Tag Archives: icons

Comment Of The Day: “I Worry About Cary Grant”

Today’s Comment of the Day was spawned by the post about the fading of cultural memories of important film artists. texaggo4 has his doubts about my concerns, and whether the phenomenon is worth worrying about, or even a problem at all.

I admit, this topic is an unusually intense and personal one for me. It was the reason why I devoted a large portion of my life and creative energy for twenty years to the quixotic challenge of creating and trying to maintain a professional theater company in the Washington, D.C. area devoted to producing American stage works of quality and historical importance that were in danger of falling out of the American stage repertoire entirely, if they were not already forgotten. We proved that many shows thought hopelessly dated or politically incorrect still worked (“The Boys in the Band,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Native Son,” “The Cradle Will Rock”…), found genuine masterpieces that almost nobody knew existed (“Moby Dick Rehearsed,” “Machinal,’ “Marathon 33″…), and lost a fortune on artistic gambles that didn’t pan out, for a wide variety of reasons, including bad management, bad luck, or the unpredictability of show biz. Notable disasters that still give me nightmares include ” “Home of the Brave,'” Mr Roberts,” “A Flag is Born,” “Dear World, and “The Pirate.” We had a devoted and loyal following, and I think we proved our point, but basically didn’t make a ripple despite all that work. (Except perhaps in this case, and maybe that was enough…) Heck, our theater was in a school building, and we couldn’t get any teachers to bring their classes to our shows, even for free.

But then, most of my life has been devoted to futile pursuits. After all, I’m an ethicist…

Here is tex’s Comment of the Day on the post,I Worry About Cary Grant:

What exactly are we asking for here? Facial recognition of the actor and an ability to recollect every great movie ever produced? What’s the goal of Cultural Memory? It cannot be the rote memorization of EVERY SINGLE great artist, producer and creator of art & culture. 1, we’d never have time to get around to memorizing ALL of it, 2, we’d never have time to get around to viewing all of it, 3, we’d never have any time to get around producing new examples of it, 4, we’d never have any time to get around doing anything else that life calls us to do.

The great conversation, as it is called, which is the ongoing “dialogue” between artists of the present with their contemporaries as well as with their predecessors. Artists take the concepts that are explored in the past, the debates had between opposing concepts in the past, and rework them in the present, either shedding light on new angles or re-engaging the old arguments, or bolstering new arguments. This long process of cultural production has produced MILLIONS of individual works and, without a doubt, TENS of thousands of artists. Of those countless producers & performers, we can assume there are many many thousands of individual works that could be called “culturally iconic” or “unique” or “ground breaking” and thousands of artists.

Feeling less well read that I ought to, I compiled a list of what several thinkers considered to be the “Western Canon”: a list of essential books that captured the literary and written philosophy component of this “Great Conversation”, with the goal of plodding through them over my lifetime.

930 books. Just the books.

The authors, as I read their names, certainly had recognizable names and I could probably guess relatively accurately the eras they wrote in. Could I reasonably hold a discussion or even mention some prominent idea found in them? Maybe 10% of that list. With any level of deeper understanding? Less than that.

But what I could do, without those books, is hold a relatively well thought out conversation about the ideas that most of those books were also exploring. Why? Because that is what cultural memory does for us, without being able to hold an in depth idea about a particular work of art, we can still be able to hold in depth ideas about the particular notion that a work of art was exploring. Because cultural memory goes a great way towards preserving, through the Great Conversation, all those ideas and philosophies and beauties and art, without me having to memorize in rote detail the specifics of each work.

930 books, considered essential to grasp the great conversation of *just* Western Culture. How many paintings & painters? How many concertos and composers? How many sculptures? How many plays and playwrights and stage actors? How many buildings and architects? How many movies and directors and actors and screenwriters?

The interesting thing of course, is how the growth of culture has accelerated due to population, communication and technology. Whereas one generation in the 1000s may have produced a half dozen *iconic* culture producers, one generation in the 1500s produced several dozen *iconic* culture producers. One generation in the 1700s, maybe 100. A generation of the 1900s, easily several hundred.

