Ethics Hero: Andrew Sullivan

Once again, Ethics Alarms is honoring Andrew Sullivan for unusual courage in the field of punditry. In this case, the honor is less for what he has written than the fact that he wrote it at all.

His general topic is genetic research, taking off from a recent op-ed appeared in the New York Times by Professor David Reich, a  Harvard geneticist, which broached the virtually taboo topic genetic variations between subpopulations of humans, that is to say, races. On the way through Sullivan’s essay, called “Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It,” Sullivan makes many perceptive observations, like…

“This argument should not be so controversial — every species is subject to these variations — and yet it is. For many on the academic and journalistic left, genetics are deemed largely irrelevant when it comes to humans. Our large brains and the societies we have constructed with them, many argue, swamp almost all genetic influences.

Humans, in this view, are the only species on Earth largely unaffected by recent (or ancient) evolution, the only species where, for example, the natural division of labor between male and female has no salience at all, the only species, in fact, where natural variations are almost entirely social constructions, subject to reinvention. We are, in this worldview, alone on the planet, born as blank slates, to be written on solely by culture. All differences between men and women are a function of this social effect; as are all differences between the races. If, in the aggregate, any differences in outcome between groups emerge, it is entirely because of oppression, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. And it is a matter of great urgency that we use whatever power we have to combat these inequalities.”

Agreed, and stipulated: the progressive position on this aspect of science is, as in so many other areas, a deliberate refusal to deal with reality in order that ideological goals may proceed.

More from Sullivan later in his piece… Continue reading

Curse You, Political Correctness Bullies! Now You’re Forcing Me To Defend Lena Dunham!


A downside of running an ethics blog is that you have to defend really disgusting people from time to time: Harry Reid, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump…and now Lena Dunham. In fact, this story rescued the “Girls” creator from a different post here, as she recently had to apologize for an online newsletter rant that attacked the character of NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. and attributed various sexist attitudes to him based purely on the fact that he showed no interest in her when they were seated together at a recent function. ( Legitimate reasons why he may have ignored her: he had other things on his mind, she’s not his type, she’s a professional jerk, she’s Lena Dunham).

Before I have to defend Dunham, who is an awful person based on available evidence, let me make a few observations. One is that fame in the 21st Century can expose the unsavory and unethical nature of the famous far more than it did in pre-social media days. This is part of Donald Trump’s plight. Another is that Twitter and social media are literally traps for jerks, and it is amazing that so many of them keep getting caught, even with the bodies of previous trap-ees littering the immediate landscape. Finally, I wonder if there are still publicists around in the tradition of my late friend, Bob McElwaine. and if there are, why doesn’t Lena hire one to save her from herself? Bob was a Hollywood Golden Age publicist who saw his job as keeping the fact that his clients were jerks secret. He was great at it: his major client was Danny Kaye, a truly vile, troubled and nasty individual whose public persona was exactly the opposite.

All right, enough stalling.

For some reason, this Dunham tweet from five years ago surfaced, and has led a social media lynch mob to attack Dunham as being a racist…

Dunham tweet

Pop quiz: What exactly is it about the tweet that makes it racist?

The answer is “Nothing.” Racism requires attributing negative features or conduct to an individual or group based solely on racial bias and prejudice. It is not racism to base conclusions on statistical reality. Interestingly, most of the attacks on the tweet claim that the tweet is anti-Asian. It is racist to attribute virtuous qualities, like a reluctance to rape, to a race? Wow! Apparently the tweet is being condemned as a slur on Asian manhood. Since when is it manly to rape someone? Silly me: I assumed that Dunham was referring to well-documented  cultural support of respect for women, law-abiding conduct and other ethical virtues in Asian-American families.

Or is the complaint that by assuming an Asian-American is less of a threat than a male of another race, Dunham was by extension saying that other races were more of a threat? This would most fairly interpreted as an anti-white slur, however, since whites make up almost 75% of the population of convicted rapists. I thought anti-white bigotry was OK in political correctness circles! Continue reading

I Suppose It Is Comforting To Know That I Wasn’t Unfair To Starbucks And Howard Schultz

Starbucks Quiz

If the Starbucks “Race Together” campaign had turned out to be carefully thought out, intelligent, sophisticated and responsible, and not  a facile, condescending and cynical effort to promote a brand while creating static and white noise in the midst of an important cultural discussion, I would be obligated to apologize for doubting CEO Howard Schultz’s wisdom and ethics. It would also have been an apology I would have enjoyed making.

Sadly, I was not only correct in my assessment that this was a fiasco in the making, I was more correct than I suspected. Above is the “Race Relations Reality Check ” quiz that Starbucks has reportedly been distributing. The questions indicate a bottom-of-the-well level of comprehension about race and racism, not to mention demographics, culture and the human species. It appears that Starbucks favors some kind of affirmative action program on personal friendships, and believes that one can measure racism or incipient bias by how many individuals of other races one has regular contact with. I don’t even want to have a discussion with someone this shallow. A whole corporation this shallow is a nauseating thing to contemplate. A corporation this shallow that presumes to lead a national discussion on race is, oh I don’t know—Risible? Sad? Dangerous?

