The Academy’s “In Memoriam” Snubs: Much Better This Year—Thanks, Oscar

The great Jonathan Winters in the not-so-great "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"

The great Jonathan Winters in the not-so-great “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”

In past years I have taken the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to task for the ethical breach of ingratitude and disrespect, as the honor roll of the year’s deceased film notables have omitted important figures who deserved their final bows. Omissions are inevitable, I suppose, but some of the past examples were unforgivable—last year alone, for example, the Academy snubbed Ann Rutherford, Andy Griffith, R.G. Armstrong, Russell Means, Harry Carey, Jr., and Susan Tyrell. 2012 was worse.

2013, however, shows that the Academy is being more careful, and Oscar deserves credit for cleaning up its act. I have ethical and historical objections to bestowing the prestigious final slot on actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, dead prematurely of self-inflicted drug abuse, when a genuine, bona fide Hollywood legend, Shirley Temple, was on the list. I understand the thinking: Hoffman had friends and colleagues in the room, and Temple is of another generation; his premature death was a tragedy, and she lived a long and productive life. Still, the priorities and relative values such a choice exemplifies is disturbing. Great actor that he was, Hoffman was a criminal, an addict, and left his children fatherless. Shirley was the greatest child star who ever will be, a ray of sunshine in the dark days of the Depression, a one-of-a kind talent and icon, and later a lifetime public servant who raised a family. She represented the best of Hollywood and the profession; Hoffman represents its dark side. Naturally, he’s the one who received the greatest recognition. I will suppress my dark suspicions that Shirley was docked because she was a Republican. A  Facebook friend actually wrote that Shirley deserved to be penalized because some of her movies were racist. My response to this slur was not friendly. Continue reading

What Do You Do With The Drunken Judge? Media Distortion And Judge Gisele Pollack

Broward County (Florida) Judge Gisele Pollack, a recovering alcoholic, showed all the signs of suffering a relapse during her session on the bench two weeks ago, when she abruptly ended the day’s proceedings after an hour and a half that featured the judge slurring her words and acting erratically. She presides over misdemeanor drug court, a program she established shortly after being elected as a county judge.  Her program offenders to have their charges dismissed and their drug records erased after six months of treatment.

After staying away from work for a day, Judge Pollack returned to the bench in the late afternoon, and presided over a courtroom packed with about a hundred drug offenders, along with  their friends and their families. The event marked the completion of rehab for dozens of offenders and the dismissal of their misdemeanor marijuana charges.“You’ve got to remain vigilant,” she told the graduates, emphasizing that they had to work hard to avoid relapses that would  place them back in front of her, and perhaps in jail.

After court, she acknowledged her own health crisis and announced that she was going into an outpatient rehab program. An attorney retained by the judge in the wake of her conduct attributed her relapse to personal issues, telling reporters that she has  “had some severe personal tragedy in her life. Her mother recently passed away, and they were very close. It’s been really devastating for her.” Apparently her son is also suffering from a serious illness. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, a longtime friend, told reporters, 

“If this causes the people to not have faith and not have trust in what goes on in that drug courtroom, then she will have to step aside,’ he said. ‘My hope is is people will wrap their ever-loving arms around Judge Pollack just as she has wrapped her arms around thousands of people.”

What’s going on here? I think it’s pretty obvious: a recovering alcoholic in a critical position of public trust suffered a relapse, as alcoholics are wont to do. If one is an alcoholic, this is a symptom of a very persistent, pernicious and incurable disease that kills many Americans every year, does horrific damage to families, businesses, governments and the economy, and that is incurable. Being an alcoholic is not an ethical violation for a judge or a lawyer, nor is having a relapse. Allowing that relapse to affect the competent performance of one’s duties, however, is an ethical violation that calls into question a legal professional’s ability to do her job. It could trigger professional sanctions; it certainly should trigger an official inquiry. A Florida judge appearing drunk on the bench, just once, is still a massive ethical breach. It arguably violates the first five Canons of Judicial Ethics a Florida judge is bound to follow… Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The Deadly Rock Festival

Looks like fun! Little do these unsuspecting rock music-lovers realize that a deadly culture lurks at the festival, eager to kill them...

Looks like fun! Little do these unsuspecting rock music-lovers realize that a deadly culture lurks at the festival, eager to kill them…

The final day of New York City’s Electric Zoo Festival, held over Labor Day weekend since 2009, was canceled due to “serious health risks,” according to a release from NYC government.

The reason?  Two fans died and at least four became “critically ill” during the first two days of the festival on  Randall’s Island. The statement from Fortress Bloomberg  explained that the reason for the cancellation was “serious health risks.”  Jeffrey Russ, 24 and Olivia Rotondo, 20,  both died after ingesting the drug ecstasy.

The organizers posted, “The founders of Electric Zoo send our deepest condolences to the families of the two people who passed away this weekend. Because there is nothing more important to us than our patrons, we have decided in consultation with the New York City Parks Department that there will be no show today.” Thousands of non-illegal drug-users who planned their holiday around the festival have been sent home.

