The Ethics Alarms 2021 Christmas Eve Edition Of The Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide,

Wonderful Life2

2021 Introduction

I haven’t seen the film yet this holiday season, but I did listen to the radio version, also starring James Stewart and Donna Reed last night. It’s not much of a substitute. As it was with last year, this movie’s intended message needs to be considered and taken to heart in 2021. Frank Capra, the movie’s director ,designed the film to explain why it’s a wonderful country we live in. It may be that more, and more vocal and powerful people want to send the opposite message today than ever before.

The fascinating and moving documentary “Five Came Back” (on Netflix) has been shown several times in the Marshall house this year. It tells the story of how five of Hollywood’s greatest directors, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford, John Huston and Frank Capra were recruited by the Pentagon to document World War II, some of their efforts to be used as propaganda, some as a record of remarkable time. All five directors were profoundly changed by what they saw, and Capra was no exception. He went into the war as perhaps America’s most popular film director, creator of upbeat movies celebrating common Americans doing extraordinary things, the nation’s families, the power of love and American exceptionalism. They called his movies “Capra Corn,” and the description fit such classics as “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “Meet John Doe,” and other critical and box office hits. Following World War II and his experience overseas, Capra no longer felt as upbeat about life and human nature, though he remained a passionate patriot. Like the returning soldiers found the culture changed and his emotions raw. Families whose loved one had died or returned with disabling wounds struggled to believe that their sacrifices were justified. The atom bombs that ended the war also opened up a dangerous new era of paranoia and fear.

Capra and his director compatriots in the war effort decided to start a new production company, driven by directors rather than soulless studio moguls.  “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a far more complex and often dark story than the pre-war Capra creations, was chosen to be the first project of the new Liberty Pictures. Based on an idea by author Philip Van Doren Stern, it was the story of a good man who becomes bitter and disillusioned when his plans and aspirations become derailed by the random surprises of life.  Unable to get his short story published, Stern had sent it to friends as a 21-page Christmas card. Film producer David Hempstead read it, and bought the movie rights for Capra’s company. The story was just what America needed, Capra reasoned, to restore its belief that what the nation had accomplished was worth the pain, loss and sacrifice, and that the nation itself had led a “wonderful life” despite many mistakes and missteps. The new film could restore the nation’s flagging optimism, pride and hope.

Capra immediately thought of actor and now war hero James Stewart to play protagonist George Bailey. Three years of flying bombing raids against the Nazis in the US Air Force had left the the 37-year-old suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, and like his non-celebrity comrades in arms, Stewart returned home in 1945 to find that everything had changed: his contract with MGM had run out, his agent had retired, and other stars had taken his place. Stewart signed on with the ambitious project, hoping neither of them lost their  touch.

As production proceeded in 1946, the cast and crew felt they were making an important movie. Bedford Falls became one of the largest American film sets ever created to that point at four acres, with 75 fake stores and buildings, a three-block main street, and 20 full-grown oak trees. To avoid the traditional problem of fake-looking snow, the special effects department invented a new and more realistic process. (I wish it was used more often: fake snow drives me crazy in movies.)

 Stewart, who was still suffering from the effects of the war and at times was close to quitting. In the scene where George, in a roadside bar, desperate and defeated, is praying to a God he doesn’t believe in. He rubs a trembling hand against his mouth, and starts to cry. The gesture wasn’t in the script, or requested by Capra. It was real.

Stewart explained years later,

“I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. That was not planned at all.”

Stewart felt George Bailey was his career’s best performance (it is) and Capra believed he had made his best film. “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made,” he said later. “Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

It may be, but it started out as  a catastrophic flop. The movie lost money and its failure killed Capra’s production company. His directing career never recovered, and what he believed was his greatest work was forgotten for decades. Republic Pictures, which owned the film’s copyright, didn’t bother to renew the rights in 1974. It was essentially free to local television channels, and they began showing it constantly.