Starbucks seems to be thinking like George Costanza, during the period where he was trying to acquire black friends and managed to annoy and insult every African-American he met. The presumptions here are staggering, and so directly contrary to life, logic and the realities of human existence that i get angry just reading them. I was at an ethics conference in Nigeria, and met some of the most intelligent, charming, passionate people I have ever encountered in my life. I would be honored and enriched to have any of them in my life, and would hope that I could develop close friendships with them—but I can’t, because I live in the U.S. and they live in about 15 African nations, and it’s just too darn expensive to dine at each others’ homes. I live in an area, Northern Virginia, that is overwhelmingly white, not because it is white, but because it is convenient to my work and we found a great deal on a house. I work in two fields, theater and ethics, that do not afford a lot of contact with African Americans. The last time we had anyone other than immediate family to dinner was a decade or more ago; the last time anyone other than family, black or white, had us to dinner was longer ago than that—and I am a delightful dinner companion. Continue reading

Ethics Observations on Starbuck’s “Put Your Customer On The Spot” Program

Race together

Beginning this week, Starbucks baristas will have the option of handing coffee cups to customers on which the Starbucks employee has written the words “Race Together” as an invitation to start a discussion about race in America. Friday, each copy of USA Today will have the first of a series of insert with information about race relations, including a variety of perspectives on race. Starbucks coffee shops will also stock the insert.

Good golly Miss Molly. Where to begin? Continue reading

Ethically Incoherent Statement Of The Month: Van Jones

Van Jones: Reasonable or biased?

Van Jones: Reasonable or biased?

Van Jones, the former White House “czar” of something or other turned smooth-talking racialist warrior on CNN’s “Cross-Fire” and various TV panels, was arguing for frank racial dialogue on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” in the context of the protests over the Ferguson and Staten Island police grand jury decisions. Sounding reasonable as he often does, Jones then said that what should be an area of agreement is the need for a special prosecutor whenever police misconduct is before a grand jury, noting that it was an “obvious conflict of interest”for prosecutors who work with police as a core element of their job.

I have addressed this argument before, but let me be clearer. This is a conflict of interest that a competent and ethical prosecutor should acknowledge and be able to deal with as the legal ethics rule require. The prosecutor should get a waiver from his or her client—not the victim’s family, but the government the prosecutor represents—and honestly assess whether the fact that the police serve the same client will prevent the prosecutor from being fair and objective. If the answer is yes, then the prosecutor must recuse, but I see no reason why the answer should be yes, if the prosecutor is ethical and worthy of the position.(Jones and other advocates for this “solution” have a bias against prosecutors, whom they view as presumptively unethical.)

Theoretically, every case in which an officer’s credibility determines whether a citizen should be charged poses the same conflict: it is endemic to the prosecutor’s job. Indeed, prosecutors have a very good reason to want bad cops punished and removed from the police force; I’m not at all certain that there is a necessary bias on the part of prosecutors in favor of letting such cops escape legal consequences of their actions. That assumption is based on the assumption that prosecutors don’t care about  justice. Nobody who doesn’t care about justice becomes a prosecutor. Why would they? It is a hard, frustrating job and the pay isn’t anything special.

The strongest argument for a special prosecutor is a different ethical problem, the appearance of impropriety. If the decision to prosecute or not is tainted with suspicion of bias, then the justice system is compromised and breaks down. This is why, for example, it is terrible that the Justice Department, a super-politicized one at that, is supposedly investigating the I.R.S. scandal.

As George moved to another topic, Jones blurted out a final statement that caused me to spit-take a mouthful of coffee. It undermined all of his finely tuned rhetoric about fairness and non-partisan dialogue about race, and exposed, ironically, his own biases. He said;

“If there had been a special prosecutor in Ferguson, we would have had a different result.”

AHA! Continue reading

A Ken White Sampler

Obama maskFor those readers who are not familiar with Popehat’s Ken White, I offer this recent example of his deft ethics analysis and his perceptive and balanced commentary. I was going to write something that would have reached similar conclusions, but there is no point now. I can’t do better than this, and when I can do as well, it’s a good day.

Here is Ken’s commentary on the rodeo clown in the Obama mask.

Comment of the Day: “Incomplete Ethics Observations On George Zimmerman’s Acquittal”

The defendant found "not guilty" in "12 Angry Men" was also probably guilty...

The defendant found “not guilty” in “12 Angry Men” was also probably guilty…

Charles Green, a treasured commenter on this blog and wise man, manages to perfectly illustrate, in this comment on the post “Incomplete Ethics Observations On George Zimmerman’s Acquittal,” how completely confused and misguided the liberal establishment and the public generally has become regarding race and justice in this country, and how the Martin case has metastasized the problem.  I’ll let Charles have his say, and return at the end.

