A Brief Note To Commenters…

I am so proud of you all, and Ethics Alarms,  today. The quality of discussion on multiple posts and threads is outstanding, as varied, eloquent and and thoughtful as I have ever seen it. I offer my sincere thanks and appreciation to all participants.

And since I’m here, I might as well note that July 16 is Ethics Ambivalence Day, or perhaps Watch Out For Moral Luck Day. Which of these events that occured on July 16th can be confidently and uncontroversially  designated in retrospect as “good”?

  • In 1790, Congress declared Washington, D.C. the new capital.

The new Congress chose a swampy, humid, muddy and mosquito-infested site on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia to be the nation’s permanent capital. Brilliant!

  • In 1918, the Romanov family was executed.

This ended a 300-year imperial dynasty,  and sent Russia down the road of Communism.  But they got rid of those damn Czars!

  • In 1935,  the world’s first parking meter was installed.

The world’s first parking meter, known as Park-O-Meter No. 1, was installed on the southeast corner of what was then First Street and Robinson Avenue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, eventually helping municipalities to balance their budgets nation wide.

  • In 1951, “Catcher in the Rye” was published.

J.D. Salinger’s only full-length novel, about a confused and nihilistic teenager would be taught in high schools for half a century. Why, I will never know.

  • In 1995, Amazon opened for business.

No comment.

  • In 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the Manhattan Project resulted in the first atom bomb successfully exploding in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Independence Day With Ethics Alarms 2… Observations Upon Re-Watching “Gettysburg”

I began the Fourth of July this year by watching the last 90 minutes of “Gettysburg,” Ted Turner’s epic 1993 film.  My wife and I had begun watching on July 3, the date of Pickett’s Charge and the final day of the 1863 Civil War battle, but the more than four-and-a-half hour running time took me to Independence Day.

This was the extended version, the Director’s Cut, which adds 17 minutes of deleted  scenes to the version shown in movie theaters, itself one of the longest movies ever offered to the American public. We had last watched the un-extended film from beginning to end on a VHS tape almost 30 years ago.

Observations:

  • “Gettysburg” is an ethics movie, and a great one. I don’t know why this didn’t come through to me the first time I watched it. Primarily it celebrates the Seven Enabling Virtues discussed in yesterday’s post, but the film teaches us a lot about leadership, integrity, compassion, duty, loyalty, and conflicts of interest.

If the film isn’t routinely shown in schools, and I’m sure it isn’t, that is a lost opportunity. A whole course of study could be based on the film alone, and it would be more educational than most history courses.

  • Some of the added minutes extend the Pickett’s Charge re-enactment, and the length of the sequence adds to its horror and wonder. How could anyone enthusiastically follow orders to attempt such a deadly march into enemy artillery and rifle fire, while lined up like tin rabbits at a shooting gallery, in an open field, even having to climb over fences?

The film makes it clear, and this is accurate, that it was the men’s trust and admiration, almost worship, of Robert E. Lee that made such insane valor possible. At Gettysburg, Lee abused that trust. He was warned that the plan was madness, and he was so certain of his own invulnerability that he persisted.

  • The film made me realize that it is likely that Lee’s famous “It was all my fault!’ refrain to his returning shattered troops signified his realization that  his vanity and pride had been the direct cause for the Pickett’s Charge fiasco, and indeed the entire engagement. After the fiasco, the film shows Lee as a shattered man. General Longstreet, who repeatedly advises Lee to go around the Union entrenchment and take up a position on high ground between Pennsylvania and Washington, reminds Lee that even after the failed Confederate assault on Little Round Top on July 2, it is not too late for his plan to work. Lee replies that such a maneuver would be tantamount to a retreat, saying that he had never left the field of battle with the enemy  in control, and is not about to start.

If General Lee was capable of listening to what he was really saying, he would have realized that he was using a personal motive to justify a decision that could not be justified rationally. Continue reading

Third Of July Ethics Concert, 2020, Part 2: The Less Grand And Not Historic, One Hopes

For historical and quirky reasons, “The Egg” is my favorite song from “1776.” The number takes place on July 3, as the Continental Congress debates Jefferson’s handiwork, and Tom, Ben Franklin and John Adams sit outside, hesitant to witness  the rhetorical carnage they know is coming. I played the role of Adams in several musical reviews, a part I would have loved to have tackled on-stage in a full production, but I am about 7 inches too tall.

Some productions cut this number, which is both bad history and bad theater. (The number to cut is “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” a cheap shot at conservatives, and a lousy song.)

