition convincingly and movingly: you believe it, though it is like watching Mr. Hyde turn into Dr. Jekyll in the snap of a finger.) Later, when again her fury has been aroused, we see the same woman firebomb the police station and watch implacably as her nemesis deputy burns. A warning: just because the ethics alarms can ring doesn’t mean they are working well enough.

Sam Rockwell’s character also reveals surprisingly that his ethics spark has not been entirely extinguished, again thanks to a catalyst supplied by the sheriff. This transformation caused considerable  criticism of the film among critics and artists in Hollywood, and some attribute the film’s failure to win the Best Picture Oscar to the fact that a racist is redeemed and revealed to have an ethical core. But except for the sociopaths and psychopaths among us, admittedly a disturbingly large group, we all have that ethical core. We have the ethics alarms too, ready to be re-activated, even if they aren’t in perfect working order. Yes, this is  even true of racists. So much of our current political discourse is driven by the false construct that a single belief or a single lapse of reason marks an individual as irredeemable. Its easier to marginalize and demonize them that way. But it isn’t true.

Indeed Ethics Alarms often declares certain conduct and words as signature significance, proving that an individual is unethical because such actions and thoughts are alien to ethical human beings. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” reminded me that people may be unethical–Mildred and Dixon, the deputy, could never be called ethical, for ethical people don’t set police stations on fire or throw young men out of second story windows, as Dixon does—but that even unethical individuals can find their ethics if you give them a chance.

And if they can find their ethics, so can all of us, and so can society. There is hope.

________________________

Addendum: I cannot leave “Three Billboards” without a salute to one of its most powerful scenes, when Mildred tells a priest why she doesn’t care what he has to say when he comes to her home to admonish her for the messages on the billboards:

Bingo.

As Close To An Ethics Hero As He’s Ever Likely To Get: Senator Ted Cruz

I never thought I would have occasion to place the term “Ethics Hero” anywhere near Ted Cruz’s name. Ted understands ethics (unlike Donald Trump), he just discards them at will, when an end he lusts for requires an unethical means. Last night, however, Cruz brushed up against ethics heroism. He took the podium at the Republican National Convention in prime time, and directed principled conservatives and Republicans not to vote for Donald Trump, though not in so many words. It took character, it took courage, and his message was the right one.

The Texas Senator and last Trump challenger standing congratulated Trump for winning the Republican nomination,  but never endorsed him. Then he closed by telling convention-goers and TV viewers to “vote your conscience” in November. The convention throng of Trump supporters erupted in jeers, as Cruz had to know they would, and Trump felt he had to appear on the floor to pull focus from his intransigent foe. Today on Fox News, the Fox Blondes and their harassers were slamming Cruz as a traitor and a fool.

Yeah, that was how the collaborators talked about De Gaulle in France during the occupation, too. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “The Pope’s Smoking Gun”

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican Ambassador, now residing under a bus...

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican Ambassador, now residing under a bus…

The blatant dishonesty of Pope Francis posing as an apolitical moral authority while engaging in outright political advocacy before the U.S. Congress, as he accepted accolades from manipulative partisans who have no interest in religion but who nonetheless were delighted to exploit his influence for their own purposes, was nauseating. Nearly as nauseating was the furious attempts by Catholics as well as these Pope fans-of-convenience to spin his comments and his conduct in support of Kim Davis, and by extension, her rejection of gay Americans and the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After several days of stonewalling, the Vatican decided on a strategy that should be familiar to anyone who follows U.S. politics: make a lesser official the scapegoat. The difference, of course, is that because this is the Pope, we are supposed to accept such standard duck-and-cover strategies as (heh) the gospel truth. I was preparing to write a post about the furious spinning going on to excuse the Pope’s inexcusable conduct when the Vatican spoke up, and Rich in Ct did an excellent job analyzing the ethics carnage.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, The Pope’s Smoking Gun. I’ll be back at the end: Continue reading

The Pope’s Smoking Gun

Papal MitreI have been touched by the passionate defenses of the Pope during his visit here, by sincere believers who desperately wanted not to see what was going on. If only Pope Francis respected his supporters enough to live up to the ideals they projected on him, which included insisting, against all evidence, that he was merely talking in broad, moral generalities to Congress rather than lobbying for progressive policies, like making illegal immigration legal.

