Ethics Hero: Dolly Parton

It seems that Dolly has integrity even if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does not.

Looking for publicity, or glitz, or something, the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominated Parton for the Class of 2022 even though she hasn’t ever recorded a song that could be classified as “rock” by any definition however loose. She has been, first and foremost, a country singer. She occasionally has crossed the line, whatever it is, into pop.

Parton withdrew her name from consideration, tweeting,

“Even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated for the ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME, I don’t feel that I have earned that right. I really do not want votes to be split because of me, so I must respectfully bow out. I do hope that the ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME will understand and be willing to consider me again – if I’m ever worthy. This has, however, inspired me to put out a hopefully great Rock ‘N’ Roll album at some point in the future, which I have always wanted to do! My husband is a total Rock ‘N’ Roll freak, and has always encouraged me to do one. I wish all of the nominees good luck and thank you again for the compliment. Rock on!”

It’s embarrassing that a nominee is more aware of the perils of an institution’s honor being contrived than the institution itself. Barack Obama could have saved the Nobel Peace Prize from a massive reduction in prestige if he had taken the same approach as Parton when he was absurdly nominated before he had done anything but get elected President. I can think of several admittees to the Baseball Hall of Fame who should have turned down that honor—Tony Perez and Harold Baines immediately come to mind.

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When Jack Palance Stood Up For Ukraine Against Putin

Over at The Bulwark, culture editor Sonny Bunch reminded me of a tale of some relevance to current events, though like most pieces in The Bulwark, his account is missing crucial details.

It involves one of my mother’s favorite Hollywood villains, Jack Palance. Younger readers probably remember him only in his long, lucrative late-career self-parody period (Watch “Shane”: what’s the matter with you?), which got him one of those weird Best Actor Oscars for just doing what he had done naturally for decades, but hammier, in “City Slickers.” (He was also aided by lines like “I crap bigger than you.” (To Billy Crystal.)

The actor was born in Pennsylvania as Volodymyr Palahniuk, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. In 2004, after Palance’s final film and just two years before his death, a Hollywood celebration  of “Russian Nights” in Los Angeles ended with an awards ceremony. “Russian Nights” was a week-long film festival that celebrated “Russian contributions to the world of art,” and was sponsored in part by the Russian Ministry of Culture. Russian president Vladimir Putin endorsed the propaganda event. Scheduled to receive “narodny artyst” awards ( translated as “the Russian People’s Choice Award”) were Dustin Hoffman and Jack Palance. Hoffman, like Palance boasted of Ukrainian heritage.

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Baseball Hall Of Fame Ethics: This 2016 Post Just Became Ripe And Moot At The Same Time

The sportswriters who decide who is admitted to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame voted in David Ortiz yesterday. The Red Sox and Boston icon (Carl Yastrzemski once said that while Ted Williams was the greatest Boston baseball player, Ortiz was the most important, and he was right) sailed into the Hall in his first year of eligibility, an honor few players have ever been accorded.

It was no surprise. In addition to having unquestionable statistical qualifications, “Big Papi” is also personally popular. That matters, a lot; the writers this year rejected Boston pitching ace Curt Schilling who also has impeccable Hall qualifications, because they don’t like him. Schilling is opinionated, combative, religious, and worst of all, politically conservative. Can’t have that. On the plus side, the writers also rejected steroid cheats Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, as well as almost certain steroid cheats Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield.

In 2016, anticipating and dreading yesterday’s news, I wrote a post titled, “The Wrenching Problem Of David Ortiz, The Human Slippery Slope.”

Here it is again.

Ethics conflicts force us to choose when multiple ethical principles and values point to diametrically opposed resolutions.  Often, a solution can be found where the unethical aspects of the resolution can be mitigated, but not this one. It is a tale of an ethics conflict without a satisfactory resolution.