1. And I will say, “None of your business, officer!” A new Virginia law, the Community Policing Act that took effect this week, requires police officers to ask individuals pulled over during traffic stops for their race, ethnicity, and gender. I very much doubt that the law will withstand a legal challenge. The change is part of the Governor Ralph “Call me Michael Jackson” Northam regime of enacting every oppressive progressive agenda item he can get away with. This one is aimed at eliminating “bias-based profiling,” and requires officers to record the driver’s race, ethnicity, age, and sex while conducting traffic stops.

Like so many other misguided approaches to fixing “systemic racism,” this one attempts to protect the rights of African-Americans by infringing on the rights of everyone else. If I am pressed to answer the question by an officer, I will answer that I identify as Asian and female. I urge my fellow Virginians to do likewise.

2. Wuhan virus ethics train wreck update: Continue reading

Third Of July Ethics Concert, 2020, Part 1: Pickett’s Charge, Custer’s First Stand, And More

Charge!

The anthemic music is the finale to the 1993 film Gettysburg, which has one of my all-time favorite scores, by Randy Edelman. I have worn out three CDs, and this particular selection, “Reunion and Finale,” almost lost me my drivers license once when I was playing it loudly in my car and blew past the speed limit by 25 mph or so.

I will be interested to see if any channel shows Ted Turner’s epic this weekend. I’m sure it is now regarded as politically incorrect because the film does not portray the Southern generals and soldiers as vicious racists, and the balance that the film was praised for when it was released is now regarded as “pro-Confederacy propaganda.” That is a fatuous take on the film, which is about human beings, not politics, and arguably the most historically accurate historical drama ever made, based on what may be the best historical novel ever written, “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara, just a wonderful book. Read it. You can thank me later.

Unlike July 2, one of the most significant dates in U.S. history with multiple major events, July 3 stands out for one momentous event. Even in the sequence of events leading to American independence, July 3 was relatively boring:  it was devoted to the debate over Jefferson’s Declaration, resulting in more than eighty additions and redactions.

July 3  was the final day of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, reaching its bloody climax in General Robert E. Lee’s desperate  gamble on a massed assault on the Union center. In history it has come to be known as Pickett’s Charge, after the leader of the Division that was slaughtered during it.

At about 2:00 pm this day in 1863, near the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg,  Lee launched his audacious stratagem to pull victory from the jaws of defeat in the pivotal battle of the American Civil War.  The Napoleonic assault on the entrenched Union position on Cemetery Ridge, with a “copse of trees” at its center, was the only such attack in the entire war, a march into artillery and rifle fire across an open field and over fence. When my father, the old soldier, saw the battlefield  for the first time in his eighties, he became visibly upset because, he said, he could visualize the killing field.

The battle lasted less than an hour. Union forces suffered 1,500 casualties,, while at least 1,123 Confederates were killed on the battlefield, 4,019 were wounded, and nearly 4000 Rebel soldiers were captured. Pickett’s Charge would go down in history as one of the worst military blunders of all time. Continue reading

In-Between Ethics Warm-Up, Late 5/28/ Or Early 5/29/2020…

Good whatever-it-is…

One problem with having to take a nap every couple of hours is that all sleep patterns inevitably get wrecked, and that’s where I am now, awake and staring in the early morning or late night…what fun.

1. I see that we have riots in Minneapolis. The Third Precinct police station was set on fire; earlier, rioters burned down a six-story, 190-unit affordable housing project  slated to open in the spring of 2021. That development cost approximately $37 million. Never mind: MSNBC’s reliably ridiculous Ali Velshi told his viewers, literally as flames raged behind him, that “this is mostly a protest. It is not generally speaking unruly.” I would say this is unbelievable, but it only slightly moves the needle in the manner the current left-mainstream media regards reality as a flexible concept.

Meanwhile, there is absolutely no rational nor ethical justification for riots, ever, as a response to a single instance of police brutality, or in response to anything else. Nevertheless, we will get rationalizations and excuses from the usual suspects, as well as pious humming that it’s “understandable” for people to act this way. Not if rioters are to be regarded as adults, it’s not. They are harming innocent fellow citizens and business owners, and making matter worse, not better. The enablers and the apologists for such conduct should be duly marked, identified, and condemned, and no, the four rogue police officers who appear to have killed George Floyd did not “cause” the riots. The rioters caused the riots; it’s a choice, and an inexcusable one. The protests elsewhere demanding premature charges and the abandonment of due process regarding the officers are similarly indefensible.