Your Ethics Alarms Labor Day Ethics Quiz is this…

Is cancelling the music festival an ethical response to two drug-related deaths? Continue reading

The Costs of Ignorance and Stupidity: Not Unfair, But Obvious

Now, if I were a psychic, I would have seen this argument coming...

Now, if I were a psychic, I would have seen this argument coming…

A rather uncontroversial Ethics Alarms post from September is suddenly getting bombarded with links from Reddit, heaven knows why. This was the article where I took The Learning Channel to task for building a reality show around a psychic (a.k.a “fraud”) and advertising it as if her abilities were real (Irresponsible TLC, Promoting Ignorance and Fraud). I appreciate the traffic when Reddit focuses on a post, but the experience is usually annoying. Reddit readers never make comments here, but make snarky, often ill-informed snipes on their own site, where it’s too much trouble to set them straight.

One of the Reddit critics of the Ethics Alarms post had a complaint that surprised me. He wrote…

“For an article about yelling at someone who makes unverified claims, it sure starts off with a doozy.

‘Public ignorance and stupidity costs the nation billions of dollars, kills untold people in the hundreds of thousands, vastly increases crime and unemployment, and generally makes life far less productive, safe and enjoyable for the minority that are not ignorant and stupid, as well as for those who are.'”

It never occurred to me that anyone would find that statement “unsubstantiated,” or even debatable. To begin with, it is obviously an opinion, though there are few opinions I am more certain about than this one. It is also not remotely like the assertion of a psychic that she communicates with the dead, which isn’t just an unsubstantiated claim, but an outright lie. Continue reading

The Flag and Whitney Houston

If Ol' Blue Eyes was worthy, why not Whitney?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie  ordered New Jersey’s flags flown at half-staff in official mourning for Whitney Houston, and a lot of people are outraged. The critics of the honor fall into two categories: those who believe that the honor should be reserved for military heroes and high government officials, and those who believe that Houston is especially unworthy because of her well-documented substance abuse problems.

For his part, Governor Christie defiantly declares that Houston, as a daughter of New Jersey, deserves the state honor because of her contributions to the culture.

Technically and officially, Christie is out of line. Federal law is very specific about the proper treatment of the flag, including when it can be flown at half-staff. Simply put, celebrities don’t qualify, no matter who they are. A state governor can proclaim that the flag be flown at half-staff in his or her state for fallen soldiers, but not for non-military individuals. But governors ignore the law routinely, and have for decades. Tennessee’s governor lowered the flag when Elvis died. Massachusetts did the same for Red Sox great Ted Williams, though he was also a war hero, so no one was going to object. The law, in terms of custom and enforcement, is a dead letter, and probably should be.

True, some governors have abused the spirit of the law, including Christie, when he lowered the flag for Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band—a great musician, but hardly a figure of transcendent national significance. If 4 USC Section 7 isn’t going to be followed or enforced, then we need some new standards, or before we know it they’ll be lowering the flag for Joan Rivers. Continue reading

Killing Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston, she of the musical gift we may see only once in a lifetime, is dead at 48. There has been no final determination, but there is little doubt: drugs killed her.

Houston, they say, and I have no reason to doubt it, was troubled by the pressures of show business, celebrity and stardom, and with a little help from her dead-beat, abusive husband, singer Bobby Brown, sought to relieve the stress with a variety of illegal substances, including cocaine. Over the past 15 years or so, Americans have been able to watch the relentless deterioration of Houston, once the epitome of a beautiful, intelligent, ebullient and charismatic presence, into an emaciated, ruined shell  with only a hint of the glorious instrument that once, in the middle of a war abroad, delivered the most stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner I have ever heard, or ever will hear.

This happened to Whitney Houston because when illegal drugs were among the options she could have chosen to accept or reject as a way to get through difficult days and troubled times, she did not have the instant reaction, hard-wired in her brain, that has to stop all of us from doing terrible, dangerous, irresponsible and anti-social things. There can be little doubt that some theoretical options would have triggered that reaction. They would be the options that did not seem like options at all, because the culture Whitney Houston lived in was unequivocal and unshakable in its verdict, a verdict virtually all members of that culture naturally adopted and accepted—because that’s what cultures do. And when that option presented itself, Whitney Houston, like the culture she was a part of, would have said “No.”

That she didn’t say no to drugs, and is dead because of it, was the direct result of an American culture that does not give its constituency a clear message and verdict. Instead, the clearest and most unequivocal signal from the culture, the fact that recreational drugs are illegal and that America enforces the laws against them, is progressively weakened by ridicule, attack, popular culture, and the defiance or hypocrisy of role models and public figures. Incredibly, though the deaths by drug-abuse among the tiny proportion of the world that is famous and talented—Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney—should make it obvious how massive the number of anonymous victims of drug abuse there must be, the destructive refrains grow louder: Legalize drugs! End the War on Drugs! And those calls weaken the cultural resolve further. Actually doing what they advocate would cripple it….and that day might come.