I didn’t want to write this post. I considered waiting five years to write it, when the issue will be unavoidable and a decision mandatory. Today, however, is the day on which all of Boston, New England, and most of baseball will be honoring Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who will be playing his finale regular season game after a 20 years career.  His 2016 season is quite possibly the best year any professional baseball player has had as his final one; it is definitely the best season any batter has had at the age of 40 or more. Ortiz is an icon and a hero in Boston, for good reason. Ortiz was instrumental in breaking his team’s infamous 86-year long “curse” that saw it come close to winning the World Series again and again, only to fail in various dramatic or humiliating ways. He was a leader and an offensive centerpiece of three World Champion teams in 2004, 2007, and 2013. Most notably, his record as a clutch hitter, both in the regular season and the post season is unmatched. You can bring yourself up to speed on Ortiz’s career and his importance to the Red Sox, which means his importance to the city and its culture, for nowhere in America takes baseball as seriously as Beantown, here.

That’s only half the story for Ortiz. Much of his impact on the team, the town and the game has come from his remarkable personality, a unique mixture of intensity, charm, intelligence, generosity, pride and charisma. After the 2013 terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon, which shook the city as much as any event since the Boston Massacre, Ortiz made himself the symbol of Boston’s anger and defiance with an emotional speech at Fenway Park. Then he put an exclamation point on his defiance by leading the Red Sox, a last place team the year before, to another World Series title. Continue reading

Baseball Integrity Flash! Automated Ball and Strike Calls Are On The Fast Track

If they ever play Major League Baseball again—the sport is in the middle of a lock-out over the distribution of billions of dollars between owners and players, among other contested issues—it looks like games being ruined by bad pitch calls will soon be history.

 MLB officials announced that computer umpires that use an automated system for determining ball and strike calls will now be employed in Triple-A baseball for the 2022 season. I had predicted that robo-umpires at home plate would arrive in five years, considering how resistant baseball is to change, but this puts the Automated Ball and Strike (ABS) system, which was used with success last season in some of the lower minor leagues,  just one level below the major leagues. Absent unforseen problems, this could mean that the days of batters being called out on strikes with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th by pitches six inches off home plate could end after the 2022 season.

This is a grand slam for integrity. Once games were universally televised and broadcasts could show exactly where a pitch crossed the plate (or didn’t), umpires’ mistakes, in some games with the worst umpires nearing 20% of all pitches, became intolerable. Replay systems already allow reversals of the most egregious calls on the bases, making far fewer games determined by “the human factor,” also known as “lousy umpiring.”

When there was no way to fix bad calls, it was fair to call human error “part of the game.” Now it’s just an unnecessary and annoying part of the game. There was no excuse for letting it continue.

I’m thrilled.

Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021): Integrity Was Everything

Sondheim2

There’s not too much I can add to the many tributes and essays about Stephen Sondheim, who died yesterday at the age of 91, but I feel I owe him a special salute for his ethics. Ethics is not a common trait in theater, or in show business generally. Sondheim, one could argue (and I will) built his career on ethical values.

The Times has three excellent pieces: a front page obituary, a report on a final interview, and an appreciation by critic Jesse Green. I don’t disagree with any of them, nor do I dispute Sondheim’s importance to musical theater and the culture, which justifies his superstar send-off. None of them come right out and say what I believe to be obvious, if inconvenient: for all his influence, Sondheim represented a fascinating, elitist, dead-end for musical theater, which he was determined to elevate whether it was healthy for the genre or not.

Musical theater arose from humble, populist origins like the British music hall, and it was generally accepted to be a way for ordinary people to have a good time without having to think too much. That model served the genre, and the industry, well until Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II took off from where only scattered experiments like “Lady in the Dark” and “Pal Joey” had previously ventured to bring serious topics and dilemmas into song while still sending the crowd home humming. Sondheim, once he had freed himself from writing words to established composers’ tunes in “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” deliberately sought darker, more complex stories to musicalize than even Oscar would dare attempt.