Quality and genius have a way of defeating critics. Capra was right, Stewart was right, the cast and crew were right. It is a classic; more than that, it is a movie that can change lives. The story accomplishes just what Cara intended it to accomplish. In a Times piece about the movie by a self-professed cynic, Wendell Jamieson wrote about seeing the movie for the first time as teen in a classroom showing, and confessed,

It’s something I felt while watching the film all those years ago, but was too embarrassed to reveal….That last scene, when Harry comes back from the war and says, “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town”? Well, as I sat in that classroom, despite the dreary view of the parking lot; despite the moronic Uncle Billy; despite the too-perfect wife, Mary; and all of George’s lost opportunities, I felt a tingling chill around my neck and behind my ears. Fifteen years old and imagining myself an angry young man, I got all choked up. And I still do.

Yeah, me too. But the reason isn’t that its a manipulative, sentimental ending, though that was what contemporary critics complained about. The reason is that Harry’s toast states a life truth that too many of us go through our own lives missing. What makes our lives successful (or not), and what makes makes our existence meaningful is not how much money we accumulate, or how much power we wield, or how famous we are. What matters is how we affect the lives of those who share our lives, and whether we leave our neighborhood, communities, associations and nation better or worse than it would have been “if we had never been born.”

It’s a tough lesson, and some of us, perhaps most, never learn it. “It’s A Wonderful Life,” though it shows how one man finally got  the message using Heaven, alternate reality, angels and fantasy to do articulate it, can be a powerful ethics tool.

1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”

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The Complete, Updated Ethics Companion To “Miracle On 34th Street”!

Introduction

The holiday season traditionally kicks off with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and so does this iconic holiday movie. As with most holiday movies, but perhaps more than most, the entire concept of digging into the ethics of the plot of “Miracle on 34th Street”  can be criticized as beside the point. Indeed, this ethics analysis of a classic Chritsmas movie received more flack than the previous two (“White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” ) combined. The movie, at least the 1947 original, is a classic; I don’t dispute it. It works dramatically and emotionally, it makes people feel good, and it has held up over time. That’s all a Christmas movie is supposed to do, and if it does it without really making sense or avoiding ethics potholes along the way, so what?

I sympathize with this view. However, our ethical standards and ethics alarms are affected by what we see, hear, like and respond to. If popular holiday movies inject bad ethics habits and rationalizations into our character, especially at a young age, that is something we should at least be aware of by the tenth or eleventh time we watch one of them.

One ethical aspect of “Miracle on 34th Street” that must be flagged at the outset is competence. The film is so effortlessly engrossing and convincing that it is easy to forget how easily it could have failed miserably. Actually, it is also easy to remind oneself: just watch any of the attempts to remake the film. There have been four of these, starring, as Kris Kringle, Thomas Mitchell, Ed Wynn, Sebastian Cabot, and Richard Attenborough. That’s a distinguished crew, to be sure. Mitchell was one of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history. Wynn was nominated for an Academy Award (for “The Diary of Ann Frank”) and Attenborough won one, Best Supporting Actor Award in 1967 for “The Sand Pebbles.” Cabot wasn’t quite in their class, but he was a solid pro, and looked more like Santa Clause than Mitchell,  Wynn, or Richard Attenborough.

None of them, however, were as convincing as Edmund Gwenn. He made many movies—all without a white beard— and had a distinguished career in films and on stage, but even audience members who knew his work had a hard time reminding themselves that he wasn’t Kris Kringle while they watched the movie. I still have a hard time.

The rest of the cast is almost as perfect.  The film is one more example of the special, unappreciated talent of Maureen O’Hara, who never seemed like a movie star, as lovely and strong an on-screen presence as she was. Her ability to anchor great movies while never dominating them is the epitome of the “collaborative art” they always blather about during the Oscars, but which is seldom truly honored. There were Katherine Hepburn movies and Bette Davis movies; there are Meryl Streep movies. Nobody ever talked about Maureen O’Hara movies, just great movies that had Maureen O’Hara essential to making them great. O’Hara was the female lead in four genuine classics: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Quite Man,” “How Green Was My Valley,” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” She never won any Academy Awards, nor is she ever named when the greatest Hollywood actresses are named, but how many actresses delivered four classics—not classic performances, but classic films?  Hepburn ties Maureen with four: The Philadelphia Story,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Adams’s Rib” and “The African Queen.”  Streep maaay be credited with one, if you count “Sophie’s Choice”; personally, I wouldn’t.

