Ethics Hero Emeritus: Actress Jean Stapleton (1923-2013)

Edith Bunker, being stifled.

Edith Bunker, being stifled.

Jean Stapleton, the superb character actress best known as “Edith Bunker” from “All in the Family,” has died. She exemplified the actor who, given the chance to use her talents for cultural good beyond mere entertainment, not only did so but did so beyond all reasonable expectations.

Edith Bunker, the submissive, not-too-bright, loving, loyal and thoroughly confused character she played on the 70’s sitcom, always broke my heart. I found Stapleton’s portrayal difficult to watch, even when she was too funny to resist. Edith was an abused spouse who didn’t realize she was being abused. I think many women who were similarly abused resolved to change the course of their lives because watching Stapleton accept being “stifled” and insulted by the man she loved made them recognize the pattern they had accepted too. Yet Edith Bunker, in Stapleton’s hands, made “All in the Family” more than the portrait of a redneck bigot and his enabling wife, broadcast to be mocked by smugly liberal viewers reveling in their intellectual and moral superiority. We felt Archie was redeemable—as indeed the show slowly revealed that he was—-beyond his hard-wired prejudices, in part because such a sweet, good woman loved him. (The other parts included the superb writing of the characters and Carroll O’Connor’s nuanced Archie.) What an achievement Stapleton accomplished by playing a negative stereotype in a way that both promoted sympathy, understanding and rejection, while never becoming so ridiculous that the audience stopped caring about her. She deserved every one of her eight Emmy nominations and three awards: in fact, she smoked the competition every year. There wasn’t a better or more important  performance, male or female, on TV while “All in the Family” was on the air.

That’s not why Jean Stapleton is an Ethics Hero Emeritus, however. Continue reading

TV Ethics, Viewed From A Sickbed

This isn’t how I look. This guy looks BETTER than I look…

[ As regular readers here might have guessed, I am ill, and have been since Thanksgiving. I can barely read, can’t really research, and whatever appears below was composed in 10 minute increments with hours or days in between. I’m hoping to be catching up very soon. Thank you for your patience]

What do you do when any movement or exertion makes you cough your guts out, when you can’t sleep but have to rest, when your brain is so blurry from viruses and medication that you can’t even compose a blog post for three days? (Sorry.) If you are me, and I hope for your sake that you aren’t, you watch TV.

I got one jolt of legal ethics horror that I hadn’t remembered re-watching Kevin Costner’s “The Untouchables,” directed by Brian DePalma. In the movie’s climax, Al Capone’s trial on income tax evasion has come to a crisis point, as Elliot Ness (Costner) realizes that the jury has been bribed to acquit him. Despite documentation of that fact, the corrupt judge tells Costner that the trial will proceed, whereupon Costner extorts him to prompt “a change of heart.” Now the judge shocks the courtroom by announcing that he is trading juries with another trial next door. The new, un-bribed twelve will decide Capone’s fate.

This is, of course, beyond ridiculous. Adversary attorneys must be able to choose a jury in voir dire, where each potential juror is questioned. Trading juries just invalidates two trials. Even if they could trade juries, which they couldn’t, the Capone trial would obviously have to start all over again since the new jury wouldn’t know what was going on.

None of this occurs to Al Capone’s panicky lawyer, however, who, realizing that the jig is up, announces that “we” are changing “our” plea to “guilty.” Chaos reigns. Capone (Robert DeNiro) punches his lawyer in the face, and I don’t blame him one bit.  A lawyer can’t plead guilty against the wishes of his client! The judge couldn’t accept such a plea, and Capone wouldn’t be bound by it. This would be an embarrassing distortion of the justice system in a Warner Brothers cartoon, but for a movie based on historical figures and events to sink so low is unforgivable. (“Carrie” aside, Brian DePalma was a hack.) Continue reading

Lindsay Lohan Dethroned As “All-Time Most Outrageous Excuse” Champion!

