Ethics Catch-Up, 7/23/2020: Waiting For Baseball Edition [Corrected]

This moment in “Field of Dreams” was how I started off my baseball and culture presentation this week. Ironically, the speech has always irritated me, because of its stagey blocking, and because it is a speech that sounds like a  speech, and is essentially right out of the book the film was based on. In the novel, “Shoeless Joe,”,the “Terrence Mann” character played by James Earl Jones was real life (and then, still living) recluse author J.D. Salinger. I dislike the speech, but the scene always moves me, for a personal reason.

As Terrance Mann stands, giving his speech, the ghostly players of the past silently assemble behind him in Ray Kinsella’s (Kevin Costner, of course) magic corn field. One of the players behind him has been identified in the film as Smokey Joe Wood, a 30 game winner with the World Champion 1912 Boston Red Sox. Just a few years before the film was made, I had been in the Fenway Park grandstands as  Smoky Joe, feeble, in his mid-nineties and in a wheel chair shortly before his death, barely threw out—more like dropped—the first pitch at a Red Sox Old Timer’s game, to a standing ovation.  And here he was, in that  corn field, but young and vital again.

Gets me every time….

1. Ethics query: is it ethical to perform “Piggies”? I just caught an old concert clip in which George Harrison and Eric Clapton performed the obnoxious pseudo-Marxist ditty “Piggies” (from the White Album) to thunderous applause.

[Notice of correction: I originally wrote that “Piggies” was a Lennon composition. All these years I assumed it was, heavy-handed and juvenile politics that it was. I am stunned that the song was George Harrison’s doing; I thought better of him.]

This was well after the Manson murders: I had never heard anyone perform the song in decades. Admittedly, it is just moral luck that a madman seized upon the White Album Beatles songs as his inspiration to mastermind the slaughters of  Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and her house guests, as well as supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary the following night. However, “Piggies” was the one song referenced directly in both murders. It is not inconceivable that if the White Album had omitted that song—no great loss, either–at least the LaBianca murders might not have taken place. I know I can’t hear the song without picturing carnage, and it seems to me singing the song is like a celebration of Manson’s work. I wouldn’t ban it; I don’t believe in banning anything.  I just think it’s bad taste to play it or perform it.

Is that inconsistent with my objection to “canceling”  “Dixie,” “My Mammy,” “Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Oh Susanna!” and other songs that are redolent of the Old South? I would argue that those songs have the virtue of being great tunes and important cultural touchpoints…in other words, works of musical art that justify themselves. “Piggies,” in contrast, is musical junk, like about 20% of the White Album filler. Continue reading

The Christmas Asshole, Neil DeGrasse Tyson

“Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.”

What would justify a public figure tweeting that kind of arrogant, hostile, belittling message  at his fellow citizens  on Christmas Eve?

Nothing.

This was one of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweets yesterday. I’m sure the nation’s most prominent and least deserving pop intellectual assumed that his many Twitter followers who hang on every word of revealed wisdom he utters  would appreciate his giving Christmas the metaphorical back of his hand, which only means this asshole has a lot of asshole followers.

Why do this? It is not as if there is any delusion among Christmas revelers that “billions” of others in the world do not have the pleasure of celebrating the world’s most inclusive and ethical cultural holiday. Tyson’s intent was not to inform, it was to diminish, using a version of the Golden Rationalization: “Everybody does it;” in this case, “More people do it, so what you do instead isn’t as great as you think it is.”