“Miracle on 34th Street” is an ethics movie in part because its artists committed to telling a magical story and charming audiences by working as an ensemble selflessly and  efficiently. John Payne, as the idealistic lawyer in love with Maureen, is never flashy, just completely convincing. One reason may be that, as he told an interviewer once, the role of Fred Gaily perfectly matched his own ideals and beliefs. Payne never made another memorable movie in his long career; he was the classic bland, B movie leading man. He made Glenn Ford seem exciting. But he was the perfect choice for this story.  Similarly, there have been more impressive child actresses than young Natalie Wood—Margaret O’Brien, to name one; Dakota Fanning, to name another—but none who was better at simultaneously nailing her scenes while never taking a viewer out of the film by making him think, “Wow, she’s so precocious! I wonder if she’s a midget?”

This is the magic of performing talent: they make audiences suspend disbelief because they seem to believe in the story and characters too. The director,  George Seaton (who also directed “Airport”), not only wrote the script (that won him an Oscar, and deservedly so)  and cast his movie brilliantly, he also made the correct decision to stick with a matter-of-fact, realistic, unadorned style that keeps the story grounded. There are none of the features and gaffes in this film that make other holiday-themed movies inherently unbelievable, like the cheesy battlefield sets in “White Christmas” or the heavenly dialogues in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This is why the awful colorized version that Ted Turner inflicted on the world—this was one of the first movies to be subjected to Ted’s “improvement”—was such a disaster. The colored version looks fake, because it is. The original black and white version is set in a mundane, grey world like Doris’s—Maureen’s–view of life itself: no excitement, no romance, no fantasy, just cold, unadorned reality. No heaven, no magic, ghosts, nobody breaking into song and sounding like Bing Crosby. There’s no child’s point of view, like in “A Christmas Story.” No, all of us live in the world we are shown in “Miracle on 34th Street.” We would love the magic to be real, but we don’t believe in it any more.

We want it to be, though—and that’s why this movie works.

Chapter 1.

Meet Kris Kringle

The movie tells us right at the start that 1) the charming old man in the white beard can’t possibly be Santa Claus, and 2) that he’s nuts. That is, he tells adults who are paying attention this as soon as he starts complaining to a New York City storekeeper that his window display has the reindeer mixed up: “You’ve got Cupid where Blitzen should be. And Dasher should be on my right-hand side. And another thing…Donner’s antlers have got four points instead of three!”

Let’s see:

  • No Christmas display has ever distinguished between Santa’s reindeer (except for Rudolph), because the individual reindeer have never had any identifying characteristics in reality or myth. Are we to assume that there are name-tags on the models? If so, why wouldn’t Kris be complaining about the features of all of them, not just “Donner’s” antlers?
  • The names of the reindeer, even if there are flying reindeer, were 100% the invention of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” originally published in 1823.  No one has ever claimed that the author had some kind of special info on the actual names of the reindeer when he wrote,

    More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
    And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

    “Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
    On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DUNDER and BLIXEN!

    …and anyway, if he did, those were their names 120 years before the movie takes place. Nobody has ever claimed the reindeer were immortal, either. I suppose Santa Claus, in a nod to the poem’s popularity (it has been called the most famous poem of all time), could have adopted the practice of always having the reindeer named after the poem’s versions, and when one Vixen dropped of old age, the young reindeer that took her place became the new Vixen.

I suppose.

  • A bigger problem is that the movie’s alleged “St. Nicholas” calls the seventh reindeer “Donner.” It gets confusing here. The original St. Nicholas was Greek, the Christian bishop of Myra, now Demre, in Lycia.  Nicholas gave gifts to the poor, in particular presenting three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.  THAT would be neat poem! Saint Nicholas is buried in Italy. He was later claimed as a patron saint of children (also archers, sailors,  pawnbrokers, and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow). The name “Santa Claus” is derived from the Netherlands version of St. Nick called Sinterklaas,  or “the Christmas man,” de Kerstman in Dutch. This explains “Dunder and Blixen,” meaning thunder and lightning in Dutch, and the movie later confirms Kris’s Dutch origins. (But why does he speak in a British accent?)

Never mind that: why would he call Dunder “Donner”? The “real” Santa wouldn’t. Though the original version of the poem got the names right (we know it’s Blixen and not “Blitzen” because it rhymes with Vixen), various editors, transcribers and  the author himself kept changing the names in subsequent printings. Dunder became “Donder” and eventually “Donner,” which is a meaningless Anglicizing of “Dunder.”

