What are the odds that Randy Newman’s satirical song would be attacked today as offensive and accused of making short people feel unsafe? I think pretty high in favor, don’t you?
I was thinking about this after watching “Movie 43” last night, an astounding 2013 project in which a huge, all-star cast was recruited into doing a series of sophomoric, gutter humor skits that had bad taste galore but not much humor or wit beyond “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that!” Still, while the movie got horrible reviews (although the critics calling it “The Worst Movie Ever Made” beclowned themselves: I can name 20 worse ones off the top of my head) and bombed, I am pretty sure that it would spark boycotts and “cancellations” today for being so spectacularly politically incorrect. Watching it, I was nostalgic for the time when artists could cross lines and not have a virtual price placed on their heads. In just seven years, we have come to a place where Americans are terrified of enraging the woke. I think watching Movie 43 is good tonic for that, and also good practice for those who want to purge their inner weenie.
1. One more bit of proof that we should not trust “experts,” scientists, or academics. Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has written several best-selling books, such as “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011) and “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” (2018) and is regarded as a public intellectual. Yet when the New York Times asked him, “Do you see any irrational beliefs as useful?,” Pinker answered,
“Yeah. For example, every time the media blames a fire or a storm on climate change, it’s a dubious argument in the sense that those are events that belong to weather, not climate. You can never attribute a particular event to a trend. It’s also the case, given that there is an availability bias in human cognition, that people tend to be more influenced by images and narratives and anecdotes than trends. If a particular anecdote or event can in the public mind be equated with a trend, and the impression that people get from the flamboyant image gets them to appreciate what in reality is a trend, then I have no problem with using it that way.”
Yes, this respected intellectual believes that deceiving the public is justified if it leads them to support the “right” policies and beliefs. He, and those like him, are the real threats to democracy.
My Harvard diploma is already facing the wall; staring today, I’m going to spit at it when I pass by…
Coincidentally, today I was asked to write something for my class’s reunion book. What should I write?
“Twelve dead? This is great—we can make another push for gun control!!!”
About 10 minutes from where I live, unidentified gunmen have killed 12 people (one of the gunmen is also dead) in an unexplained rampage. The facts are still being sorted out, and at least one shooter is still at large as I write this, but already two predictable examples of unethical disaster and crisis response have been on display:
1. Reflex anti-gun tragedy exploitation
Apparently from now until the Second Amendment is but a distant memory, some Democratic politicians and anti-gun zealots will use every gun-related tragedy as a springboard to lobby for more regulations, and the facts be damned. At this point, we have not been told why the attack took place, who the shooters were, whether it was a terrorist act or not, whether the killers were Americans, whether or not the weapons were obtained illegally and what kind of guns they were. Never mind: interviewed on the radio, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congress’s non-voting member, immediately pointed out that with all the guns that are available in this country, it should be no surprise to anyone that tragedies like this occur. I’m sure she would have liked to have been able to claim that global warming also played a part, except that it is a cool day in Washington. Continue reading →
I live in the Washington, D.C. area, and at this moment even the beginning of the NFL season, usually the one thing everyone here (except me) usually cares about, is being over-shadowed by the drama of the looming Congressional vote on Syria. What was assumed—why, I cannot imagine–to be a likely rubber stamp with only an insufficient number of Republicans providing opposition because, as we all have been told repeatedly, they will oppose the President on anything, has materialized as strong bi-partisan opposition. The Washington Post estimated last night that the votes in the House are currently running 3-1 against the symbolic-and-deadly-but-promised-to-be-non-committal missile strikes on pre-announced targets. This is the most encouraging development in the government since President Obama was elected, I am tempted to say. It shows that this is not a nation of lemmings, and that the separation of powers has its virtues after all. Nonetheless, interesting ethical arguments are arising in favor of votes both no and yes.