Asshole. Tyson doesn’t have to observe Christmas, and he doesn’t have to absorb the wisdom that Scrooge learned so traumatically, he need not acknowledge an annual ritual in which we are all encouraged to embrace love, peace, generosity, ethics, respect, charity, empathy, selflessness and hope for at least a day, opening the possibility that the enlightenment may last longer, and even a lifetime, as it did for Ebeneezer.  If he had any decency or common courtesy, however, he wouldn’t try to spoil the holiday for anyone else not so blighted. As Richard Fernandez wrote yesterday, deftly exposing the flaw in fatuous efforts among  various sad enclaves of progressives more concerned with triggering some offense with a “Merry Christmas!’ than with the health of society itself, it is helpful to understand

“…Christmas as playing a role analogous to the fictional baseball field in the movie Field of Dreams: not a place or day but a reverie. To paraphrase the famous speech to Ray, when people come to Christmas, …”it’ll be as they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. …  It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.” But Christmas has marked the time. Marked the time because, as C.S. Lewis once adventured,  Christmas is not an idealized memory of childhood but of something glimpsed in childhood.

“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

…The effort to erase Christmas will probably fail for no other reason than that it meets a human need that a mechanical bureaucratic day off cannot fulfill. Humanity needs a time to mark the growth and change in the family, an occasion to renew hopes and put aside fears and a chance to remember something we once knew: that everything’s going to be alright in the end. It really will.

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From The “Ethics Movies That Drive Me Crazy Because I’ve Watched Them Too Often” Files: “Field Of Dreams”

The end of the baseball season is hard for me, although it dovetails nicely into the hell of the holidays. The whitewater rush of our wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, my birthday, pre-Christmas, Christmas, and New Years, along with the ethics business’s dead income period and resulting Marshall cash flow anxiety at the end of every year pretty much has me distracted until January, and Spring Training starts just six weeks after that. Early November has me in withdrawal, however, so I yielded to temptation and watched the 1989 baseball fantasy “Field of Dreams.” It is also an ethics movie of sorts, exploring the complexities of family, fathers and sons, forgiveness, sacrifice, faith and redemption.

Ethics Alarms has highlighted the annoying ethics problems in two classic films, “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Now it’s “Field of Dreams'” turn. Oh, I’m still a sucker for one of the most shamelessly manipulative movies ever, don’t get me wrong. I cannot, and I’ve tried, stop myself from getting choked up when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) says to his incredibly gorgeous hunk of a father (Dwier Brown), long dead but miraculously returned to corporeal form and younger than his son,”Hey, dad? Wanna have a catch?”

See? I got choked up just typing that! (Damn movie.). From an ethics perspective, however, the film makes even less sense than the plot.

I’m going to assume, if you continue reading this, that you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t, see it. Don’t let my jaded observations spoil it. It sure works the first time.

Here are the aspects of “Field of Dreams’ that now drive me nuts.

  • Ray Kinsella is a reluctant and unenthusiastic Iowa farmer who lives with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), and daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffman). In the opening narration, Ray explains his estrangement  from his father, John Kinsella, who was a baseball fanatic and who idolized Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced star of the infamous Chicago Black Sox, who threw the 1919 World Series. By the end of his father’s life, Ray hadn’t seen his father for years. He is still feeling remorseful for refusing to play catch with his father, because rejecting baseball was a way to hurt his dad.

The Problem: The whole film’s premise (and that of the novel, “Shoeless Joe,” it was adapted from) is based on the popular fiction that Joe Jackson was unjustly banned from baseball for being part of the gamblers’ plot to fix the Series. This is untrue. Jackson accepted a bribe. He did not inform authorities. He knew his seven similarly-bribed team mates were trying to lose. He did nothing to stop them. he allowed the Series to be fixed, the fans to be betrayed and the fame itself to be brought to the brink of destruction. Jackson, who was illiterate and from all accounts appears to have had an IQ of about 85, argued that he tried to win despite taking the bribe. First, the evidence is questionable on that point.Although he  batted .375 against the Reds in the series, he failed to drive in a single run in the first five games, four of which the White Sox lost. That’s how you throw games without looking like you’re throwing games. Second, he was making the argument that stealing money from bad people isn’t still unethical. Joe probably believed that, but then he was an idiot.

  • . While walking through his cornfield one evening, Ray hears a whispering voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.” He decides, after the voice keeps pestering  him, that he is supposed to build a baseball field—with lights!—in his corn field, and that if he does, Shoeless Joe Jackson will return from the dead and play there. Or something.  Annie is dubious–ya think?—but lets him do it. After the field is finished and nothing happens for months, we see Ray and Annie going over their financial records:

RAY: How bad is it?

