Saturday Ethics Alerts, 1/16/21: “Nevermore!” If Only…

Raven Addams

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes,” was ratified by the requisite number of states on this date in, 1919. It was a great, botched, ethics experiment. Alcohol was too far embedded in the culture for too long and in too many ways, and the laws prohibiting alcohol were badly drafted and engendered public resentment and contempt. Still, as the Ken Burns documentary on the topic made clear, the damage being caused by alcohol abuse before Prohibition was permanently slowed down and reversed by the ban, though the ban itself was doomed from the start.

1. Quote of the Day: I just finished watching “We Bought A Zoo” again, and it reminded me of the quote, alluded to in the film, by the real life English man who did buy a zoo, and whose story was transferred to America in the film staring Matt Damon. Benjamin Mee said in his book (with the same title as the film) about the adventure, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

He’s absolutely right, and this principle has enriched my own life too many times to count.

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Comment Of The Day: “Racist Political Correctness, Casting Ethics, Double Standards, And The Rock”

Yes, this comment has little to do with ethics, but it’s so interesting as a supplement to the main post that it deserves greater circulation.

Here is Pennagain’s fascinating Comment of the Day on the weekend’s post, Racist Political Correctness, Casting Ethics, Double Standards, And The Rock:

I knew there were at least two versions of the song, “The Ballad of John Henry,” but I’ve so far found dozens more online, most of them having umpteen verses, and a work-song rhythm – the most basic of which my 7-year-old self stomped in that driving stop-rhythm around the classroom (chanting?), with that hammer-driving oomph! at the end of each line, to lyrics like “gonna die with the hammer in mah han’, Lord, Lord”.

For what it’s worth, a “real” John Henry is pretty well authenticated in at least one version of the story, ending fatally at the C&O’s Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia.

From KPBS’ “The African-American Railroad Experience”, built on Theodore Kornweibel’s photographic history: The entire southern railroad network built during the slavery era was built almost exclusively by slaves. Some of the railroads owned slaves, other hired or rented from slave owners [later from contracted freedmen or convict work-gangs]. And. . . women as well as men were actually involved in the hard, dangerous, brutal work. … several of the song versions finish with John Henry telling his wife to pick up the hammer and continue the job.

Negative evidence of Henry’s race would be that none of the many, many verses of the songs (recorded by 38 singers besides Ives) nor folk references – negro dialect aside (arguably stretched to “Suthun,”) – refer to that figure as being other than black. And as a black man, and a real, live “Everyman” working-man’s hero, he is proudly and fiercely claimed by South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky . . . and Jamaica. Continue reading

Racist Political Correctness, Casting Ethics, Double Standards, And The Rock

Oh look, another racist “you’re not black enough” casting controversy!

(Here was a previous one…)

Dwayne Johnson, the action hero known as The Rock, announced last week that he’ll be producing and starring in the film “John Henry and the Statesmen” about the black folk hero who died after defeating a steam-driven machine that supposedly would lay track faster than human beings could. Johnson, one of the top drawing box-office stars in 2017 and 2016, said John Henry was one of his “childhood heroes” and that his father, former pro wrestler Rocky Johnson, used to sing “Big John” to him before he put him to sleep as a kid.

Well, I don’t understand the “Big John” reference at all. The Jimmy Dean hit (yes, the sausage guy) was about a mine worker who dies saving his colleagues in a cave-in, and there was nothing in the song suggesting he was black, just BIG, like Dwayne Johnson. Here’s the song…

But I digress…

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The Ethical Christmas Carol

Considering that Christmas is our culture’s ethical holiday, it is remarkable that only one traditional carol—and no modern holiday songs—celebrates ethical conduct. The one carol is “Good King Wenceslas,” and a strange one it is.

The lyrics are by J. M. Neale (1818-66), and were first published in 1853. Neale is a superstar in the Christmas Carol firmament: he also is responsible for the English lyrics of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” both of which you hear much more frequently than “Good King Wenceslas.” One reason is that the ethical carol tells a story in ten verses, and if you don’t sing them all, the story doesn’t make sense. There are very few recordings of the song in which all the verses are sung. Ten verses is also a lot to remember for any song. My elementary school used to teach the whole carol to sixth graders for the Christmas assembly, but let them have crib sheets. This was before it was decreed that allowing children to learn, sing and listen to some of the most lovely and memorable songs in Western culture was a form of insidious religious indoctrination.

Here is the whole carol:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’

‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’

Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’

‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

For one thing, “Good King Wenceslas” has little to do with Christmas Day, and doesn’t mention Jesus or the Nativity. The Feast of St. Stephen is also known as Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, December 26. It is a British Commonwealth tradition that never caught on in the U.S. In some European countries like Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, the day is celebrated as a Second Christmas Day. Continue reading

Jackie Mitchell, The Girl Who Struck Out Ruth And Gehrig: A Legend And Ethics Conundrum

jackie-mitchell

The Jackie Mitchell saga is a great, feel-good story ruined by ethics rot. On one level, it is exactly the kind of tale that compels the treatment recommended by the old newspaper editor in John Ford’s “the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On another, it is an ethics mess, which might explain why I had never heard of Jackie Mitchell, once a proto-feminist icon, until I cracked open my new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Mitchell was a Depression era Chattanooga teenager who had been taught how to pitch by her friend and neighbor, Major League ace Dazzy Vance. A star on local women’s baseball teams, the tomboy southpaw was signed to a pro contract by the promotion-minded owner of a local AA level minor league team, the Lookouts, in 1931. Her big moment came when the New York Yankees came through Chattanooga from Spring Training on the way to opening the season up North. Lookouts owner Joe Engel arranged for two exhibition games against the Bronx Bombers, who, you baseball fans should know, included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Engel promoted the game as a David and Goliath showdown with Jackie playing David, and he was rewarded with a full stadium. Then this happened: Continue reading

“Print the Legend” Ethics: The Unjust Obscurity of Mary Quantrell

Barbara Fritchie, as in the poem. But the Barbara in the poem was really Mary.

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the single most bloody day in the Civil War, with nearly 21,000 casualties on September 17, 1862.  Most of us, at least those of my generation, were introduced to the battle with a poem, “The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie,” by John Greenleaf Whittier, telling the tale of a brave old woman, ninety years old, who confronted Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s troops as they marched through Frederick, Maryland to the battlefield, by waving Old Glory after the troops had fired at it, and saying,

Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.

Barbara Fritchie is now an icon, and has been portrayed in novels and films. Her house is a historic landmark, and the town uses her name and the poem to market everything from candy to T-shirts. And, I learned this Sunday, it is all a lie, though not old Barbara’s fault. The poet got his facts wrong, or used excessive “poetic license” because “Barbara Fritchie” pleased his ear better than “Mary Quantrell”, the name of the real flag-waver, and a 90-year old patriot made for a more colorful plot than a mere 30-something with chutzpah. Whittier also made Jackson the antagonist of the tale, when in fact the general was the less flamboyant and famous A.P. Hill. In 1876 Quantrell wrote to Whittier pleading with him to correct the record, signing her letter, in quotes, as “Barbara.” He did nothing. Continue reading