Santa Clause, aka Sinterklaas,wouldn’t be confused: he named the beasts. He’s correcting the shop-keeper while passing along a misnomer?

Baloney.

Well, enough of that. The next scene shows Kris encountering the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa pre-parade. He instructs him in the use of his whip on the reindeer! In the German Santa mythology, the jolly old elf used the whip on naughty children, but nowadays, using a whip on either kids or reindeer is pretty much excised from Santa’s methods, and should have been in 1947. It’s an unethical image…

…even though artists have worked hard to confuse us….

No, an ethical Santa Claus wouldn’t use a whip. He also wouldn’t put a poor old guy with a drinking problem out of work during the holidays, but that’s what Kris does next. He smells liquor on the costumed Santa, and shows no mercy:

“Don’t you realize there are thousands of children… lining the streets waiting to see you… children who have been dreaming of this moment for weeks? You’re a disgrace to the tradition of Christmas… and I refuse to have you malign me in this fashion. Disgusting!”

Then he tracks down Doris Walker, who is in charge of the parade, and gets the man fired. That’s just mean; there’s no way around it. I bet a lot of Macy Santas have had a few nips before and during the parade, and so what? How hard is it to say “Ho Ho Ho”?

Kris manages to get Drunk Santa’s job, having single-handedly gotten him sacked, no pun intended.

Why is Kris, if he’s the real Santa Claus, hanging around New York City and moonlighting in the Macy’s parade when the big night is just around the corner? This is no time for a vacation or boondoggles. If he’s really Santa, he’s goofing off, and he has the gall to tell a temporary parade Santa that he’s risking disappointing children!

Kris is not off to a good start. Continue reading

Ethics Movie Ethics Quiz: “The Edge” (1997)

Anthony Hopkins winning an upset Oscar this year reminded me of the action film he made with (yecchh) Alec Baldwin 25 years ago. I would have written about it then, but 1) I didn’t see it then, being driven to my sock drawer at the thought of paying for any movie with Baldwin in it, and 2) it was a long time before Ethics Alarms.

The film explores survival situation ethics, a topic that “The Walking Dead” has thoroughly beaten to walking death in the last decade, with the assistance of some sharp David Mamet dialogue. Hopkins, a wealthy, cocky and obnoxiously competent businessman, survives a small plane crash that dumps him and two other men in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. One of them, the younger Baldwin, is secretly having an affair with Hopkins’ super-model trophy wife, whom they left back at the hunting lodge.

Hopkins’ encyclopedic knowledge of everything and Eagle Scout-level survival skills keep his wilderness ignorant companions alive and hopeful until a rampaging Kodiak bear eats the man who isn’t Baldwin (thus showing good taste). Then the remaining two become the hunted. Eventually, after many scares and narrow escapes, Hopkins and Baldwin solve their hungry bear problem and find an abandoned cabin conveniently stocked with food, guns, and a canoe. Baldwin, confident that he no longer requires Hopkins’ expertise to survive long enough to be rescued, takes a functioning rifle, loads it, admits that he’s having the affair with Hopkins’ wife, and marches Hopkins outside to shoot him. But Fate takes a hand: Baldwin falls into a pit before he can shoot and is rendered helpless, with a broken leg and other life-threatening injuries.

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“Denial”: An Ethics Movie (Part 1)

“Denial,” a 2016 British film that I missed (along with most moviegoers in the U.S.), tells, reasonably accurately, the story of a 1996 libel suit brought by David Irving, an anti-Semite, Holocaust-denying British historian, against Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of the 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” After the suit, her account of the ordeal, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” formed the source of the screenplay.

Irving brought a lawsuit in Britain against Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz), and her publisher, Penguin Books, for calling him a Holocaust denier, a liar, and an anti-Jewish bigot. Irving is a long-time Hitler defender, and claimed there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. British libel laws, unlike those in the United States, place the burden of proof on the defendant to prove that what was written was justified. Thus Lipstadt’s legal team must focus on proving Irving’s evidence is false, and that he knows it is false. The stakes were suddenly high, for if a court ruled that Irving’s theories had legitimacy, the results would have been catastrophic. For this reason, at least according to the film, a group of Jewish leaders urged Lipstadt to settle the suit before trial.