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Return To”Field Of Dreams”

Field of Dreams2

Baseball had a rare PR triumph earlier this month when it held a regular season game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox in the Iowa cornfield diamond that was the setting for the cult movie favorite “Field of Dreams.” The TV ratings were the best for any regular season broadcast in 16 years. That’s amazing, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Despite rumors of its demise, baseball still has a cultural bedrock of tradition, nostalgia and history unmatched by any other sport, professional or amateur. So many Americans would not tune in to a baseball game if they didn’t still have a flicker of affection for the sport, and if your argument is, “Yeah, but that’s just because of the movie,” the movie wouldn’t have become iconic if a lot of people didn’t care about baseball. As Terrence Mann said,

Now my confession: I’m not a wild fan of the film, nor that scene. The scene in particular is unforgivably stagey and artificial: it’s right out of the (much better) book, “Shoeless Joe,” and not even the great James Earl Jones could make it sound like anything but a recitation. I got annoyed, during the hype for the game broadcast, with “Field of Dreams” being repeatedly called “The greatest baseball movie.” I don’t regard it as that; I think it just barely makes the top five, and I could be talked out of ranking it that high.

For good reasons, many baseball writers, fans and bloggers have criticized the film over the years, and not just because it is shamelessly manipulative. But it is that. Baseball writer Craig Calcaterra, a vocal debunker of the film, writes,

“I will fully admit that a story about a father and son repairing a longstanding rift over a game of catch — with or without the magical realism elements — could form the basis of a MAJOR chills moment in an absolutely fantastic movie. The problem, as I’ve said in the past, is that “Field of Dreams” does not earn its chills moment. It is lazy in that it does not sketch out the dispute between Ray and his dad in anything approaching realistic terms — it’s dashed off in the rushed intro with almost no details — and it does nothing to explain why Ray’s moving the Earth and the Heavens to bring his dad back to that ball field is so important or why it serves as the “penance” Ray must pay for whatever reason. With no buildup or backstory, there’s no payoff.”

But worse, for me and others, is the slipshod handling of baseball history. “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was not innocent of taking a bribe to throw the 1919 World Series, he was guilty. He was not a thoughtful, wise-cracking Ray Liotta, he was just north of being a moron. He batted left-handed, and famously so, not right-handed like Liotta. When Frank Walley’s character, a magically reincarnated and youthened old ballplayer named Archie “Moonlight” Graham, whose single appearance in the major leagues was in 1905, is nearly beaned by a close pitch, he says “Hey ump, how about a warning?” Umpires didn’t warn pitchers for throwing at batters in 1905, and not for more than a half-century after that. Sloppy.

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Ethics Quote Of The Month: Lincoln Brown

Taliban abuse

I try to keep my true rants to a minimum, as they are unseemly for one in my role. I also try, not quite so successfully, to tamp down my occasional impulse to write, “I told you so!” It really helps me a lot when a web pundit like Lincoln Brown, a former talk show host and conservative columnist, writes pretty much exactly what I am feeling.

Brown’s essay titled “Dear Leftists, I Hope You Can’t Live With Yourselves” is what I have been dreaming of posting on Facebook for my 200 or so left-biased Facebook friends, some of them real friends I once thought better of as well as a few relatives, who would write mouth-foaming screeds about President Trump’s emails but who have maintained absolute Facebook silence on the Afghanistan disaster other than to post a meek and deflecting, “I think it was time to get out of Afghanistan, right everybody?” Brown’s whole post is the Ethics Quote of the Month, but here are some highlights:

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Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’”

Socrates

We have a veritable Comment of the Day chain. Sarah B.’s COTD yesterday on the Ethics Alarms post applauding the U.S. Catholic Bishops for preparing to hold Joe Biden accountable for his open support of abortion had inspired two excellent questions, in sequence, from reader Curmie. Both were answered with brio by Ryan Harkins.

We’ve never had such a Socratic Comment of the Day exchange before, and maybe I should have a separate category for such delights, but I don’t. So I’ll just introduce this by saying, “Here is Curmie and Ryan Harkins collaborative Comment of the Day on the post,Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Heroes:The US Conference of Catholic Bishops.” (Curmie plays Socrates.)

Curmie: One question, or rather series of related questions, for Sarah B, from a long-lapsed Protestant:

As respects “grave matter,” is there an inherent element of volition in the act itself (it wasn’t an accident), and if so, is there a distinction between literally not knowing the sinfulness of an act (had no idea the Church forbids a certain action) and deciding for oneself that the act is innocent, despite Church doctrine? And, assuming any of these distinctions are relevant, are we talking about a disjunctive yes/no, or something along the lines of a continuum?