“This is the Red State revenge for the OJ verdict. Both were infuriatingly irksome to the opposing party; narrowly legal in the “letter not the spirit” sense of the law; and wildly at odds with decency.

“Jack, you really must stop this silly “if he was white” line of argument. There is no racial equivalency between minority and majority cultures, and in particular between black and white in this culture; you simply can’t substitute one variable for the other and expect logical connections to obtain. Continue reading

“Being White In Philly” And Mayor Nutter’s Unethical Attack

phillymagcoverPhiladelphia Magazine published an article this month titled “Being White in Philly.” Written by Robert Huber, who includes his personal reflections as well as interviews with white Philadelphians, the piece raises troubling and real problems in current U.S. race relations in an open and fearless way that does not usually characterize the media’s handling of the topic. The letters from readers, which you can also read at the link provided above, demonstrate that the article drilled directly into a nerve, and exposed feelings by white citizens, not just in Philadelphia but elsewhere in America, that need to be considered, analyzed, and dealt with whether or not one believes that they are justified or fair. Huber uncovered some of the most stubborn obstacles to a post-racial U.S., and they persist because we remain reluctant to discuss them

It’s an excellent piece of journalism that reminded me of my late roommate in law school, a young, Irish Catholic ex-Marine from the “rough” parts of Philly, who opened my eyes about racial attitudes like no one else I have ever known. He was intelligent, observant, and beyond any question, a racist, and openly admitted it. He also vividly describe the Philadelphia experiences that he felt justified his racism. I could see his handsome smile as I read Huber’s piece. The article itself, however, is not racist in any way.

Mayor Michael Nutter, however, either out of careless reading, racial identification, foolishness or willful blindness, decided to attack the article and the magazine for running it.  He wrote a furious letter of protest to Philadelphia Magazine, a letter which, as I will shortly demonstrate, crossed bright lines of ethical reasoning and appropriate conduct by a government official. Philadelphia Magazine’s editor, Tom McGrath responded perfectly:

“I applaud the mayor for asking for an inquiry into the state of racial issues in Philadelphia. The need to have a deeper discussion about race in Philadelphia is exactly why we ran our story in the first place. Like any reader, the mayor is entitled to think and say what he wants about the story. That said, his sophomoric statements about the magazine and mischaracterization of the piece make me wonder if he’s more interested in scoring political points than having a serious conversation about the issues. Furthermore, his call for a “rebuke” of the magazine by the PHRC is rich with irony. This is the same mayor who just yesterday was shouted down by an unruly mob in City Council; now he himself wants shut down conversation about an important issue in our city. In short, the mayor loves the First Amendment–as long as he and the government can control what gets said.”

Now let’s consider, piece by piece, Nutter’s letter to the magazine, and why it deserved McGrath’s criticism, and more. My comments will be in bold. Continue reading

Comment of the Day on “The NAACP’s ‘Gotcha!’ Games”


An exchange between a spirited newcomer to Ethics Alarms, Roger, and me led to this Comment of the Day by Proam [ whom I keep meaning to ask whether his screen name is pronounced “Proam, ” and in “foam,” or “Pro-Am” } Here is his complex take: I’ll have a response at the end. Proam’s Comment of the Day on “The NAACP’s “Gotcha!” Games” :

“My $.02: the NAACP’s and Roger’s objections to what Santorum said are valid “gotchas.”

“It matters neither what Santorum really meant, nor what is the sum of Santorum’s character and values (call that his “heart”). What he uttered (“blacks”), insofar as how it matters to certain recipients, is off-putting and alarming, regardless of its timing, place, vehemence, or other quality, and therefore must matter to all recipients. It was worse than “lazy;” it betrayed a lack of sensitivity that others have (and are justified and deserving in having) about a matter of justice. It only takes one word – even part of one word; even no words at all but some other fleeting sound or sight, like a raised eyebrow – for one to make oneself clear, even clearer than ever had been intended, or than ever could be communicated with many words. Continue reading

The NAACP’s “Gotcha!” Games

Somewhere there must be advocates for the African-American community who realize that the practice of lying in wait for white politicians to make a mis-phrased or politically incorrect statement and then pouncing on them with indignant press releases charging racial insensitivity is counter-productive, feeding mistrust on all sides and tempting many on the political right to just by-pass issues of concern to blacks as a lost cause with a hopelessly biased audience. Somewhere—but not in the NAACP, which has relied for decades on playing “gotcha!” games to flex its PR muscles and appeal to its most racially polarized core. I remember poor Ross Perot speaking to the group in 1988, and being pilloried for referring to an his all-black audience once as “you people.” Of course, Perot was appearing with the expectation that he would explain what a Perot presidency would do to address the problems of African-Americans, a group he was not a member of,  yet the completely self-explanatory and accurate, if clumsy, “you people” was attacked as patronizing and vaguely racist.

Now GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum is under fire by the NAACP for this statement: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” Continue reading