This isn’t even a close call, and it is frightening that so few  are willing to articulate it without equivocation. Continue reading

Now THIS Is Moral Luck And Chaos Theory! How An Unethical Practical Joke Got Its Target a Plum Job, And Pete Rose Banned From Baseball

Yes, this one is about baseball. Trust me, I can find baseball ethics stories even when there’s no baseball. It is also about moral luck, how unethical conduct can have good results and vice-versa, and Chaos Theory, which posits that in complex systems, even insignificant changes can  set into motion unpredictable chain reactions, and where they stop, nobody knows.

On Oct. 2, 1983, the Boston Red Sox said goodbye to Carl Yastrzemski at Fenway Park. I was there, along with my wife, thanks to the kindness of a good friend  (who eventually real-life de-friended me over a political disagreement in an episode I will never understand. I don’t like to think about it,) Yaz got a great send-off for his final game, with an hour-long pregame ceremony, the retirement of his No. 8 jersey and a letter, read aloud to the crowd, from President Reagan. Yaz, memorably, rounded the park, touching the hands of the fans, and dramatically ripped off his jersey as he went down the steps of the dugout for the last time as a player. I’ll never forget it.

Since the retirement of a Red Sox legend after 22 years was the biggest story in the city as well as in baseball,  the Boston sports talk radio show “The Sports Huddle” on WHDH decided to play a little joke. Let me interject here that “The Sports Huddle” was always a vile feature of the sports scene in Boston, uncivil, unfair, with loutish hosts and the kinds of callers who epitomized the worst stereotypes of Boston fans.  It’s gone now, and good riddance. But I digress….

The show decided it would be funny to ignore Carl Yastrzemski, who the show and its callers had been generally vicious about for a decade, and to devote its four-hours on Yaz’s day to a joke tribute to as unremarkable a baseball figure as they could find. The producers settled on the first-base coach of  the Montreal Expos,  55-year-old Vern Rapp, who had once managed the St. Louis Cardinals without distinction, and who had announced that he would end his baseball career at the end of the the 1983 season. Of course, only the most hard- core baseball fans in Boston would have any idea who Vern Rapp was.

The Sports Huddle jerks decided to play it all straight, presenting a solemn ,extended tribute to the mediocre, obsure,Expos coach. They tracked down former minor league teammates of Rapp’s,  friends  from his time in St. Louis, and  Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, interviewing them all about Rapp’s fine qualities as a baseball man and human being, and how much baseball would miss him. Then they interviewed Rapp himself. Nobody suspected that it was all a put-on.

At least nobody dumped a bucket of blood on his head, like they did to Carrie White. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day AND Mask Photo Dilemma Update: “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/7/2020: Is It Just Me, Or Does Anyone Else Feel Like They Are In A “Twilight Zone” Episode? [Item #1]

It was reported by a non-reliable source that this is the anti-virus mask Rep. Lee put on her dog…

[Okay, bear with me now. This COTD by Steve Witherspoon was actually entered on this post, where the issue at hand was alluded to obliquely in the post, then expanded upon in a comment. But I went into far more detail regarding the issue in today’s Warm-Up, and there was even a poll on the issue, so I’m assigning the comment to that post, not the one that inspired it.]

I officially mark my immediate ethics conflict as solved. The poll results are moot regarding this specific episode but still valid regarding the general problem. So far, about half the voters said I had a duty to post the non-diverse idiot photos even if it did get me called a racist (Easy for them to say!). Fortunately, the option I favored (with three votes out of 24) was made accessible within minutes of the posting. I know have a fully diverse array of dufuses wearing their masks wrong, and hope to have more.

In addition to Rep. Lee, we have Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner:

Congressman Al Green (D-Tx):

And, best of all, taking us out of Houston and also into racially diverse territory, the very white Senate Minority Leader himself, New York Senator Chuck Schumer! (Pointer: Willem Reese):

No photos on Asian-Americans yet, but commenter Zoebrain found one of an Asian nose-breather, Korean cult leader Lee Man Hee: Continue reading

Ethics Train Wreck Analysis: The Richard Jewell Case

“Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s excellent but much maligned film about a historical episode with many ethics twists and turns, is extremely accurate and fair in all respects, except for the glaring exception of the screenwriter  Billy Ray’s representation that reporter Kathy Scruggs obtained the information that Jewell was under suspicion by the FBI in exchange for one night stand with the agency’s lead investigator. This was the point where the Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck of 1996 acquired a car containing the 2019 movie “Richard Jewell.”

Let’s look at those other cars.