I’m thinking of the Ancient Greek and Shinto (to name two) concepts of pollution (as opposed to sin), and wondering if Catholicism is closer to the former than I had hitherto believed.
In a pollution-based theology, Oedipus is still guilty of incest despite his active attempt to avoid it. In today’s world, according to this idea, a driver who hits and kills a child who ran out into the street is still guilty, although the event was entirely accidental, and the driver did everything possible to avoid hitting the child.

Ryan Harkins: In backing up, the Catholic Church teaches that a sin is mortal if it meets three requirements: first, that it is grave matter; second that the sinner knows that it is grave matter; and third, that the sinner consents, or intends, to commit that act. Grave matter is grave because of the extent of damage it does, and this is regardless of intent. Killing someone is grave matter; they are just as dead if you didn’t intend for them to die. I think St. Paul encapsulates this idea in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:13-14).” The point is that even though you don’t know that what you are doing is wrong, because the act itself is inherently wrong, it will still cause harm. So the gravity of an action is not a matter of volition.

Where volition enters the picture is in the second two conditions. A person might not know that an act constitutes grave matter, but this could either be an unintentional state, in which he is not culpable for his ignorance, or it could be willful ignorance on his part. One aspect of being Catholic is the assent to the Church as authoritative, infallible on matters of faith and morals. A Catholic then has an obligation not just to follow the Church’s instructions, but to learn what the Church actually instructs. This touches on what Sarah B was saying on primacy of conscience: we should follow our consciences, but we have a duty to properly form our consciences as well. On some matters where the Church has not made any official pronouncements, the faithful are allowed flexibility of opinions. But on many issues that are hot topics today, the Church has made pronouncements, and those are, as far as any Catholic is concerned, infallible and made so through the protection and guarantee of the Holy Spirit.

A Catholic does not evade culpability by concluding privately that an action the Church condemns is actually innocent. His rejection of Church authority would actually be itself grave matter, on the order of the great sin of the Devil, who said, “Non serviam.” The sin of pride has long been held as the father of all other sins. It is the sin by which we seek to supplant God as the arbiter of good and evil. For a Catholic, who ought to know that the Church claims infallibility on matters of faith and morals, to reject Church teaching, he either has to deny the Church, or he has to believe he has some higher authority than the Church.

As for whether we are speaking of a disjunctive or a continuum, my answer is both. When it comes down the end of the day, either you have committed a mortal sin or you haven’t. But because of the third condition for a sin to be mortal, the question of whether one actually committed a mortal sin can become murkier. Take an addict, for example. It is a sin of gluttony to engage in debilitating drug use. So the use of hardcore, recreational drugs like meth, cocaine, and heroin is grave matter. (The use of lesser drugs like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and a few others do not fall into this category because the impact of moderate use is not very large. Drugs that have practically no “moderate” dosage are the ones that would constitute to grave matter.) But an addict has lost a great deal of his capacity to resist temptation. As he tries to quit, his falling of the wagon and using is of lesser severity than someone taking those drugs the first time. As he progresses, and he regains control over his appetites, then his culpability in slipping up and using again increases.

So there can be debate over whether a sin was actually mortal, due to the degree in which a person consents to a wrong. If someone resists temptation for a long time, but is eventually worn out by the struggle, did he really consent when he finally gave into temptation? However, this line of questioning can be destructive. Overly scrupulous people can argue themselves into condemnation over the slightest of offenses, and any of the rest of us would really like to rationalize our sins into the venial category, given the opportunity.

Of course, any of this is tangential to the question of public support of abortion. On this the Church is very clear. Abortion is a grave evil, perpetuated against the most defenseless and the most innocent members of the human race. Any Catholic politician who advocates for expanding access to abortion is defending an intolerable evil, and any excuse of being personally opposed is insufficient. A politician is to be held to a higher standard in this regard than a private citizen because of his capacity to influence legislation one way or another. Since the Church has expressed all this, there should be no excuse for any Catholic politician.

