Fake History On Stage, Or “Why I Detest Sondheim’s ‘Assassins'”

Here are some of the things audience members unfamiliar with American history and its dark corner containing Presidential assassins will learn as they watch the much-acclaimed Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical “Assassins,” a very fine production of which I saw over the weekend:

…Nobody knows why actor John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. It may have been “bad reviews.”

...Lee Harvey Oswald worked in the Dallas book depository, and and was originally going to shoot himself, not President Kennedy.

…Giuseppe Zangara was attempting to assassinate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he killed the Mayor of Chicago and wounded five bystanders in 1933, but didn’t really care which, because both of them “controlled the money.”

…Sarah Jane Moore was a quirky, whacky, Lucy Riccardo-like  housewife who just wanted to kill President Ford for no particular reason.

…Moore and Lynnette “Squeaky’ Fromme knew each other and jointly attacked Ford.

…President Garfield “succeeded Grant.”

…Presidential assassins are all cut from the same psychological cloth, desperate Americans living on the margins of a cold-hearted nation that ignores them, who decide to become important by killing a President of the United States.

None of the above is true, and that just scratches the surface of the elaborate, anti-America conceit that is “Assassins.”  It is conceived as a cynical carnival game underlying a time-warping portrait of some of the men and women, far from all, who have tried, successfully or not, to murder a President of the United States.

I have seen the show multiple times, and it has always been (mostly) well-produced, directed, and acted, although if you set out to drive someone like me crazy, having Booth shoot at Lincoln with a revolver and having Oswald fire just one shot at Kennedy are good ways to do it. The show is also infuriating in its deliberate defiance of history to execute what a couple of artists think is a cool concept and a strong political statement that amounts to an evening’s worth of disinformation. The idea about assassins being a callous society’s losers and outcasts just doesn’t work, and should have signaled that it doesn’t work from the start: Booth, the leader of the time-traveling murderers—they all show up in the book depository to persuade Oswald to kill JFK—disproves the thesis in the first 10 minutes. Booth was no outcast or loser. He was a celebrity. He was successful, famous, and relatively wealthy. He was healthy, relatively sane, and in good shape. Booth was a Confederate fanatic, and determined to do what he could to pull victory out of defeat for the South by killing Lincoln, but he was hardly in the same class as, for example, Charles Guiteau, a certifiable loon, or John Hinckley.  Leon Czolgosz , who shot McKinley, was no crazier than Booth. He was a political radical as well, an anarchist like Sacco and Vanzetti, and was convinced that the government had to be brought down in the interests of justice.

Oh, whatever. Details, details. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Unethical Website Of The Month: Michael T. Slager Support Fund”

Now, let's not jump to conclusions...

Now, let’s not jump to conclusions…

UPDATE (MAY 3): I have been convinced that the original post that generated this Comment of the Day went too far. Asking for support for Slager’s defense cannot be unethical: Slager has a right to a defense, and the best one available. My thoughts on that issue, in relation to the Freddie Gray cops, are here. I still think it is obvious that the individual who posted the appeal is doing so for unethical reasons, and is likely a racist, an apologist for a bad cop, and an idiot. But the appeal itself is not unethical, hence the website was not unethical to post it.

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How can a website dedicated to paying for the defense of fired police officer Michael T. Slager be unethical, when every citizen is guaranteed the right to a defense before a jury of his peers? I thought I made my ethical objections to the site clear when I wrote:

Slager deserves a fair trial and will get one, but anyone whose immediate reaction to seeing the horrific video is sympathy for this killer cop needs psychiatric treatment, and quickly.

I also made it clear—I thought–that the text of the appeal betrayed a strange and ugly urge to shield Slager from the consequences of his conduct, which was per se, on its face, undeniably illegal under the laws of every state in the land, including South Carolina. He shot a fleeing man in the back; he cannot claim self-defense. Deadly force is forbidden in such situations. Unless Slager noticed that victim Walter Scott had death-ray shooting eyes in the back of his head, Scott’s death is a homicide, and it’s an open and shut case. The only remaining question is what level of homicide.