The movie is now on Amazon Prime. It is not a flamboyant legal drama but an intelligent and clear one (I would love to put it on stage). It also raises important ethics and legal issues, among them:

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Ethics Movies: And Speaking Of Conspiracies, Have You Seen “Conspiracy”? Do.

Conspiracy

I bet you haven’t. I hadn’t, and stumbling upon it yesterday on Amazon’s streaming service was one more reason I failed to get an ethics warm-up posted, but it was worth it.

“Conspiracy” is a remarkable HBO film that first ran in 2001, when my attention, and probably yours, was elsewhere. I never have read or heard a word about the film; no friend ever recommended it to me or my wife, who is a WWII buff. Nobody mentioned if on Facebook. (There it is! Finally a downside of ignoring the Emmys and Golden Globe Awards! The film was much honored.) I can’t believe that “Conspiracy” had a large audience: it’s a movie about a meeting, albeit a real one, and consists almost entirely of men sitting around a table, talking. (So does “Twelve Angry Men,” but “Conspiracy” makes that film look like “Die Hard” as far as action is concerned.) No women. No “persons of color.” This is because all of the attendees at the actual meeting were Nazi officers and officials, but never mind: if “Conspiracy” were made today, Adolf Eichmann would have to be played by Ice-T and Reinhard Heydrich by Jennifer Lopez because of Hollywood’s diversity rules.

I wish I were kidding.

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Ethics Warm-Up, 1/22/2021, As Your Host Tries Not To Write Angry

Only the soothing tones of Johnny Nash could calm me down after this morning’s ordeal, and it hasn’t worked yet.

I set out with my wife to get her to a rather urgent doctor’s appointment at an office we had never been to before. I should have been forewarned knowing it was in Manassas (those who know Northern Virginia know what I mean.)To make a long, horrible story short, we never got there. The exits on Route 66 suddely skipped five numbers. There was a sign for Exit 47 A, which was also for 47 B without saying so. The construction everywhere made navigation impossible. After missing the right exit, detours and construction mad it seemingly impossible to get on 66 going the other way, The Google map directions were wrong. The GPS installed in the car refused to take the street number, and dumped us in no-man’s land. Naturally, everyone we talked to at the doctor’s office professed ignorance at how to get there. After wandering in the wilderness for two hours, we gave up. Then the last staffer at the doctor’s office said, “Oh, when you come back, don’t use Exit 47 like all the directions say. Use 44. That takes you right to our door and avoids all the construction.”

NOW you tell me that?

The over-arching goal of ethics is to make life easier and more pleasant for everyone else. If you work or live in a locale that is difficult to get to or find the first time, you warn people.

1. Welcome “Impeachment or Removal Plan U”! Well, not really welcome. Not really a removal plan either. Plan U is based on Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was being thrown around as a way to punish Senator Hawley and Cruz for doing what Democrats had done every time this century a Republican had won the Presidency: challenge the electoral vote. When Republicans do it, you see, it’s an insurrection. Then teh second that word escaped their lips, coup-minded Democrats hit themselves in the forehead with teh palm of their hands, “I could have had a V-8!” style, and said, “Wait a minute! How did we let this get by us when we were trying to devise a way to get rid of Trump without winning an election! It was there all the time!” Then, choosing to ignore the fact that you can’t “get rid of” someone who’s already gone, this became the latest of 21—yes 21!—bogus anti-Trump plans. (I haven’t added it to the list yet. Give me a break.)

Let U stand for “Unbelievable!”

Section 3 provides:

“No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.”

Law profs Seth Tillman and Josh Blackman soberly analyze the theory here, saying in conclusion,

“…it is not clear that the House managers seek to disqualify Trump under the Impeachment Disqualification Clause, as well as under Section 3. The sole article of impeachment is opaque on this point. It references Section 3, but we think it is only referenced in the context of efforts to define a substantive impeachable offense. We expect that President Trump’s counsel will argue that the text of the House’s single article of impeachment does not give him fair notice that he faces Section 3 disqualification. Once again, the House’s rushed drafting may determine the fate of the Senate impeachment trial.”

That. and the fact that the impeachment was based on literally nothing.