Whether they are preventing the culture from rejecting drug use because enforcement is expensive, or because they have a relative or friend in prison for drug-dealing; whether they are calling for legalization because they are libertarians and academics or Ron Paul, or because they are public officials who see a new revenue source; whether they are longing for the halcyon days of Haight-Ashbury and the Strawberry Alarm Clock,  or just like getting stoned, these are the people whose advocacy continues to nurture a competing culture that killed Whitney Houston, as surely as if she had been shot her between the eyes.

I would say that if their insistence on legalization is followed, and the nation’s laws join the popular throng in pronouncing addictive and life-destroying drugs as legitimate “options,” many more like her will die….except there aren’t many more like her. But there are countless lives to destroy, and unimaginable losses to families, businesses and America to be endured.

I just watched the video of Whitney Houston’s glorious performance of our National Anthem at the Super Bowl, before the drugs had finished their work. She radiates confidence, strength and character, as well as that special joy that the fortunate few with magical gifts have. She brings a stadium full of Americans to their feet in cheers, with an exhibition of artistry that will continue to inspire forever. Drugs took all of that away, from Whitney Houston and from us.

Because our culture could not say no with enough conviction to save her.

Update (2/15/12): With some regret, I am closing comments on this post. Too many commenters refused to discuss the issue it was intended to raise, which was how cultural approval and disapproval of conduct is more powerful, ultimately, than the law in establishing standards. I have committed on this blog to responding to as many comments as possible, but the onslaught of pro-drug zealots whose tactic was to keep repeating the same arguments no matter how many times I gave my response led me into too many frustrated responses, too many nasty exchanges, and too many hasty replies that I wish I had stated more clearly. For those I apologize, both to the visitors involved and other readers. I also apologize for ending the discussion here, but I don’t have the time to monitor it. You are welcome to e-mail me personally.

Ethics Dunce: Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd

Well, I can’t say I’m really very surprised.

And another mystery solved: Why was he called "Oil Can"? Because apparently that's what he has on top of his neck instead of a head.

Former Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, one of my favorite characters when he was active, admitted this week that he was stoked up on cocaine when he pitched more often than not. “Oh yeah, at every ballpark. There wasn’t one ballpark that I probably didn’t stay up all night, until four or five in the morning, and the same thing is still in your system,” Boyd told WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Jonny Miller in Fort Myers, Florida, where the Red Sox are about to start Spring Training.  “Some of the best games I’ve ever, ever pitched in the major leagues I stayed up all night; I’d say two-thirds of them. If I had went to bed, I would have won 150 ballgames in the time span that I played. I feel like my career was cut short for a lot of reasons, but I wasn’t doing anything that hundreds of ball players weren’t doing at the time; because that’s how I learned it.” Continue reading

Did Amy Winehouse Cheat the World?


A mark of failure, or betrayal?

I appreciated Amy Winehouse’s talent rather than enjoyed it. Nevertheless, her death-–many have said her completely predictable death—of a drug overdose at 27 once again causes me to ponder the recklessness with which gifted artists who can give so much to the world throw their lives away.

As an ethicist who never hesitates to hold individuals ethically responsible for conduct that harms others, I have not completely worked out in my own mind how to characterize the many artists and performers whose self-engineered destruction have robbed the world of laughter, enlightenment, and joy. Every time I watch John Belushi in “Animal House” or an old Saturday Night Live clip, I get angry at him—I admit it. I know Belushi didn’t want to die young any more than I wanted him to die young, but he treated his life as if it was disposable and without value, when it really was of extraordinary value. When Belushi sacrificed it in a stupid drug binge, it was more than a tragedy for his friends, lovers, colleagues and family; it was a tragedy for the art and history of comedy. Much the same can be said of Amy Winehouse—and James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Holiday, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, River Phoenix, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis. Continue reading

CBS: Ethics Corrupter

Rehire Charlie Sheen?! What could CBS be thinking?

Barry Bonds goes on trial for perjury today. He is one of our society’s prime corrupters. Bonds cheated, lied, broke the law and helped drag major league baseball’s integrity  into the depths, all with the objectives of breaking records by players better and more honest than he, and becoming rich and famous. He accomplished all of these things, with no appreciable negative consequences; as of now, his career and life carry the lesson that cheating works, and anyone who lets things like rules, laws, or ethics stand in the way of success is a fool. Perhaps the trial will change that. I can dream.

Now CBS has stepped up to be a prime corporate ethics corrupter. Reportedly, it is negotiating with Charlie Sheen to get him back on the air, either in his now defunct show “Two and a Half Men,” or in something else. Continue reading

It’s About Time! Dept.: Charlie Sheen, Ethics Uber-Dunce, Gets What He Deserves

Charlie Sheen, The Amazing Human Ethics Train Wreck

Up until yesterday, the message CBS and Warner Bros. had been sending to the culture by its handling of the ongoing Charlie Sheen embarrassment was this: you can break laws, try to strangle your wife, publicly betray multiple spouses, neglect your children, dive drunk, use illegal drugs, generally behave like a spoiled, anti-social ass without showing  any remorse or contrition, and corporations will still pay you a million dollars a week and tell America you are a terrific guy as long as you keep making  them big profits. Continue reading