The appeal said that the poster supported Slager. Wrong. We should not support police officers who shoot citizens in the back. It attempted to minimize Slager’s offense by calling it a “mis-step.” Intentionally shooting someone illegally is not a mis-step. It’s murder. Then the appeal reminded us that Slager has a family, and didn’t do anything bad before he shot a man to death. Well, “first offense” is not a big mitigating factor when it comes to executing people.

However, I appreciate Ethics Alarms newcomer Gustav Bjornstrand‘s comment, though I don’t think this is the best context for it. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post “Unethical Website Of The Month: Michael T. Slager Support Fund.” I’ll be back at the end.

I venture to say that to offer support to Slager is certainly ethical, in and of itself. That is, if one believed that he or anyone deserves monetary support in order to raise a defence. It is conceivable that even someone who was certain he had committed a crime would choose still to aid him in getting good representation. It is unethical, I suggest, for anyone to assume that Slager is guilty of murder before a court decides the issue. It is possible, even if improbable, that there were circumstances prior to Slager firing that may shed light on his decision to fire. Additionally, there are a few other factors that need to be taken into consideration: Continue reading

Now THIS Is An Unprofessional Actor

Even John would have a problem with this actor's "method"...

Even John would have a problem with this actor’s “method”…

The 8th Circuit has ruled that actor Paul Doering was justly sentenced for his conduct during a 2011 theatrical event in which he was performing. What did he do?

For a Western-themed charity event in Hill City, South Dakota,  Doering portrayed an outlaw in a shootout.Stage actors using guns shoot blanks, of course. For some reason—extreme method acting? Bad reviews? That ineffable something that makes a star?—Doering used live rounds, real bullets, wounding three spectators.

And they say the theater is dull.

You can read about the case here; that’s of secondary interest. What I find fascinating is that this might be the most unethical performance by an actor in a theatrical performance ever.

John Wilkes Booth doesn’t qualify: he wasn’t in the cast when he shot Lincoln during “Our American Cousin.” I’m pretty sure he would have found Doering thoroughly unprofessional.

Unethical Website Of The Month: Ranker

"One of these things is not like the others..."

“One of these things is not like the others…”

Lists, especially stupid celebrity lists (Worst plastic surgery…Most overpaid…Actors with famous siblings…Actresses with high IQs) are a staple of the internet, and there are sites like Cracked (which does them well), Buzzfeed (which occasionally does) and Bleacher Report (which is sloppy unless it is doing lists of hot women, in which case it is just undiscriminating) that often appear to do little else. That’s fine; everything on the web doesn’t have to be edifying, profound or useful. Still, there are some basic rules of competence and responsibility even in list-making on the web. One is that as with any conduct involving the conveyance of information, do your homework and don’t mislead readers or  create misconceptions.

Another is that when you are dealing with individuals to whom you owe your nation’s very existence and who are as superior to you as a human being as you are to an anteater, show some damn respect.

Ranker, a second tier list site apparently operated by junior high school drop-outs (but whose lists are “recommended” by more respectable and heavily trafficked sites like Mediaite and The Daily Beast) failed these two essential principles with their offensive list, “33 Celebrities Who Have Killed People,” introduced with this:

“…Many celebrities were involved in tragic accidents that resulted in deaths, while others committed cold-blooded murder. Some celebs have served time in prison stemming from convictions, and others have gotten away with murder; sure, maybe they were wrongly accused, or maybe they just had great lawyers. Several famous people were involved in deadly car accidents. Former First Lady Laura Bush missed a stop sign and slammed her car into another vehicle, accidentally killing her friend who was driving the other car. She was in high school at the time of the accident. Other celebs who killed people in car accidents include Keith Moon, Ted Kennedy, and Rebecca Gayheart. What do you think about all the celebrities who have killed someone?” Continue reading

Chris Dorner Capture Reward Ethics

John_Wilkes_Booth_wanted_poster_colourThe gossip site TMZ often has horrible ideas, but for once it has come up with a horrible idea that is worth discussing seriously.

