Introducing A Third Niggardly Principle, And A Dilemma: Does It Apply To The Confederate Flag?

Scarolina flag

Before unveiling the new Third Niggardly Principle, indulge me some observation  on the emergence of a renewed controversy over the Confederate flag as a response to the Charleston, South Carolina shooting of nine black churchgoers last week:

1. The Confederate battle flag did not cause Dylann Roof to start shooting. If  all the Confederate flag had been retired to museums 100 years ago, it would not have turned him into a civil rights advocate.

2. The effort of anti-flag advocates, who are frequently advocates of censorship and restrictions on free speech as well, to exploit this tragedy to advance their pet grievance is transparent and obnoxious, and is even more attenuated than the furious efforts of anti-gun zealots to do the same thing.

3. The flag, like many symbols, represents different things to different people. Racial hate and bigotry is only one of them. The flag legitimately represents pride in a family legacy (“My great grandfather died bravely in Pickett’s Charge”), the historical record, opposition to federal government overreach,  aesthetic appeal, or defiance of authority generally (“I’m a rebel”). Old Glory also represents different things to different people, and we do not ban it because what it symbolizes to some people is unpleasant for them. (Yes, I know some schools have done exactly that. One hopes they are outliers)

4. Mitt Romney’s much praised tweet—“Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.” —is simple-minded and irresponsible. (See the previous post.) Is Mitt arguing that any speech, symbol or expression that “many” find offensive should be suppressed? It sounds like it to me. Since Roof’s act had nothing to do with the flag, nor was it related to slavery or the Confederacy, how does taking the flag down “honor” his victims? Sure: Roof liked the flag, because of what it symbolized to him. He also liked Gold’s Gym:

dylann-roof1

Would closing down all the Gold Gyms in South Carolina honor his victims? The fact that the attack was racially motivated and that racists often display Confederate flags does not make a state flying the flag complicit in the shootings. Stop using Twitter to discuss complex issues, Mitt! Continue reading

President Lincoln’s Misunderstood Ethics Crisis: The Great Sioux Uprising

Dakota hanging

As part my so-far futile efforts to leave Ferguson in the rear view mirror, let’s revisit one of the Abraham Lincoln’s great ethical dilemmas during the Civil War, in which today’s date, December 1, was pivotal.

Minnesota’s Great Sioux Uprising, now usually called the Dakota-U.S. Conflict, was among the bloodiest Indian wars in the West, with hundreds of Native Americans, settlers and military casualties. The Sioux were defeated soundly, and the U.S. Army tried 303 Native Americans by military commission, finding them guilty of war crimes and sentencing them to death by hanging. Federal law required Presidential approval of the death sentences, and this was a problem Abraham Lincoln, the President at the time, did not need.

For it was 1862, and the Civil War was raging. This was a year full of Union defeats, indeed, disasters, like Fredericksburg, and both the war and Lincoln’s ability to lead it were in peril. Lincoln was also calculating all the political angles before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. On top of the burdens of war and politics, he was coping with personal tragedy: his young son Willy had died nine months earlier, and Mary Todd Lincoln was teetering on emotional collapse from grief.
Now he had to decide whether to allow the execution of more than 300 Indians convicted in trials that were no better than kangaroo courts. Few Americans were concerned about the fate of the Native Americans, but Lincoln, with all of his other worries, took on the task of reviewing the trial records. What he found was manifest injustice.  Continue reading

Exceptionalism and the United States of America’s Grand Ethical Dilemma

Today’s morning headlines were full of violence in Syria, Bahrain, Libya, and the threat of new conflict in Egypt, as popular uprisings against entrenched dictatorships continue to grow. As the U.S. tries to somehow avoid a lead role in the international intervention in Libya, the question looms regarding its responsibility to other nations whose people yearn to be free—or at least freer. As important as what America ultimately decides to do will be for the futures of these nations, the U.S. economy, and foreign relations, something far more important is at stake. These difficult choices once again challenge the United States to affirm or reject its ideals, the very essence of what has made America what it is.

We have come to these crossroads four times before. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: New York Times Op-Ed Writer David Brooks

“Besides, the legitimacy of a war is not established by how it is organized but by what it achieves.”

—-David Brooks, writing in the Times about the messy United Nations coalition now intervening in the Libyan civil war.

This is blatant consequentialism, and Brooks is incredibly mistaken to write it. Would Lincoln’s war have been “illegitimate” if it had resulted in a defeated North and two nations, one still clinging to slavery? W.W.II “achieved” virtual slavery for million of Europeans whose freedom was conceded to the Soviet Union, the frying of two Japanese cities full of civilians, the opportunity for Mao to launch the worst genocide in human history, and 40 years with a very real risk of a nuclear war that might have exterminated humanity. Was that war legitimate?

The legitimacy of a war is measured by whether its cause is just, and its objectives are both vital and beyond accomplishing by any other means. What any war ultimately achieves is determined by events and factors impossible to know when the war is commenced, as well as pure, dumb luck..

Rahm Emanuel, History and Hyperbole Ethics

There are times when obvious exaggeration is nothing worse than politeness, nothing more than an expression of admiration and affection. “You’re the best boss anyone ever had,” is in this category, especially when the boss is retiring or dying. But when one is speaking in public about controversial and historical matters involving well-known public figures, the margin between excusable hyperbole and unethical dishonesty or worse is much smaller. Al Gore learned this when he played loyal Vice-President on the day his President was impeached by vote of the House of Representatives. Gore’s statement that Bill Clinton was “a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest Presidents” was intended as supportive, but interpreted as a toadying endorsement of Clinton’s unsavory and dishonest conduct, impeachable or not. It probably cost Gore the Presidency.

Worse yet was Trent Lott’s clumsy effort to praise the ancient, infirm and mentally failing Sen. Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party. Lott said, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have all these problems over all these years, either.” Thurmond, running on the Dixiecrat ticket, had opposed segregation, and Lott’s comment, less fact than flattery, made him sound like he longed for the days of Jim Crow and “white only”rest rooms. The lessons of these hyperbolic gaffes are similar: if the well-intentioned compliment concerns a public figure in historical context, historical exaggerations either appear to be unjust to history or its important figures, seem to make inappropriate value judgments, or come off as a blatant effort to mislead the public.

Rahm Emanuel hit the Trifecta with his fawning farewell to President Obama, as he left the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago. Obama, he said, is “the toughest leader any country could ask for, in the toughest times any president has ever faced.”

Wow. Continue reading

Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month: The Musical

“Confederate History Month.” That title should be sufficient to have any semi-conscious American’s ethics alarms ringing, like “Dina Lohan, Mother of the Year.” That it didn’t for Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, at least until furious critics rang it for him, tells us something disturbing about the Republican’s ethical blind spots, and perhaps other things as well. Perhaps we can truly get through to Bob with a song…sung to the tune of that traditional Virginia favorite, Dixie.  All together, now: Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh… Continue reading