I. Jewell

Jewell was a socially awkward, lonely, obese man who lived with his mother. He was in many ways a stereotypical misfit with low  self-esteem, who developed ambitions about becoming a law enforcement officer, a job that would would provide him with the respect and power that he lacked and wanted. The film begins with Jewell’s stint as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm, where he becomes friends with attorney Watson Bryant. Jewell quits to pursue his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer, and Bryant, in saying good-bye, asks his friend to promise that if he ever acquires the authority he seeks, he won’t become a jerk, and abuse it.

This was a real life conversation. Bryant recognized that Jewell was a border-line Asperger’s sufferer, whether or not he knew the name or the clinical condition, and exactly the kind of personality who should never be given a shield and a gun.

Jewell took a job as a campus security officer at Piedmont College, and rapidly realized Watson Bryant’s worst fears by reacting to his authority by abusing it, being over-zealous and generating an unusual number of complaints from students. Jewell was fired, but the need for security personnel at the upcoming Atlanta Olympics gave Jewell another chance at some authority at least. He probably shouldn’t have had such a chance. Jewell was not a man who should have been in the security field or the law enforcement field; his judgment was poor, and his emotional problems made him a bad risk.

Thus the conditions for the ethics train wreck were put in place. It was up to moral luck whether hiring Richard Jewell would turn out to be a disaster, or a  fortunate near miss. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely, a classic example of a bad decision having a good result—at least for a while.

2. The Bomb

In the early morning of July 27, 1996, Jewell, now working in Atlanta’s Centennial Park as part of the Summer Olympics security force, noticed an abandoned backpack by a bench. Over-zealous, officious and a fanatic about following procedure, Jewell insisted on reporting the pack as a “suspicious package,” despite the chiding of his colleagues, who wanted to take it to Lost and Found. If, as was overwhelmingly likely, the backpack had been just a backpack, Jewell probably would have been mocked. But again moral luck took a hand. He was right. It was a bomb. Jewell and other officers began clearing the area, and the bomb went off, killing one victim, Alice Hawthorne, and wounding many, still  far less serious damage than what might have occurred had Jewell not been so scrupulous in his discharge of his duties.

3. The Hero, the Scapegoats, and the Tip
Continue reading

“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family! [REVISED and CORRECTED!]

(The Introduction is here.; Chapter I is here.;Chapter 2 is here.)

 Kris takes Santa’s throne

Kris’s rave reviews as Santa in the Thanksgiving Day Parade are so good,  Doris hires him play Santa at Macy’s flagship New York City store on 34th Street. He agrees, which is strange, when you think about how busy he should be at this time of year, supervising the elves and all. If he really is Santa, or even if he thinks he is, taking the job in New York is irresponsible.

His supervisor gives him a list of toys to “push”—toys that are overstocked. “Now, you’ll find that a great many children will be undecided as to what they want for Christmas. When that happens, you suggest one of these items,” Kris is told. “You understand?”

Kris says he understands, but later makes it clear in his comments to a co-worker, that he has no intention of “pushing” the merchandise.:

“Imagine…making a child take something it doesn’t want…just because he bought too many of the wrong toys.That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years!”

That being the case, there is exactly one thing Kris needs to do. He needs to quit. What he cannot do, and must not do, and has a clear ethical obligation not to do, is to accept a job when he has no intention of doing what the job requires. This is a sales job. If Kris doesn’t want to sell, then he will be accepting a pay check under false pretenses. This isn’t noble conduct, as the film would have you believe. It’s unethical conduct. It’s wrong.

Kris needs to put himself on his own naughty list. Continue reading

Remembering John Simon (1925-2019 ): The Day The Meanest Critic Alive Made Me Happy

John Simon, who died three days ago at the age of 94, was known as a merciless, even cruel cultural critic.  From the Times obituary:

John Simon [was]one of the nation’s most erudite, vitriolic and vilified culture critics, who illuminated and savaged a remarkable range of plays, films, literature and art works and their creators for more than a half-century…In an era of vast cultural changes, Mr. Simon marshaled wide learning, insights and acid wit for largely negative reviews and essays that appeared in New York magazine for nearly 37 years…In a style that danced with literary allusions and arch rhetoric…he produced thousands of critiques and a dozen books…While English was not his native language, he also wrote incisive essays on American usage, notably in the 1980 book “Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline.”

I met him exactly once (and we later had an online exchange), but in that single encounter he said something that meant a great deal to me, and that I will never forget.