Several citizens provided information that led to renegade killer Chris Dorner being trapped and ultimately killed in a stand-off with police. This should put them in line for three rich rewards offered for information leading to the end of Dorner’s rampage, but TMZ identified catches in all three:

 “The Mayor of L.A. announced a $1 million reward — funded by private groups — for information leading to the “capture and conviction” of Dorner.  Big problem — technically speaking, Dorner must be both captured AND convicted to trigger the reward. The L.A. City Council offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to “the identification, apprehension, and conviction” of Dorner.  Again … no conviction.  City Council sources tell us there’s already a disagreement between the Legislative Analyst and the City Attorney over how to interpret the reward language. And finally … the L.A. County Board of Supervisors offered a $100,000 reward for information “leading to the capture of Christopher Dorner.”  One source at the Board of Supervisors tells TMZ,  “Dorner was cornered but not captured.”

Could TMZ possibly be correct? Would the offerers of these rewards weasel out of their obligations, citing the fact that Dorner burned to death before he could be captured and convicted?

Legally it’s possible, but barely. Ethically, it would be unfair and a breach of public trust. Pragmatically, it would be stupid beyond all imagining. Continue reading

Leslie Johnson, the Implications of Guilt and the “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” Confusion.

In the context of American justice, “innocent until proven guilty” means that nobody is legally guilty of a crime until a court proceeding has ruled so after a fair trial. The term is nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights; it flows from the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, requiring that no one can lose his or her freedom or property without due process of law. What it does not mean is that a wrongdoer is literally innocent of a crime until a jury or judge has officially declared that he is. If he did something, he did it, and if we all know he did it, we don’t have to pretend he didn’t or that we don’t.

I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television and get taken into custody on the spot, and still had to listen to broadcasters say he “allegedly shot Kennedy’s assassin” as if it was still just a theory. By this standard, John Wilkes Booth only “allegedly” shot Lincoln, since he was never tried. The fact that a theater full of people saw him do it, leap to the stage and run off derringer smoking, doesn’t mean a thing. He’s as pure as the driven snow, innocent forever. Continue reading

What is the “Worst” Behavior? Don’t Ask Conservative Bloggers!

John Hawkins of Right Wing News persuaded 43 conservative bloggers to send him their list of the twenty worst Americans in history. He then compiled a list of “The 25 Worst Americans” using their responses, with the rankings based on the number of blogger who listed an individual.

The list is disturbing, but not for the reasons you think.  What does it say about the priorities and values of conservative bloggers that the “worst American” among all the criminals, serial killers, scoundrels and sociopaths America has produced is, by this method of measurement...wait for it…

...Jimmy Carter? Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson

From the “What was he thinking?” files:

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says that he is considering whether to pardon Henry McCarty, a.k.a. William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid (1859-1871), because in 1879 one of Richardson’s predecessors, Gen. Lew Wallace (who, among other things, presided over the trial of the Lincoln conspirators, headed the military tribunal that condemned the Confederate commandant of the infamous Andersonville prison camp, and wrote Ben-Hur,)  reneged on a deal to grant Billy amnesty in exchange for some helpful grand jury testimony in the prosecution of vigilantes.

Of course, when Billy didn’t receive his pay-off quickly enough, he escaped from jail and killed two deputies in the process. He was that kind of guy. Continue reading

Unethical Questions, Anti-Semitism, and Greenberg’s Chase

I first encountered the device of the unfounded accusatory rhetorical when, as a teenager, I became fascinated by the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. A best-seller at the time was Web of Conspiracy, an over-heated brief for the theory that Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and others were in league with John Wilkes Booth. The author, a mystery writer named Theodore Roscoe, was constantly suggesting sinister motives by asking questions like “The sealed records of the official assassination investigation were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Was the War Department afraid of what the documents would prove? Would they have implicated Stanton? We will never know.”  This tactic is on view regularly today, used generously by the purveyors of modern conspiracies, but it is also a regrettably common tool of journalists and historians. Now the eclectic sports journalist Howard Megdal (who also edits a terrific website, The Perpetual Posthas found a new use for it. His question: “When Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers made a run at Babe Ruth’s season home run record, falling two short with 58 in 1938, was he pitched around because he was Jewish?” Continue reading