ANNIE: Well, given how much less acreage we have for corn, I’d say we’ll probably…almost break even.

RAY: Jesus.

ANNIE: We’ve spent all our savings on that field.

RAY: So what are you saying? We can’t keep the field?

ANNIE: t makes it real hard to keep the farm, Ray.

The Problem: And I said Shoeless Joe was stupid. NOW they are having this conversation? This is so irresponsible and incompetent, it defies description. Ray has a family. They have a little girl. Spending their savings on Ray’s whim and a ghostly and ambiguous whisper is the ethical equivalent of parents blowing their money on drugs. Through it all, Annie, who proudly styles herself as a Sixties veteran, is relentlessly cheery regarding her husband’s lunacy, and once Shoeless Joe appears on the cornfield diamond she’s all in. What, honey? Another voice is telling you to drive to Boston (from Iowa, remember) and talk famous recluse novelist Terrance Mann ( J.D. Salinger in the novel) to join your fantasy? You want to leave while we are trying to stay out of bankruptcy? Sure, go for it!

At the very least, they could have skipped the lights. None of the 1919 White Sox ever played in a night game; there were none then.

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Ethics And Sports: Maybe It’s Confirmation Bias, But The TV Ratings Give Me Hope

And these days, when the goal is a more ethical society, I’ll take hope anywhere I can find it.

The big story in the NFL right now is that for the first time ever, its TV ratings are dropping. Through the first seven weeks of the season, ratings were down for every prime-time NFL show: “Sunday Night Football” by 19 percent, “Monday Night Football” by 24 percent and the Thursday night game by 18 percent. For the season as whole, ratings are off in regional games too. The NFL is doing what it always does with bad news: obfuscating and lying. It has blamed the drop on the Presidential race, as if anyone wouldn’t do anything to escape that, and the generational abandonment of network TV and even cable for the internet. Various polling results, however, show that a big factor is the league’s increasingly obvious lack of values.

The concussion issue-–finally—is hurting interest in football, especially as parents try to steer their children toward less risky sports. A recent study that researchers took pains to insist was only troubling, not conclusive, found brain chemistry changes in children who had played one season of junior football. I don’t know about anyone else, but if there is any evidence that a sport might reduce my kid to a brain-damaged invalid by the time he’s 60, that’s plenty for me to limit his recreation choices. The public is also finally reacting to the NFL’s evident cover-up of its responsibility for ex-players who have perished as a consequence of CTE, a brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. I wish this was the main reason that fans are turning off pro-football games, but at least it’s a factor. Continue reading

My Field of Dreams

Yesterday, an Off-Broadway musical closed that I launched on its remarkable run nearly 12 years ago. The show had productions in four states, D.C. and London; it had over 450 performances; it became the cornerstone of one very talented (and very nice) actor’s career, and an important opportunity for several others. It gave a dear friend immense pleasure, satisfaction and recognition in the final decade of his life, and probably saved my theater company from bankruptcy. Most important of all, perhaps, is that it entertained thousands of people. If I got bopped by a trolley tomorrow, the show would undoubtedly stand as one of the major accomplishments of my entire strange, eclectic, under-achieving life.

And yet…feeling good about the unlikely saga of the show, now that it has finally (probably—it has risen from the dead before) seen its last audience, takes considerable effort for me, and has from the beginning. My satisfaction is more intellectual than emotional, because I know that I personally benefited less from the show in tangible ways in proportion to my contribution to it than anyone else involved. Although I restructured the script, re-wrote, added and cut lines, wrote new lyrics to one song and added two others to the show, including the finale, I’m not credited as a co-auther. I own no part of the property, and never received a dime in compensation. Those closely connected with the original production know all of this, but the extent of my role in the creation and success of the show has been invisible to audiences for over a decade. Continue reading