He was, we were told, only showing us where “true North” was according to the Church. I guess he just forgot to bring up abortion, which the Church regards as murder (and Joe Biden too, when he’s not playing politics) as he was lecturing our legislators about “human rights.”

The second he returned home, the Pope threw gay couples under the Popemobile, stating that Kim Davis’s position as a government official refusing to obey the law was a “right.” Again, his defenders insisted that this was just an abstraction. Now we hear from Davis’s lawyers that she had a secret meeting with Pope Francis. Davis says that he hugged her, gave her a rosary, and told her to “stay strong.”

“That was a great encouragement. Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we’re doing, it kind of validates everything to have someone of that stature,” Davis said.

Naturally, those who can’t handle the truth will say she is lying. There is no evidence that Kim Davis is untruthful, and her lawyer would be facing discipline if they falsely reported what did not occur. This really happened. Continue reading

OK, Progressive Hypocrites: NOW Do You Agree That The Pope Is Meddling Where He Has No Business Meddling?

Pope Francis2

Pope Francis just threw the weight of the Vatican behind Kim Davis, Mike Huckabee, and other proponents of theocracy….which makes sense, I guess, since he leads one:

Reuters:

Pope Francis said on Monday government officials have a “human right” to refuse to discharge a duty, such as issuing marriage licenses to homosexuals, if they feel it violates their conscience...On the flight back to Rome, he was asked if he supported individuals, including government officials, who refuse to abide by some laws, such as issuing marriage licenses to gays.

“Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right,” Francis said.

UPDATE: The full quote:

“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection… but, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right…. Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right… Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’ It is a human right…It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right. It is a human right.”

That sly fox did phrase this ambiguously enough that he has plausible deniability: maybe he’s been coached by the Clintons. “Oh, no,” he can say, “I said ‘conscientious objection,’ as in civil disobedience. I didn’t say they had a right to defy the law and still keep their jobs!” Or maybe he was mistranslated, and really said, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

Let’s all give thank to the Pope for ensuring that more Constitutional dummies will insist that they can defy the laws and discriminate against gay citizens because the Bible tells them so and the Pope said they have a “right.”

Sorry Frankie, but you don’t know what the hell you are talking about, and you need to butt out of U.S. social and policy issues.

There is no human right to treat a human being differently from any other human being because of his or sexual orientation as a representative of the government, no right to defy the law without consequences, and no right for a government employee to refuse to do her job because she, like the Pope, in her infinite non-comprehension of the Constitution, doesn’t agree with the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, gratitude is due to the Popester* for proving my point about the absurdity of his amateur observations about law, government and policy being treated like divine revelations by the news media and Democrats trying to pick up some polling points on global warming.

Did you notice that he didn’t have the guts to talk to Congress about abortion. That would have upset his claque on the Democratic side. He also waited until he was safely  back home before lining up with the Kim Davis crowd.

Canny.

Cowardly.

*Disrespectful, you say? Absolutely. Guilty as charged! I don’t respect foreign despots who presume to interfere with my country’s politics, laws and culture. I resent them. Neither should any other American citizen. And John Boehner regarded allowing the head of his religion to lobby the Congress his greatest achievement!

 

Kim Davis Musings: When Employment Discrimination Is Responsible And Ethical—But Still Illegal

Kim Davis

It’s Kim Davis Day, when we will find out whether the recalcitrant clerk will step aside, allow her deputies to do her job, obey the judge, and not interfere with American couples who want to get married in Kentucky, or, as many expect, will again take her marching orders from God, defy the Supreme Court, start speaking in tongues, or find some other way to make a public nuisance of herself. The latter, we can only hope, will send her back to jail, and give Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and some other Republicans an opportunity to grandstand.

