High Noon Ethics Warm-Up, 7/23/2019: Tennis Players, Baseball Players, An Unethical Football Player, And Tarzan

Where did the morning go?

1. Men don’t matter, so apparently this isn’t worth worrying about or criticizing... The same kind of body dysmorphia that has had feminists and psychologists attacking the media and popular culture for warping women’s concepts of acceptable and desirable body types is affecting men just as negatively, it seems. It’s just that nobody cares.

From Barbie to “Baywatch,” the culture’s emphasis on absurdly proportioned and gorgeous, never-aging women has been blamed for poor self-image, anorexia, breast implants, botox, obsessive dieting and exercising, and weight loss scams. The culture’s relatively recent obsession with male physiques that once would have been regarded as freakish, however, is seldom criticized.

Where once he-men and heart throbs like Clark Gable, John Wayne and even Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, didn’t hesitate to appear in films looking fit but hardly muscle-bound, like this

and this…

and this…

..now even minor minor male characters on TV, in ads and movies have to show bulging pecs, swollen delts and a rock-like six pack, despite the fact that such bodies, unlike those of Gable, the Duke and Johnny, are impossible for most men to attain while maintaining a healthy and productive life-style.

A study published in June found that 22% of men aged 18-24 reported muscularity-oriented disordered eating. Lead researcher Dr Jason Nagata of the University of California says, “The drive for a bigger, more muscular body is becoming very prevalent. Their entire day is spent at the gym trying to bulk up. They may also be taking illicit supplements like steroids.”

Men, however, seldom seek treatment for the problem, and media and social critics continue to concentrate on the pop culture’s unhealthy effects on the body images of girls, not boys.

2. More reason to detest Tom Brady. Here’s father Tom Brady forcing his 6-year-old daughter to jump off a cliff:

Nice.

Hey! I get to use three favorite Ethics Alarms terms in one mini-post! This is res ipsa loquitur for irresponsible parenting. It is signature significance as well, because no good parent would do this to so young a child, even once. And it is moral luck: if Brady’s daughter had been injured in the jump, and she easily could have been, Brady would be widely and justifiably condemned, and possibly charged with child endangerment. That she was not hurt was just moral luck: it doesn’t change the ethics verdict on his conduct at all. Continue reading

Ethics Addendum: Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface,” The John Bubbles Connection

The post about Fred Astaire’s dark-make-up-assisted homage to tap-dancing legend Bill Robinson in “Swing Time” was incomplete, both historically and ethically. This post should remedy that.

The dance number in question, “Bojangles of Harlem,” was, as I wrote in the introduction, Fred’s homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles.  The post explained why the salute to Robinson was important, but did not elaborate more on Bubbles. He was not as big a star as Robinson nor as well known, either at the time of the film or ever, and is less remembered today. Nevertheless he was an important cultural figure, and it can be argued that Astaire’s number was really more of a tribute to Bubbles than Robinson, not that many noticed.

First, you need to know about Bubbles. Born John Sublett (1902-1986), he teamed at the age of ten  with the six-year-old Ford Lee “Buck” Washington in a decades-lasting act, “Buck and Bubbles.” in which Buck stood and played piano and Bubbles sang and danced.  As adults, “Buck and Bubbles” ultimately  played at New York’s Palace Theatre, the London Palladium, the Ziegfeld Follies, the Cotton Club, the Apollo, and became the first blacks to perform at Radio City Music Hall. Their popularity allowed them to break the color barriers in theaters across the country. Continue reading

Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface”

We recently came through the usual Halloween bag of “blackface” controversies, and Ethics Alarms, as it has before, tried to guide the discussion to the material distinctions that social justice warriors, who strategically deal in absolutes when seeking power through real and contrived offense, refuse to acknowledge or are intellectually incapable of doing so. The short version of the Ethics Alarms message: make-up for legitimate theatrical purposes isn’t “blackface,” isn’t “racist,” and shouldn’t be object of knee jerk condemnation based on emotion or ignorance.

Today Turner Movie Classics showed “Swing Time,” the 1936 musical that is probably the high water mark in the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire canon. It has the best song (“The Way You Look Tonight”), the best novelty scene (Astaire pretending to be a klutz in a dance lesson with Ginger, then shocking her and her boss—and saving her job— by showing “what a great teacher she is” by dancing, well, like Fred Astaire) and arguably two of the best dances by the two, “Never Gonna Dance” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” The film also contains a controversial “blackface” number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” in which Fred pays homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. Local TV stations have long been reluctant to show “Swingtime” because of guaranteed complaints that the number is racist, or, if they cut the number (which is unconscionable), complaints pour in from film and Astaire fans that they have defaced a classic out of misplaced political correctness.