Producers. Multiply that by 10 for iconic works. And I think I’m underestimating. Continue reading

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I Worry About Cary Grant [Updated]

…and James Cagney. And Kirk Douglas. And Bette Davis. And Rita Hayworth.

Seeing Kirk Douglas at the Golden Globes revived the concern that every Christmas season intensifies for me, when I realize that it is only Christmas that keeps such giants of entertainment past as Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin from fading into permanent obscurity.  The cultural figures who we remember are mostly the beneficiaries of moral luck, not a fair merit-based calculation. It is a random process, and culture, which is significantly defined by who and what we remember and who and what we forget, should not be shaped by coincidence, chance, and random amnesia.

It should not be, but it is. A classic example outside the realm of entertainment is the strange case of  Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg, and by some assessments the savior of the Union itself. When the story of Gettysburg was assembled by the battlefield commission, plaques erected and statues placed. Chamberlain’s desperate stand protecting the Union army’s flanks on Day Two of the battle didn’t make the cut. Despite as remarkable a career as anyone from Maine could have, and more than one shining moment of distinction during the Civil War, he was forgotten for more than a century. Then a brilliant, best-selling historical novel, “The Killer Angels,” recounted his heroics leading the 20th Maine so vividly that Chamberlain memory was re-animated, and began receiving the attention from historians that it deserved from the start.

In popular culture, whether a performer’s unique talents and contributions are remembered after more than a generation is now almost entirely dependent on whether there is a film featuring them that is regularly presented on television. Only a handful of performers who have permanently entered iconic status avoid that standard: I’d include Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple and John Wayne in this category, with a few debatable others. (And even the Little Tramp, MM, Fred, Judy and The Duke aren’t necessarily  safe: once Rudolf Valentino, Laurel and Hardy, Lon Cheney, Greta Garbo, Boris Karloff and James Dean could be safely called icons. I doubt one Millennial in a hundred could identify any of them. Marlene Dietrich has a thumb-hold on her iconic status only because of  Madeline Kahn’s film-long send-up of her in “Blazing Saddles.”) Continue reading

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Fake News Alert: No, Rep. John Lewis Is Still Boycotting The Inauguration

The earlier post to the contrary here was mistaken. Misconstrued source, confirmation bias, visual rather than online confirmation, and several other factors, but it is entirely my fault. I even saw a reference to the story on Facebook, and now I think its reference might have been me.

I’m not sure whether this means Rep. Lewis is better or worse, but Ethics Alarms apologizes to all.

My head did explode, though.

I took the post down. Now I’m Emily Litella. How ironic.

emily-litella-never-mind

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From The “Kings Pass” Files: Rep. Lewis Abuses His Icon Status [UPDATED]

john-lewis2

Yesterday, Rep. John Lewis told NBC audiences that Donald J. Trump, duly elected, legally and without question, was “an illegitimate President.” This was an unprecedented act of vicious partisanship and unethical public service. Worse, Lewis’s statement was intentionally racially divisive, timed to appear the day before Martin Luther King Day, and less than a week before the Inauguration. Imagine the bipartisan fury that a similar pronouncement by a white Congressman would have (justly) attracted in January, 2009. But double standards are “in” this year, if you are a progressive, a Democrat, or just someone who wants to weaken the United States of America and make certain that the recent election results in a calamity.

Lewis, as he has much of his tenure in the House, was relying on his status as a civil rights icon 60 years ago to immunize him from the consequences of his actions. In other words, he was depending on  Rationalization #11, The King’s Pass, that particularly corrosive rationalization—it is also called “The Star Syndrome”— which holds that distinguished figures who should be role models must be allowed to get away with conduct that anyone less prominent would be punished for. The King’s Pass wrecks companies and sports teams, allows sexual predator Presidents to get away with lying under oath, and is one of the many reasons the world doesn’t work very well. In addition to showing that “laws are for the little people,” abusers of status like Lewis  stand for the proposition that ethics are just for little people too.

Martin Luther King’s associates and lieutenants have been particularly prolific in exploiting The King’s Pass. Jesse Jackson proved himself to be a venal race hustler, but was insulated from the criticism he deserved by virtue of his civil rights era bona fides. Worse yet was the late Marion Barry, a cynical and corrupt mayor of Washington, D.C., whose loyal African American supporters treated him as if he could do no wrong. Police arresting him for smoking crack the same week he lectured schoolchildren on the evils of drugs was widely condemned by his supporters as racially motivated.

