Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 5/1/2019: May Day! May Day!

Good morning to you,

me, not so much…

I’m ticked off at myself this morning for being cripplingly anxious. I have a looming appointment with a specialist later today regarding a medical issue that could be minor or, in a worst case scenario, could be “curtains.” My father taught me better than this: my anxiety is completely irrational. If I dropped dead tomorrow, I would have no basis for complaints; as Clarence tells George Bailey, I’ve had a wonderful life. Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention….

1. About the cultural literacy test...To be fair, I’m going to put up a second test that requires recognizing the name and significance of various figures rather than identifying photographs. They are indeed two different kinds of knowledge, although some of those in the current test are also iconic images. I tried to include some visual clues when I could: the guy with the cigar was famous for his cigar, and that basketball player is an iconic basketball player. The complaints about the figure holding the gun are fair, but literally every other photo I could find of him gave his identity away. Commenter Zoltar’s scoring method of taking half the points when he knew why the person was famous or important but couldn’t fetch the name was justified.

I checked the score of the photos I felt culturally literate Americans ought to be able to identify, and the total was 40. Let’s check the most recent poll…ah! 21 of the 46 results so far met that benchmark. And someone score a perfect 125! My score was only 118…

I felt a little guilty about including the old movie star, but she was the inspiration for the test. Her Academy Award-winning turn was on TV, and she has always been a favorite of mine, as well as legendary with film buffs for her comic technique. I wondered how many Americans recognize her today, for once she had one of the best known faces in the nation. And what a face it was! Continue reading

From The “When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring” Files, Cultural Illiteracy Section: Nike’s Gaffe

Pop quiz,  Ethics Alarmers: if you worked for Nike, and learned that it was about to launch a new campaign promoting the brand’s  Trail Running collection with this—“The Lost Cause…Because the lost cause will always be a cause worth supporting”—what would you do?  I assume that most of you would immediately recognize that the Lost Cause, in American historical context,  refers to the sentimental, romantic and  troubling interpretation of the Confederacy’s defeat, in which slavery is recalled as a benevolent institution and the Civil War as a noble effort by the South to protect a civilization now “gone with the wind”—the title of the film which, coincidentally, I am watching as I type this.

But as The Washington Post reported, it took historians blowing whistles at Nike to alert the company that the campaign was an epic gaffe, causing Nike to pull it within hours. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 12/21/2018: Getting The Tree Lights On In One Day Victory Lap Edition, Featuring Sports, Movies, Jerks And “Bambi”

Happy Holidays!

Seven hours, one serious needle wound, and 1300 lights later, victory! I’ll finish the decorations when I get back home, IF I get back home…

1. Itinerary…I’m heading to New Jersey via train to hook up with the brilliant Mike Messer, what we call “the talent,” in an encore rendition of the musical legal ethics seminar, “Ethics Rock Extreme,” lyrics by yours truly, musical stylings by Mike, on the guitar. Then it’s back to D.C. by air on Saturday, if I’m lucky. If I’m not lucky, I’ll be taking the New Jersey bar exam in the Spring…

I have no idea how or whether I’ll be able to keep Ethics Alarms on track once I board the train this afternoon. I’m not going to launch a second Open Forum in leas than a week, so please keep working on the current one here, now at 130 entries and counting. I will be reviewing those on the road, and I’m sure there will be some Comments of the Day to post, eventually.

2. In case I am trapped in New Jersey…Let me alert everyone that Peter Jackson’s apparently terrific (based on the reviews) WWI documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will be playing in theaters on December 27, and after that, who knows? The American public’s ignorance about that war, perhaps the greatest human catastrophe in modern history, is a failure of education, perspective and culture. If you have kids, take them. Here is the trailer:

3. Speaking of cultural literacy and movies, TCM is offering a limited engagement in theaters for “The Wizard of Oz,” on January 27, 29, and 30.