If one argues that the number is “racist” because of Fred’s make-up, then one is necessarily arguing that no white performer can ever offer an admiring  salute to an African-American great by emulating him. Astaire’s choreography (by Hermes Pan) contained specific references to trademark steps and gestures by both Bubbles and Robinson, though more of the former than the latter. (Some would say, maybe even Fred, that this was because he didn’t dare set himself up to be compared to Robinson, whom many regard as the greatest tap-dancer of them all.) Blackface, as typified by minstrel shows, was a burlesque of negative black stereotypes. There isn’t a hint of this in Astaire’s number: he wears dark make-up because he is honoring two contemporary black dance stars who he knew, learned from, and respected. The make-up is the epitome of a legitimate theatrical device, and racially demeaning neither in intent nor effect. Those who see it as such are either deliberately misconstruing the number, or don’t know what they are talking about. (There is an unfortunate racially demeaning set piece that appears for a couple of seconds at the start, a large caricature of exaggerated black features. You can take the film out of 1936, but you can’t take 1936 out of the film.)

The ironic part of the effort to quarantine “Bojangles of Harlem” is that the number is one of the few reminders in our culture of who Bill Robinson was, and—here’s Jack on his “duty to remember” and cultural literacy soapbox again–he was an important figure in American theatrical, cultural and civil rights history that should be remembered.  Instead, Robinson is almost completely forgotten: I bet most of the NAACP members who get up in arms when TMC shows “Swing Time” have no idea how significant Robinson was, and the contributions he made to art and society. Continue reading

“Bombshell,” Hedy Lamarr, And The Duty To Remember

I alluded to Hedy Lamarr in an earlier post about my favorite celebrities, those who manage to be outstanding in multiple diverse fields at once. The glamorous cult actress is a prime example, being known publicly for her pulchritude and in much more rarefied circles as a brilliant inventor. I had been waiting for the release of the documentary–produced by Susan Sarandon!—about Lamarr, called “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” ever since a friend and commenter here told me that it was in the works. Now it is on Netflix, and I watched it. You should too. I’ll just jot down some loosely connected thoughts about the ethics lessons of Lamarr’s life.

  • The sexual exploitation of young women in films may have been worse in the past than it is now, but Lamarr’s life is a reminder of how excruciatingly slowly cultures change. She was made infamous as the star of a sensational sex film in  Germany, shown naked, and also in an apparently explicit sex scene when she was too young (19) and naive to know what the director was doing.

The episode literally shadowed her life. Yet half a century later, very young actresses like Drew Barrymore and Dakota Fanning were similarly abused by directors, the main difference being that public attitudes now make the resulting stigma less permanent.

  • Antisemitism was sufficiently pervasive in the U.S. that Lamarr denied her Jewish heritage for much of her life.

Living a lie is not an ethically healthy existence, but Lamarr had few reasons to trust that she would be accepted for who she was….fewer than most, on fact.

  • There are few more vivid examples than Lamarr of a brilliant woman who rapidly learned that she had to rely on the favor of men based on her physical charms to have any chance of succeeding. Yet it is a bargain with the devil, for the price is not being taken seriously. The suppressed resentment and anger Lamarr reveals in interviews is palpable.

Sometimes I think it’s a mircale that women didn’t rise up and slaughter millions of men while they slept. They deserved it.

  • Hedy Lamarr is primarily remembered now as a running joke in “Blazing Saddles.”

Think about that. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “I Worry About Cary Grant”

Today’s Comment of the Day was spawned by the post about the fading of cultural memories of important film artists. texaggo4 has his doubts about my concerns, and whether the phenomenon is worth worrying about, or even a problem at all.

I admit, this topic is an unusually intense and personal one for me. It was the reason why I devoted a large portion of my life and creative energy for twenty years to the quixotic challenge of creating and trying to maintain a professional theater company in the Washington, D.C. area devoted to producing American stage works of quality and historical importance that were in danger of falling out of the American stage repertoire entirely, if they were not already forgotten. We proved that many shows thought hopelessly dated or politically incorrect still worked (“The Boys in the Band,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Native Son,” “The Cradle Will Rock”…), found genuine masterpieces that almost nobody knew existed (“Moby Dick Rehearsed,” “Machinal,’ “Marathon 33″…), and lost a fortune on artistic gambles that didn’t pan out, for a wide variety of reasons, including bad management, bad luck, or the unpredictability of show biz. Notable disasters that still give me nightmares include ” “Home of the Brave,'” Mr Roberts,” “A Flag is Born,” “Dear World, and “The Pirate.” We had a devoted and loyal following, and I think we proved our point, but basically didn’t make a ripple despite all that work. (Except perhaps in this case, and maybe that was enough…) Heck, our theater was in a school building, and we couldn’t get any teachers to bring their classes to our shows, even for free.