Our juvenile and impulsive President-Elect, sadly but predictably, reacted to Lewis’s irresponsible attack by tweeting a “shut up and do your job” response. “He’s a counter-puncher, ” explained Corey Lewandowski , the ex-Trump campaign manager who virtually counter-punched a reporter when she tried to ask the candidate a question at a rally. No, he’s a fool, but Trump’s unpresidential tweeting doesn’t excuse or validate Lewis’s conduct. “Fury Builds as Civil Rights Icon Is Denigrated”  headlines today’s Times, growing more biased and inflammatory by the day. Lewis was intentionally trying to spark fury as well as partisan and racial division, and he earned that denigration, because it was unpatriotic, unstatesmanlike, and willfully destructive.

It only seems less so because so many in Lewis’s party are behaving almost as poorly. Continue reading

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Of Atticus Finch, “Go Set A Watchman,” And Icon Ethics

AtticusToday Harper Lee’s “sequel” to “To Kill A Mockingbird” is officially released, though reviews have already been published. The big story is that the new novel’s now grown “Scout” discovers during the civil rights upheavals of the 1950s that her father and hero Atticus Finch is a racist, had attended a Klan meeting, and is prone to saying things like …

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

The new Atticus is providing ammunition to those who enjoy tearing down American heroes and icons. Finch is perhaps the most revered fictional lawyer in American culture, admired by the public as well as the legal profession. The American Bar Association named its award for fictional portrayals of lawyers in films and literature after Finch, whose pro bono defense of a wrongly accused black man in a bigoted Alabama town forms the central conflict of Lee’s classic. Burnishing Atticus’s reputation further was the beloved portrayal of the character, reputedly based on the author’s father, by Gregory Peck in the Academy Award winning film adaptation. Peck received the Award for Best Actor as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and as a civil-rights activist often stated that he admired Finch over all his other roles. In 2003, American Film Institute voted Finch as the greatest hero in American film.Wrote Entertainment Weekly, “[Finch] transforms quiet decency, legal acumen, and great parenting into the most heroic qualities a man can have.”

Atticus, however, has had his detractors through the years, notable among them the late Monroe Freedman, a  habitual iconoclast and contrarian who wrote two law review articles declaring that Finch was neither hero nor a particularly admirable lawyer. He wrote in part: Continue reading

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Ethics Quote Of The Day: Joan Tarshis, Alleged Bill Cosby Victim

Joan_Tarshis_on_Bill_Cosb

“I know he’s an icon. So is Bill Clinton.”

-Latest Cosby accuser Joan Tarshis, now a publicist and journalist, who wrote a detailed account of  being sexual assaulted  by Bill Cosby, when she was a teen, for the Web site Hollywood Elsewhere, replying to a question on CNN this morning about why anyone should believe her when she impugns the character of “an icon.”

BAZINGA!

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“Liz and Dick,” The Ethics Train Wreck Movie

The real producer behind "Liz and Dick"?

The real producer behind “Liz and Dick”?

There was another movie I watched on TV when I was too sick to move, think, or, in this case, change channels: “Liz and Dick,” the infamous Lifetime Movie Network bio-pic starring Lindsay Lohan. Was it lousy? Sure it was lousy; there was no way such a film could have been anything but lousy. Lousy cable movies, however, are hardly news or uncommon, especially on LMN. Indeed, this one was probably in the upper 25% for the outfit that regular creates starring vehicles for the likes of Erika Eleniak and Kellie Martin. This one, however, was an ethics train wreck quite apart from its aesthetic flaws.

The whole project begins with a lie, albeit a popular and elaborately supported one, which is that Elizabeth Taylor was anything special as an actress. She was not. Taylor parlayed uncommon beauty, public sympathy, and later sexual notoriety into mega-celebrity status that drooling male movie critics disgracefully interpreted as genuine talent. She had a thin, unpleasant and brittle voice that made her already limited range even more so. She couldn’t play comedy, and didn’t have the chops for hard drama either. Continue reading

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