2. Now this is a weird ethics movie…“The Killing of a Scared Deer, the 2017 film now on Netflix, raises a “Sophie’s Choice”-style ethical dilemma with solution that looks ridiculous but has at least surface validity if you can accept the premise: the character who has to make the choice is dealing with some kind of a curse.

3. Is it incompetent to employ a strategy that nobody knew was incompetent? Statistical analytics now show that the traditional football strategy of punting usually makes no sense. Now, college and professional teams are going for a first down when once they would have kicked the ball away.

The Chicago Tribune reports,

Punting has become far less prevalent in recent years. NFL teams punted an average of 3.7 times per game during the 2020 regular season, the lowest figure in recorded pro football history. Teams averaged 4.8 punts per game as recently as 2017, a rate that had held more or less steady since the mid-1980s but has declined in each of the last four seasons….The sudden decrease in punting comes over a decade after the football analytics community began decrying the punt as a counterproductive strategy, particularly in short-yardage situations near midfield or when trailing late in a close game. It doesn’t take much number-crunching to realize that if the average offense gains 5.6 yards per play (the 2020 rate), not only should a team be able to pick up a yard or 2 on fourth down, but it should also be wary of gifting the ball to an offense capable of marching right back down the field 5.6 yards at a time.

The traditions and conventional wisdom in sports and other activities, wrong, counter-productive or silly though they may be, don’t indicate incompetence until data, changed conditions or experience indicate that they don’t work. Now it seems obvious that punting is usually foolish, just as baseball finally learned that sacrifice bunts were dumb except in very special situations. But when a culture accepts conventional wisdom and it it is embedded in that culture, one cannot call it incompetence to stick with tradition, unless and until there is access to information proving the accepted practice to be folly.

4. A reminder: Yahoo! and other news sources have reported that “Over 408,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 as of Thursday.” That’s false. It is the essence of fake news. As Ethics Alarms had noted repeatedly, over 408,000 Americans may have died WITH the virus, but there is no question that they all did not die OF the virus. I am still waiting for a well-publicized estimate of how many of those deaths were not super-seniors, cancer patients, or others who may well have died anyway. This is something we have a right to know.

5. A plea for a double standard from Joe. Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller asked President Biden if the vaccination goal was “high enough,” since “that’s basically where the U.S. is right now.” Biden responded with pique, although he did not call Miller a pony-soldier, saying, “When I announced it you all said it wasn’t possible. Come on, give me a break, man.” It’s a fair request, but if there was ever an instance when any journalist from a non-conservative news organization gave Biden’s predecessor a break, please refresh my memory. I can’t think of one. Besides, Biden is already getting one ” break” after another, as Mediate notes in a recent post titled, “Media Begins Biden Presidency With Overt Fawning and Flattery.”

6. Hank Aaron has died. The legitimate baseball career home run champ (I do not count Barry Bonds) was 86. He represented the very best of baseball ethics on and off the field throughout his career unlike the icon whose homer total he bested (Babe Ruth had no peer as a player, but had the ethics of a ten-year-old his whole life), and the miscreant who passed him by cheating, Bonds. The Hammer was always being over-shadowed by someone: Willy Mays, a contemporary, was more gifted and charismatic; Ernie Banks was more lovable, Roberto Clemente was never had a chance to grow old. Henry Aaron just did his job every day, seldom missing a game due to injury, leading the National League in various seasons in batting average, homers,runs, hits and RBI. Aaron only won one Most Valuable Player Award (in 1957, when his Braves won the pennant), but over his 23 year career, he proved more valuable than almost all of his contemporaries.

[Notice of Correction: I originally wrote that Hank never won an an MVP. Thanks to LoSonnambulo for the correction.]

“A Christmas Carol”

-A-Christmas-Carol2

I just found out that the Ethics Alarms link to the text of “A Christmas Carol” is suddenly bad, and being momentarily unable to figure out how to fix it (not that more than a handful of readers ever used that link, or any of my links for that matter), I’m embedding the whole 1951 movie version of the tale, the one starring Alistair Sim, as my penance.