The issue this raises for me is: Why would any employer  hire someone who reveals themselves as a Davis-level religious zealot? Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Disqualified For High Office: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx)”

legs

(Some of the many legs Kim Davis and Ted Cruz don’t have to stand on…)

My posts are long enough, I think everyone will agree, and often a lot more than that. Believe it or not. I’m always debating whether to include more detailed and footnoted arguments that make the blog more like the New Yorker, and I usually opt for the shorter version. I am always grateful when an articulate commenter expands on the post expands, at any length, on what I present and adds some of the sources I have read and others, putting more flesh on the bones of my position.

johnburger2013 has done Ethics Alarms a service by doing this regarding my posts about recalcitrant Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, now known as Inmate 8522901, and hosanna to that. In particular, I am grateful for his Scalia reference. The Volokh Conspiracy is the best reference for issues like this, as Prof. Volokh and his cohorts lean libertarian but brook no nonsense. You know, like Ted Cruz’s rant. Thanks to jvb also for using that site deftly.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Disqualified For High Office: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx): Continue reading

Disqualified For High Office: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx)

See, Ted, it's crazy to keep criticizing Iran while suggesting that the US should be come LIKE Iran. Never mind. Just stay in the Senate, and you can say stupid things you don't believe with minimal harm.

See, Ted, it’s crazy to keep criticizing Iran while suggesting that the US should be come LIKE Iran. Oh, never mind. Just stay in the Senate, and you can say stupid things you don’t believe with minimal harm. Deal?

Eventually, I may have to post a full list of the current Presidential candidates who have definitively disqualified themselves, by evidence of character, integrity, honesty, temperament, trustworthiness, leadership ability  and core values (or, in the cases of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the absence of them), from the very office they seek. Frankly, I’m afraid that no one will be left.

Senator Ted Cruz’s recent statement about Kim Davis, the now correctly jailed Kentucky clerk who cites God’s authority to justify defying the law, is so irresponsible, dishonest and cynical that he has to be moved to the top of the list.

Here it is. My comments are in bold.

“Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America…

This is a lie, and a gross mischaracterization of the facts. Kim Davis can live and worship any way she chooses. She objects to same sex marriage, and she may refuse to associate with gay married couples, refuse to attend gay weddings, make whatever statements opposing gay marriage she chooses, picket gay weddings, lobby for a Constitutional amendment and more.

What she cannot do is refuse to perform the duties of her office, and withhold from citizens the government services they have a right to receive because of her religious beliefs. It is beyond legitimate question in law and ethics that she does not have the right to do this. She has been arrested for defying a court order and being in open contempt of legal judicial authority. This is not unprecedented, this is America, and must be America if democracy and rule of law is to function. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: Kim Davis

“I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our history is filled with accommodations for people’s religious freedom and conscience. I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned – that conscience and religious freedom would be protected. That is all I am asking. I never sought to be in this position, and I would much rather not have been placed in this position. I have received death threats from people who do not know me. I harbor nothing against them. I was elected by the people to serve as the County Clerk. I intend to continue to serve the people of Rowan County, but I cannot violate my conscience.”

—-Kim Davis, Rowan County Kentucky Clerk  and hero of the addled, who has been making an ass out of herself while inconveniencing and insulting citizens of the State of Kentucky who only wish to get a marriage license, as is their right, in an official statement today released by her lawyers.

Stop in the name of arrogance and ignorance!

Stop in the name of arrogance and ignorance!

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to extend a temporary stay of a federal court order directing Davis to stop grandstanding, do her job and issue marriage licenses to a same-sex couples. One of the couples that Davis sought to deny the equal protection of law sued her, hence the order.   Davis’s lawyers, who have been giving her lousy advice, appealed  that order to the Court of Appeals, which stayed the lower court order until August 31. Now the stay of the order is no longer in effect, she’s out of even semi-rational options, and the courts are out of patience.

Davis, expressing certainty regarding her gross misinterpretation of law, religion, the Bible, and what it means to have a job, embraces a version of the Rule of Law that would lead directly to a theocracy. She is doing more damage to Christianity by her high profile idiocy than any gay couple possibly could. Continue reading