Is there another film that so many people purport to know and love so well without actually having seen it as it was intended to be seen? When I finally saw the movie in a theater—no breaks or commercials, big screen—I was shocked at how different and, obviously, better, the experience was. It’s an artistic masterpiece and sui generis: we will never see its like again, nor talents like Judy, Ray and Burt, among others. Continue reading

Ethics Addendum: Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface,” The John Bubbles Connection

The post about Fred Astaire’s dark-make-up-assisted homage to tap-dancing legend Bill Robinson in “Swing Time” was incomplete, both historically and ethically. This post should remedy that.

The dance number in question, “Bojangles of Harlem,” was, as I wrote in the introduction, Fred’s homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles.  The post explained why the salute to Robinson was important, but did not elaborate more on Bubbles. He was not as big a star as Robinson nor as well known, either at the time of the film or ever, and is less remembered today. Nevertheless he was an important cultural figure, and it can be argued that Astaire’s number was really more of a tribute to Bubbles than Robinson, not that many noticed.

First, you need to know about Bubbles. Born John Sublett (1902-1986), he teamed at the age of ten  with the six-year-old Ford Lee “Buck” Washington in a decades-lasting act, “Buck and Bubbles.” in which Buck stood and played piano and Bubbles sang and danced.  As adults, “Buck and Bubbles” ultimately  played at New York’s Palace Theatre, the London Palladium, the Ziegfeld Follies, the Cotton Club, the Apollo, and became the first blacks to perform at Radio City Music Hall. Their popularity allowed them to break the color barriers in theaters across the country. Continue reading

Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface”

We recently came through the usual Halloween bag of “blackface” controversies, and Ethics Alarms, as it has before, tried to guide the discussion to the material distinctions that social justice warriors, who strategically deal in absolutes when seeking power through real and contrived offense, refuse to acknowledge or are intellectually incapable of doing so. The short version of the Ethics Alarms message: make-up for legitimate theatrical purposes isn’t “blackface,” isn’t “racist,” and shouldn’t be object of knee jerk condemnation based on emotion or ignorance.

Today Turner Movie Classics showed “Swing Time,” the 1936 musical that is probably the high water mark in the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire canon. It has the best song (“The Way You Look Tonight”), the best novelty scene (Astaire pretending to be a klutz in a dance lesson with Ginger, then shocking her and her boss—and saving her job— by showing “what a great teacher she is” by dancing, well, like Fred Astaire) and arguably two of the best dances by the two, “Never Gonna Dance” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” The film also contains a controversial “blackface” number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” in which Fred pays homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. Local TV stations have long been reluctant to show “Swingtime” because of guaranteed complaints that the number is racist, or, if they cut the number (which is unconscionable), complaints pour in from film and Astaire fans that they have defaced a classic out of misplaced political correctness.

If one argues that the number is “racist” because of Fred’s make-up, then one is necessarily arguing that no white performer can ever offer an admiring  salute to an African-American great by emulating him. Astaire’s choreography (by Hermes Pan) contained specific references to trademark steps and gestures by both Bubbles and Robinson, though more of the former than the latter. (Some would say, maybe even Fred, that this was because he didn’t dare set himself up to be compared to Robinson, whom many regard as the greatest tap-dancer of them all.) Blackface, as typified by minstrel shows, was a burlesque of negative black stereotypes. There isn’t a hint of this in Astaire’s number: he wears dark make-up because he is honoring two contemporary black dance stars who he knew, learned from, and respected. The make-up is the epitome of a legitimate theatrical device, and racially demeaning neither in intent nor effect. Those who see it as such are either deliberately misconstruing the number, or don’t know what they are talking about. (There is an unfortunate racially demeaning set piece that appears for a couple of seconds at the start, a large caricature of exaggerated black features. You can take the film out of 1936, but you can’t take 1936 out of the film.)

The ironic part of the effort to quarantine “Bojangles of Harlem” is that the number is one of the few reminders in our culture of who Bill Robinson was, and—here’s Jack on his “duty to remember” and cultural literacy soapbox again–he was an important figure in American theatrical, cultural and civil rights history that should be remembered.  Instead, Robinson is almost completely forgotten: I bet most of the NAACP members who get up in arms when TMC shows “Swing Time” have no idea how significant Robinson was, and the contributions he made to art and society. Continue reading

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

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.