This was the version I first saw when I was knee-high to Robert Reich. Mant aficionados of “A Christmas Carol adaptations think it is still the best. Because the movie is in black and white and has been superseded by so many other versions, it is hard to find it on TV except for the streaming services. Even the much inferior version starring Reginald Owen (with the entire Lockhart family, including young pre-“Lassie,” pre-“Lost in Space” June, as the Cratchits) is shown more than the classic Sim film. Now “A Christmas Carol” is most likely to be available, sort of, in the cynical form of Bill Murray’s “Scooged.” It’s not the worst version—the musical starring Albert Finney wins that booby prize (“Thank you very much! Thank you very much!” Yecchh.).

I have to confess that my personal choice for the best adaptation goes to the 1984 George C. Scott version, if you don’t count “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” and you probably shouldn’t. Nonetheless, Allistair Sim is mighty good, and if you’ve never seen him as Scrooge, you owe yourself the experience.

Here he is…

“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion,Chapter 5: Boy, This Guy Sure Doesn’t ACT Like He’s Santa!

Bellevue ride

(The Introduction is here.; Chapter I is here.;Chapter 2 is here; Chapter 3 is here; Chapter 4 is here.)

Everything so far has been laying the foundation for the climactic and justly famous courtroom scene. But before that can happen, there needs to be a pretext for getting the story into court. Of course, the fact that Kris committed assault and battery on Mr. Sawyer would normally be enough to get him there on a criminal charge, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with Santa Claus, so we have a lot of dubious plot machinations that make no sense at all. in rapid succession—got to get to that courtroom scene!—we get…

Sawyer’s Perfidy

First, Sawyer acts like he’s been grievously wounded so he can credibly insist that Kris be committed. He’s a liar as well as a weasel. He’s also not very bright. He knows Macy’s has been using Kris a public relations cornucopia. He has to know that in any feud with a store Santa Claus who has made money for Macy’s, he’ll lose. Sawyer’s antipathy towards Kris to his own likely detriment makes no sense at all.

Doris’s Failure

Doris refuses to have anything to do with sending Kris to Bellevue, the NYC mental hospital, to be examined. She is, however, unlike Sawyer, responsible for Kris, and has said as much. Her duty is to Macy’s, and her employee attacked someone. This is where conflicts of interest get you in the workplace, and she should have seen this coming. Her job is to fix the problem, and instead she acts helpless. I find this to be nascent sexism in the film: “just like a woman,” Doris is being sentimental when she needs to be practical and decisive.

Actress Maureen O’Hara, a notorious tough proto-feminist, must have been seething.

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Comment Of The Day: “’Miracle On 34th Street,’An Ethics Companion,Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family!” And An Explanatory Note On The Holiday Movie Ethics Guides

Grinch

As promised, I am finally completing the “’Miracle On 34th Street’ Ethics Companion,” which I began a year ago and took so long to complete that I ran out of 2019 holidays. As a refresher, I am also, in this post, presenting a Comment of the Day on Chapter Three from all the way back to January 1 of 2020, an excellent analysis of a feature of the story that I missed, by A.M. Golden.

Yesterday’s latest installment attracted some flack from commenters. “Wow, what a Christmas downer, Jack. Channeling Scrooge or the Grinch?” wrote one. “I suspect we could poke holes in any film with respect to morality and ethics if we wanted to.” On the last observation,

  • I want to, because it’s my job
  • Movies are excellent for tuning up ethics alarms
  • Christmas movies, which are seen by children, have a special obligation to teach the right lessons, both prominently and subliminally, and
  • No, in fact you can’t poke holes in any film, at least not fairly.

I suspect this will be the last of the traditional holiday film fare to get the ethics work-over, along with “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas,” which will have the annual Christmas season re-posting with updated text up today. The three classics were chosen for different reasons. IAWL was designed as an ethics movie with very important and profound ethics messages, and the more one examines it, the more there is to think about. Nonetheless, its cheats on the way to its most important messages are pretty flagrant—justified, but flagrant—and deserve to be flagged. “White Christmas” is different: it’s a musical, for one thing, and musicals never make sense (why are these people singing?), but it also is story about ethics, so it is fair to examine it on that basis. Moreover, one doesn’t need to poke holes in it, the story is full of ethics holes. None of them bothered me before I became a full time ethicist: Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are two of my favorite entertainers of all time, and the ending still moistens my eye. But the movie is almost impossible to watch now, with my ethics alarms on, and even with my brain on. I had an obligation to dissect it. As for “Miracle,” I accept it as a classic, but the story was constructed to reach the climactic trial gimmick, and scant attention was given to consistency or playing fair. Moreover, I am a legal ethics expert, after all. You can’t honestly expect me not to analyze a trial like that.