Linday Lohan, the former title-holder, and the new champion, Michael West

Back in 2007, I awarded Lindsay Lohan the championship for most brazen and manifestly ridiculous excuse ever. She had just been arrested for driving intoxicated and possession of cocaine, which had been found in the pocket of her jeans; Lindsay’s profession of innocence was that 1) she wasn’t driving her own car and 2) the pants belonged to somebody else. I noted at the time that she hadn’t yet claimed that the body she was in at the time wasn’t hers, but absent that, the “these aren’t my pants (TAMP)” excuse might well stand for all time.

In retrospect, that was rash. For one thing, many celebrities then as now already employed the Pazuzu Excuse, just a hair less ridiculous than TAMP, in which an offensive and career jeopardizing utterance is explained by the utterer as being inexplicable, that for some presumably supernatural reason—like being possessed by the demon who used Linda Blair as his ventriloquist dummy in “The Exorcist”—the individual has said something he or she not only didn’t believe, but never had even thought. The most recent purveyor of the Pazuzu Excuse noted here was Kobe Bryant; other infamous possessed have included Mel Gibson, Helen Thomas, and Michael Richards. That’s uncomfortably close to “it wasn’t my body.”  A few months ago, Newt Gingrich attributed his serial adultery and his habit of dumping his beloved wives when they got sick to his extreme patriotism; still short of TAMP, but getting close. Then, just this week, a strong contender nearly grabbed the title from Lindsay when  the chicken-hearted drunk who piloted the Costa Concordia cruise ship onto the rocks claimed left the capsizing vessel before his passengers because the he “fell into a life boat.” Uh-oh. Clearly, Lindsay’s title was teetering.

And quickly it fell. The Smoking Gun reports that in Wisconsin on Sunday, police responded to a domestic abuse call to find Mrs. Michael West bleeding from her face and saying that her husband Michael beat and tried to strangle her. Confronted by the officers, Mr. West explained that he was innocent.

A ghost did it.

Well, Lindsay’s one remaining accomplishment since “Mean Girls” is history. The new champion for “All-Time Most Outrageous Excuse” is Michael West.

This time, I’m not making any predictions. It’s crazy out there.


Epilogue: As I re-read my Ethics Scoreboard post from 2007 about Lindsay Lohan’s ridiculous episode, I found myself becoming depressed. In 2007 she was just 21 years old and looked it; she had a career, she was obviously talented, and despite the arrest, had plenty of time to turn things around and get what had once looked like a charmed life back on track. She never did. In the intervening years leading up to 2012, she has had multiple stays in rehab and two stints in jail. She had to stand trial for grand theft, and is still on probation. This month she is featured posing nude in Playboy, usually the last ditch recovery vehicle for fading actresses who are too unstable or unpopular to get on “Dancing With the Stars,”  have too much pride to sign on to “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, and are not fat enough for “Celebrity Boot Camp.”  As she sheds her dignity in Hugh Hefner’s anachronistic soft-porn glossy, looking far older than her years, Lohan’s over-shadowed cast-mates from “Mean Girls,” Amanda Seyfried, Rachel McAdam and Tina Fey, have all become respected, bankable and still rising stars.  Her supposed teen rival from years ago, Hillary Duff, has a singing and acting career, a husband and a baby on the way. Lohan is still only 26; many people have sunk far lower than she has with fewer assets to draw on and pulled their lives out of  tailspins to be happy, successful, and productive. I hope she can too. Right now, however, her life is a cautionary tale about how a badly-parented young woman who was never taught responsibility, accountability, respect for authority or self-control can find life unmanageable despite possessing all the gifts that American society foolishly admires more—youth, beauty, riches, talent and fame.

And it makes me sad.

The Worst Humanitarian Award Winner of the Year

Michael Brown---wife-beater, humanitarian.

Michael Brown founded Houston’s Brown Hand Center, which specializes in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. He is now on trial for assault, after being arrested last year for attacking his his wife, twisting her arm behind her back and, among other things, hurling his 2010 Joanne King Herring Humanitarian Award at her.