The no arguments are varied, and reach the same conclusion from different positions, some more ethical than others. The pacifist Left and the isolationist Right, both irresponsible and dedicated to ideology over reality, are on the same path here, and would be on that same path even if the President’s argument for missile strikes was strong. Others, including me, but also those who supported more extensive military action in the Bush administration, fault the plan because of its dubious results, its contradictory logic, and the feckless and troubling way the President brought us to where we are.
I just heard an interview with a Republican House member who announced that he reversed his initial support for the missile strike after hearing Obama’s remarks in Sweden. After hearing Obama appear to deny that he drew the red line—a rhetorical point that was too cute by half and clumsily stated—this Congressman decided that he couldn’t believe anything Obama said or promised regarding Syria, including his assurances that nothing would lead to “boots on the ground.” (I would argue that his assurances that nothing would lead to boots on the ground is, if not dishonest, frighteningly irresponsible.)
The yes arguments are more perplexing. Naturally, there are those who, against all logic, simply adopt the contradictory and militarily nonsensical arguments John Kerry was asked to present to the Senate (apparently because President Obama knows that he appointed an inarticulate—but loyal!!!—dim-bulb, Chuck Hagel, as Secretary of Defense—but that is another, though related, issue). Liberal columnist Eugene Robinson, who has won an Affirmative Action Pulitzer Prize and who has proven that he will cheer whatever his fellow-African American in the White House does, even if he makes a decree like the South American rebel-leader-turned-dictator in Woody Allen’s “Bananas”...
“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish…In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!”
made this “argument”…
“The issue can’t be who wins that country’s civil war. It has to be whether the regime of Bashar al-Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons — and, if the answer is yes, whether there is any effective means of punishment other than a U.S. military strike…Let me clarify: I believe that a U.S. strike of the kind being discussed, involving cruise missiles and perhaps other air-power assets, can make it more likely that Assad loses. But I also believe that — absent a major commitment of American forces, which is out of the question — we cannot determine who wins.”
Gee, thanks for clarifying, Eugene!
Other, more coherent voices argue for endorsing Obama’s plan do sent a few missiles—not any that might hit Assad or his weapons, mind you– because they argue, even if the plan is weak, misguided, dangerous or certifiably bats, the President and, by extension, the United States will be dangerously weakened if a call to arms is rejected. This is essentially the argument of rational conservative James Taranto. Here is former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, this morning:
“…During the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has generally waged a war of words and then used those words casually and clumsily. President Obama declared that Assad “must go” when his departure seemed inevitable — without a strategy, or even the intention, to achieve this goal when it became difficult. He drew a chemical-weapons “red line” that became a well-trodden thoroughfare. The Obama administration revealed details of an imminent military operation, which was promptly repudiated by the parliament of our closest ally, then abruptly postponed. The administration seemed to indicate that United Nations support for a military strike was needed — before declaring it unnecessary. It seemed to indicate that a congressional endorsement was superfluous — just before staking everything on securing it. Obama is inviting members of Congress to share responsibility for a Syrian policy that has achieved little to justify their confidence. In fact, he has undermined political support for the legislative outcome he seeks. For more than five years, Obama has argued that America is overcommitted in the Middle East and should refocus on domestic priorities. Now he asks other politicians to incur risks by endorsing an approach he has clearly resisted at every stage…”
Wait…this is how Gerson argues that Congress should vote yes? Indeed it is…
“Legislators are not arguing between preferred policy options, as they would on issues such as health care or welfare. They are deciding if they will send the chief executive into the world with his hands tied behind his back. This would be more than the repudiation of the current president; it would be the dangerous weakening of the presidency….even if this military action were wrong or pointless, it would have to be sufficiently dangerous to justify the gelding of the executive branch on a global stage. A limited military strike may be symbolic. But for Congress to block that strike would be more than symbolic. It would undermine a tangible element of American influence: the perception that the commander in chief is fully in command.”