You will never see me try to “poke holes” in the greatest of all Christmas stories, and arguably the best ethics story period, “A Christmas Carol,” because it is pretty close to perfect. (AND I now see that the link to the text on the home page has gone bad; I’ll be fixing it ASAP!). “A Christmas Story” is off my list because it is seen through a child’s eyes, and ethics has nothing to do with it. Critiquing “Holiday Inn” would be like shooting ethics eels in a barrel, but it’s just not worth the trouble.

There are also holiday films and ethics films that are written superbly, and have few if any ethics holes to find. Among these are “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” (most of the Pixar movies, in fact), “Mary Poppins,” “The Sound of Music,” “Babe,” and even “Groundhog Day.” I’m not the Grinch, but if you set out to make an ethics movie, you had better pay attention to ethics.

Now here almost a year late, is A.M. Golden’s Comment of the Day on the post, “’Miracle On 34th Street,’An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family!”

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Two Ethics Movies For The Holidays

I typically use this time of year to catch up on or revisit ethics movies, especially since the ones in the Christmas sub-category are embedded in my brain already. Two ethics movies that I recently watched again are Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” from 2007 and “Seven Days in May” (1964).

“Gone Baby Gone” is the more obvious ethics movie thanks to its famous ending, which sparked thousands high school essay assignments at the time of its release. I can’t write too much about that ending without spoiling the film for you if you’ve never seen it; let me just state that the climactic decision made by the film’s protagonist, played by Ben’s brother Casey, is or should be an ethics no-brainer. It’s depressing to me that so many viewers agreed with the character’s ethically clueless, emotion-driven girlfriend that his solution to an admittedly wrenching ethics conflict made him a monster. There is literally no ethical system that would legitimately support her argument, which can only be backed by using an army of rationalizations. That a large proportion of the public, perhaps a majority, would back her analysis shows how miserably the education system and our culture has failed in teaching basic ethics problem-solving skills.

“Seven Days in May” presents more diverse and complex ethical issues to consider, and also is old enough after almost 60 years that I have no hesitation in revealing the plot: if you have never seen it, you should have.

That movie is also fascinating as a period piece, flashing ideas and images that seem surprisingly familiar in today’s context in rapid juxtaposition with moments that are hard to imagine today. Silent protests in front of the White House? Women picketing in dresses and men in suits and ties? I found a review of the film from The Harvard Crimson in 1964 that featured this:

[T]he film has a civil rights tinge. The producer has dutifully used Negroes in minor roles wherever he deemed it appropriate. A Negro in the Pentagon running an automatic door receives a good deal of film footage. Negroes sit in the airports. They march in the pro and anti-treaty lines before the White House. Finally, there are Negroes at the President’s press conference as the film closes. These are simply kowtows to the New Republic set; if the producer had real guts he could have cast Sydney Poitier in Kirk Douglas’ role. But then Producer Edward Lewis would have been troubled by the script’s implication that Douglas will some day sleep with Ava Gardner, who plays Lancaster’s former mistress. Miscegenation might have confused the good guys and the bad guys, particularly for southern audiences. Anything that controversial would have detracted from the film’s propaganda force.

Fascinating, don’t you think? Today, mixed-race couples on TV and movies are de rigeur, even when it makes no historical sense whatsoever. Today, it takes courage to resist the political correctness edicts that “actors of color” be gratuitously shoehorned into stories and casts based on skin-hue and little else. But today the motivation isn’t “civil rights” but rather affirmative action and “racial justice.” I really don’t care that in Netflix’s “Enola Holmes” blacks turn up in highly unlikely roles for Victorian England, I really don’t. OK, it’s a misrepresentation of history, but the film is a fantasy. However, such blatant virtue-signaling and diversity box-checking does take me out of the story for a moment, and that’s just bad direction. (How many black female martial arts tutors were there in Victorian England, I wonder?)

But I digress. “Seven Days in May” was indeed anti-war, nuclear disarmament propaganda in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, but that’s not one of the ethics issues central to the film.

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