As a drama critic, Simon made Frank Rich seem like an old softy. I don’t care for his kind of critiques, applying rarefied personal standards so divorced from the average audience member that they give no guidance at all. Simon was fun to read if you had no stake in the play or movie he was trashing, but those who worked full-time in show business generally hated him, and it is no wonder.  In one compilation of his reviews, “Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films” (1982), he was positive about just 15 of the 245 films he discussed.  William F. Buckley .quipped that Simon “reviewed movies in the same sense that pigeons review statues.”

He was accused of being racist, misogynist, homophobic or grossly insensitive,  denied being any of those things, and argued that no person or group was above criticism, especially those who, in his view, lacked talent and covered themselves in mantles of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity and used them to claim preferential treatment in the marketplaces of culture. But some of his quotes resonate with me:

  • “I do not like uniforms. I do not like people who are a professional this, that or the other. Professional writers, actors and singers are O.K., but I don’t like professional Jews, professional homosexuals, professional blacks, professional feminists, professional patriots. I don’t like people abdicating their identity to become part of some group, and then becoming obsessed with this and making capital of it.”
  • “My greatest obligation is to what, correctly or incorrectly, I perceive as the truth. Kästner says, in essence, ‘All right, the world is full of idiots and they’re in control of everything. You fool, stay alive and annoy them!’ And that, in a sense, is my function in life, and my consolation. If I can’t convince these imbeciles of anything, I can at least annoy them, and I think I do a reasonably good job of that.”

In 1998, my now retired  professional theater company, The American Century Theater, was in the midst of its 1998 production of “Lady in the Dark,” the 1940 experimental musical by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill. At that time, it was the first full run of the show since the original had closed on Broadway.  Our star, Maureen Kerrigan, informed me that her old room mate was married to the terrifying John Simon, and that both had traveled from New York to see her in the next day’s  Sunday matinee performance. Simon was infamously disdainful of musicals, and once described a guaranteed Broadway hit as “A loud, vulgar musical about Jewish Negroes.”

This was not happy news. We had already gotten our usual pan from the Post, which had no interest in our mission of producing American stage works at least 25 years old that had fallen out of the professional theater repertoire. Now we were going to be eviscerated by John Simon. He was used to watching all-Actors Equity productions in 2000 seat theaters, with multi-million dollar budgets. Our show had what I considered to be an excellent cast, but only Maureen was Equity. We did have a brilliant director—me. Somehow I doubted Mr. Simon would appreciate our talents.

After all, it was a production of a lavish show with a huge cast in a small black box theater seating 130 at best, with a full orchestra crammed behind scenery, on a budget about 1% of what the opus would take to do justice to now. I was expecting to be humiliated.

Simon watched the performance with a critic’s poker face, and afterwards, never inquiring about his verdict,  I volunteered to drive him and his wife to the airport. They both sat in stony silence for most of the trip, and then Simon suddenly said, “I’m very glad I saw your production.”

“Why is that?” I asked. He said, “I saw the Encores production, the concert version, several years ago, and I found it incomprehensible. I wrote in my review then that “Lady in the Dark” shouldn’t be revived. Now that I’ve see the whole thing, I realize I was wrong: it deserves to be revived and get a full production. Thank-you.”

Well,  that was the whole reason we started TACT: to give audiences a chance to see American shows that weren’t being produced, and to demonstrate why they shouldn’t be forgotten. Coming from maybe the toughest, most demanding critic who ever lived, Simon’s statement was high praise. And, of course, I knew he wasn’t just saying it to be nice, because he didn’t care about being nice.

I will always be grateful to John Simon for making me feel like the theater and the dedicated “Lady in the Dark” cast and production staff accomplished something important, when he, unlike so many in the theater, didn’t hand out praise indiscriminately.

Addendum: This is as good as anywhere to finally confess that having my young, struggling theater company take on one of the most famously difficult and complex musicals of all time was reckless and irresponsible. We were always dangerously short of money, and were committed to keeping tickets under 20 dollars. Our typical show to that point had cost 10-15 thousand dollars, and some of those lost money. “Lady in the Dark” ended up costing over $50, 000, easily the most expensive in the company’s 20 year history. Had the production flopped, it would have been the end of the experiment, and nobody knew whether anyone would want to see a nearly four-hour, three-act 60-year-old musical about a troubled professional woman undergoing psychoanalysis.

Fortunately, people did. The show played to over 100% capacity, and nearly broke even.  “Lady in the Dark” did wonderful things for the company, attracting subscribers, donations, and respect. But it was pure moral luck.