This is a good time to stop and offer today’s Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, based on the reasoning of Gerson and others:
Are members of Congress ethically obligated, by loyalty and responsibility for the image and credibility of the U.S. abroad and to avoid weakening the institution of the presidency, to support the missile strikes on Syria, even if they and their constituents believe that to do so is wrong and misguided?
Indecisiveness and narcissism makes great drama, bad leaders, and gets people killed , too.
I try to think about the ethics of war as little as possible, much less write about it. It is too frustrating, and ultimately a waste of time: the same debates and philosophical arguments have been made, eloquently and passionately, for not just hundreds but thousands of years, and only the mechanics of warfare have changed.
My father, a war hero and a man who would have loved to have devoted his life to the military if his wounds hadn’t prevented it, used to say that war was the stupidest of all human activities. “There is nothing good about war,” Dad said. “Yet it is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. And don’t ask me to reconcile those statements: I can’t. Nobody can.” I remember asking him about General Patton, who led my father and his comrades during the Battle of the Bulge. “Patton supposedly loved war,” I said. “He did,” my father replied. “He was insane.” He loathed Patton.
The Syria crisis has triggered all the same arguments again, and I want no part of them. Ethical analysis doesn’t work where warfare is concerned. The conduct of ritualized killing combatants and innocents is, at best, an extreme utilitarian act that always creeps into ethically indefensible “the ends justify the means” territory before the end of hostilities. So many invalid rationalizations are used to justify killing—“It’s for a good cause,” or the Saint’s Excuse, prime among them, with “They started it!” following close behind—that it is useless to tote them up. The war most often cited as a “moral war,” World War II, still involved the killing of innocent non-combatants by the Allies. ( My father remained amazed at the efforts at “limited war” in Iraq, noting that Allied soldiers were expected to accept civilian deaths as unavoidable and not a matter of concern. He also felt that the current dedication to half-measures just guaranteed longer wars, more deaths, and less satisfactory results. “It’s war,” he said. “You can’t make it humane or sensible; you can only make it shorter. Telling the military that it has to waste time and military personnel to avoid civilian deaths makes no sense. There is no such thing as a humane war.” Naturally, he approved of Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb, in part, he admitted, because he was slated to be in the Japanese mainland invasion force that was likely to sustain up to a million casualties.) The Allies engaged in atrocities too, such as the fire-bombing of Dresden.
You want to talk about the problem of supporting terrible people and factions to defeat another? World War II is the champion on that score. The U.S. partnered with Stalin, who was a greater mass murderer than Hitler, and defeated Japan, the enemy of China, allowing Mao, a greater mass murderer than Stalin and Hitler combined, to enslave a billion people. The peace negotiated after the Second World War was only slightly less destructive than the one that ended the First World War (and led directly to the Second): The U.S. handed over half of Europe to Communism, laying the seeds of the Cold War that only avoided ending humanity in a nuclear holocaust by pure moral luck. The fact that WWII is the “best” war powerfully makes the case: ethics and war have nothing to do with each other. Each renders the other useless and incoherent. Continue reading →
How is Eleanor Holmes Norton like Don Fanucci? In more ways than you might think.
Someone connected to a lobbyist released a voicemail of the D.C. delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D, not that the same kind of voice mail hasn’t been left by countless Republicans too), shaking down an industry that is greatly affected by the committee Holmes chairs (though she may not vote on the floor, the District being the victim of taxation without representation) for a financial contribution, in a wounded/threatening tone reminiscent of the Sicilian gangster Don Fanucci in “Godfather Part II” who shakes down a poor merchant by asking for “enough to wet my beak.” Cenk Uygur is almost humorously unsettled by Holmes’ naked venality and the quid pro quo corrupt practices it represents, and I sympathize.
As long as voters, leaders and the news media tolerates this kind of culture, complaints about the unresponsiveness of our elected representatives are laughable. It should be obvious that the first step to a better republic is refusing to tolerate bribery.