I have often thought that those who give out humanitarian awards for specific instances of good conduct have an ethical obligation to make sure that recipients conform to the definition of “humanitarian” in their overall conduct. One of the definitions of humanitarian is “ethical.” Official pronouncements that an individual is ethical can be very effective false advertising for the character of someone who is anything but. Mr. Brown illustrates my concerns.

By 2010, when Brown received his award, he had already pleaded no-contest in 2002 to aggravated assault for beating then-pregnant wife, Darlina Brown, with a bed post. Call me a stickler, but I think there should be an automatic “Beating a pregnant woman with bedpost” disqualification provision for humanitarian awards. Then, in 2006, Dr. Brown’s medical license was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine use. So to summarize, at the time he was deemed worthy of the honor of being the 2010 humanitarian of the year, Brown was already an admitted wife-beater and an ex-doctor found unfit for the continued practice of medicine.

What a guy!

How about a rule that if you try to kill someone with your humanitarian award, it is automatically revoked?

Too strict?


CBS: Ethics Corrupter

Rehire Charlie Sheen?! What could CBS be thinking?

Barry Bonds goes on trial for perjury today. He is one of our society’s prime corrupters. Bonds cheated, lied, broke the law and helped drag major league baseball’s integrity  into the depths, all with the objectives of breaking records by players better and more honest than he, and becoming rich and famous. He accomplished all of these things, with no appreciable negative consequences; as of now, his career and life carry the lesson that cheating works, and anyone who lets things like rules, laws, or ethics stand in the way of success is a fool. Perhaps the trial will change that. I can dream.

Now CBS has stepped up to be a prime corporate ethics corrupter. Reportedly, it is negotiating with Charlie Sheen to get him back on the air, either in his now defunct show “Two and a Half Men,” or in something else. Continue reading

The Wrestler, the Girl, and Cultural Confusion

"Wanna wrestle?"

Sixteen-year-old high school sophomore wrestler Joel Northrup forfeited his match against a fourteen-year-old wrestler with two X chromosomes, Cassy Herkelman, at the Iowa state wrestling championships, saying that “As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner.” Obviously Herkelman didn’t require protection from anyone or anything. She was her district’s 112-pound champion wrestler, and she won the Iowa championship for her class as well.  Cassie had won 20 of 33 matches, all against male wrestlers, on her way to the state championship. Maybe Northrup didn’t want to risk being ridiculed for losing to a girl; maybe he was uncomfortable with the sexual overtones of an inter-gender contest. All we can do is assess his conduct by taking him at his word: he believes a young man wrestling a young woman is morally wrong, and was willing to forfeit a match he might have won. Joel was, after all, the fifth-ranked wrestler in the state at 112 pounds, and had a 35-4 record.

Was his decision admirable, or sexist? Was it gentlemanly, or demeaning? Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “How Not To Promote Tolerance and Undersatnding of Muslim Culture

From Jeff, a.k.a. King Kool, discussing a Muslim TV executive’s murder and beheading of his wife, who with him founded a New York tlevision channel aimed at promoting better understanding and less fear of Muslims:

“…This will certainly not promote tolerance, but in its own horrible way, it might promote understanding. On the one hand, all variety of men are capable of producing the sort of person who would sooner slay their significant other to avoid the shame of divorce. In a strange way, this just says that they’re just like anyone else.

On the other hand, the misogyny that is integral to some people’s practice of the religion is something that should be held to higher scrutiny. Continue reading

Impolitic Question Dept.: Is It Unethical For Americans To Dislike Islam?

To read the bulk of the letters to the editor in the New York Times, Americans not only must extend full Constitutional rights to the worshippers of Islam (as they must), but they also better like it. Not being enthusiastic about the prominent physical manifestation of the religion in a neighborhood that witnessed the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent victims by that religion’s followers has been called evidence of bigotry, mindless hate, and “Islamophobia,” as if there are no rational and reasonable justifications for regarding Islam as a less than positive addition to the United States culture.

On the contrary, there are many tenets of Islam that are directly antithetical and in opposition to core American values. Continue reading