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Baseball Has A Cheating Problem That Is Old, Was Supposedly Addressed Decades Ago, And Is Strangling The Game. It Is Relevant To More Than Baseball (Part 1: Introduction)

Baseball sticky

Since about four other readers pay any attention to my baseball ethics posts, let me say right up front why this a mistake. Baseball’s current pitchers using foreign substances on the ball problem is, ethically, exactly the same as our nation’s election cheating scandal, or the illegal immigration crisis. It arises from the same dead-headed rationalizations, intellectual laziness, and self-serving deception. We can and should learn from it. But we won’t.

If you want to ignore the latest baseball ethics scandal as a niche problem unrelated to greater ethics principles, be my guest. You will be missing an important and still developing lesson.

Baseball’s hitting is way down this year, and pitching is more dominant than it has been since the mid-1960s. There is a reason: almost every pitcher is using some kind of sticky substance on the ball. This increases “spin rate,” which before computers and other technology was impossible to see, much less measure. The faster a pitcher can make a ball spin, the more it moves, curves and dives at higher speeds. Sticky substances allow a pitcher to do that. Using them is against the rules; it’s cheating. But for years now, the same kind of ethics-addled fools who allowed Barry Bonds and other cheats to use illegal steroids and wreck the game’s home run records as long as they lied about it have let pitchers illegally doctor the ball.

This week, the whole, completely avoidable ethics train wreck became an engine of destruction for the National Pastime.

Unfortunately, one has to understand the context to comprehend what is going on now, and that means looking backwards, in this case, to 2014. Here, with some edits, are two Ethics Alarms essays that provide the context. The first was titled “The Abysmal Quality of Ethical Reasoning in Baseball: A Depressing Case Study.” The second, Pineda-Pine Tar, Part II: Baseball Clarifies Its Bizarro Ethics Culture, appeared 13 days later. Yes, what is happening now was foretold by conditions that were evident seven years ago. The remaining parts of this series will bring you, and the train wreck, up to date.

***

What happened was this: During last night’s Red Sox-Yankee game in Yankee Stadium, the Boston broadcasting team of Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy noticed a glossy brown substance on New York starting pitcher Michael Pineda’s pitching hand. It was very obvious, especially once the NESN cameras started zooming in on it.   “There’s that substance, that absolutely looks like pine tar,” play-by-play man Don Orsillo said. “Yeah, that’s not legal,” color commentator and former player Jerry Remy replied.

Indeed it isn’t.  According to rule 8.02(a)(2), (4) and (5), the pitcher shall not expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove; apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball; [or]  deface the ball in any manner.

The Red Sox, who probably knew about the gunk on Pineda’s hand, didn’t complain to the umpires, and just went about their merry way, losing the game. Asked about the stuff on his hand, Pineda demonstrated the full range of body language indicating that he was lying his head off. “It was dirt,’ he said. Later, when the ick appeared to be gone,  Pineda explained, he had just sweated his hand clean. Right. Whatever was on his hand—beef gravy, crankcase oil, chocolate syrup…the majority of pundits think pine tar—it wasn’t “dirt.” Pineda’s manager, Joe Girardi, was brazenly evasive.

The Yankee pitcher was cheating. This isn’t a major scandal, but cheating is cheating: sports shouldn’t allow cheating of any kind, because if a sport allows some cheating, however minor, it will encourage cynical, unscrupulous and unethical individuals on the field, in the stands, and behind keyboard to excuse all other forms of cheating, from corked bats to performance enhancing drugs. Cheating is wrong. Cheating unfairly warps the results of games, and rewards dishonesty rather than skill. Cheating undermines the enjoyment of any game among serious fans who devote energy and passion to it. Any cheating is a form of rigging, a variety of lying.

And yet, this clear instance of cheating, caught on video, primarily sparked the sports commentariat, including most fans, to cite one rationalization and logical fallacy after another to justify doing nothing, and not just doing nothing, but accepting the form of cheating as “part of the game.” I’ve been reading columns and listening to the MLB channel on Sirius-XM and watch the MLB channel on Direct TV since this episode occurred. Here are the reactions:

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