But then, most of my life has been devoted to futile pursuits. After all, I’m an ethicist…

Here is tex’s Comment of the Day on the post,I Worry About Cary Grant:

What exactly are we asking for here? Facial recognition of the actor and an ability to recollect every great movie ever produced? What’s the goal of Cultural Memory? It cannot be the rote memorization of EVERY SINGLE great artist, producer and creator of art & culture. 1, we’d never have time to get around to memorizing ALL of it, 2, we’d never have time to get around to viewing all of it, 3, we’d never have any time to get around producing new examples of it, 4, we’d never have any time to get around doing anything else that life calls us to do.

The great conversation, as it is called, which is the ongoing “dialogue” between artists of the present with their contemporaries as well as with their predecessors. Artists take the concepts that are explored in the past, the debates had between opposing concepts in the past, and rework them in the present, either shedding light on new angles or re-engaging the old arguments, or bolstering new arguments. This long process of cultural production has produced MILLIONS of individual works and, without a doubt, TENS of thousands of artists. Of those countless producers & performers, we can assume there are many many thousands of individual works that could be called “culturally iconic” or “unique” or “ground breaking” and thousands of artists.

Feeling less well read that I ought to, I compiled a list of what several thinkers considered to be the “Western Canon”: a list of essential books that captured the literary and written philosophy component of this “Great Conversation”, with the goal of plodding through them over my lifetime.

930 books. Just the books.

The authors, as I read their names, certainly had recognizable names and I could probably guess relatively accurately the eras they wrote in. Could I reasonably hold a discussion or even mention some prominent idea found in them? Maybe 10% of that list. With any level of deeper understanding? Less than that.

But what I could do, without those books, is hold a relatively well thought out conversation about the ideas that most of those books were also exploring. Why? Because that is what cultural memory does for us, without being able to hold an in depth idea about a particular work of art, we can still be able to hold in depth ideas about the particular notion that a work of art was exploring. Because cultural memory goes a great way towards preserving, through the Great Conversation, all those ideas and philosophies and beauties and art, without me having to memorize in rote detail the specifics of each work.

930 books, considered essential to grasp the great conversation of *just* Western Culture. How many paintings & painters? How many concertos and composers? How many sculptures? How many plays and playwrights and stage actors? How many buildings and architects? How many movies and directors and actors and screenwriters?

The interesting thing of course, is how the growth of culture has accelerated due to population, communication and technology. Whereas one generation in the 1000s may have produced a half dozen *iconic* culture producers, one generation in the 1500s produced several dozen *iconic* culture producers. One generation in the 1700s, maybe 100. A generation of the 1900s, easily several hundred.

Producers. Multiply that by 10 for iconic works. And I think I’m underestimating. Continue reading

I Worry About Cary Grant [Updated]

…and James Cagney. And Kirk Douglas. And Bette Davis. And Rita Hayworth.

Seeing Kirk Douglas at the Golden Globes revived the concern that every Christmas season intensifies for me, when I realize that it is only Christmas that keeps such giants of entertainment past as Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin from fading into permanent obscurity.  The cultural figures who we remember are mostly the beneficiaries of moral luck, not a fair merit-based calculation. It is a random process, and culture, which is significantly defined by who and what we remember and who and what we forget, should not be shaped by coincidence, chance, and random amnesia.

It should not be, but it is. A classic example outside the realm of entertainment is the strange case of  Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg, and by some assessments the savior of the Union itself. When the story of Gettysburg was assembled by the battlefield commission, plaques erected and statues placed. Chamberlain’s desperate stand protecting the Union army’s flanks on Day Two of the battle didn’t make the cut. Despite as remarkable a career as anyone from Maine could have, and more than one shining moment of distinction during the Civil War, he was forgotten for more than a century. Then a brilliant, best-selling historical novel, “The Killer Angels,” recounted his heroics leading the 20th Maine so vividly that Chamberlain memory was re-animated, and began receiving the attention from historians that it deserved from the start.

In popular culture, whether a performer’s unique talents and contributions are remembered after more than a generation is now almost entirely dependent on whether there is a film featuring them that is regularly presented on television. Only a handful of performers who have permanently entered iconic status avoid that standard: I’d include Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple and John Wayne in this category, with a few debatable others. (And even the Little Tramp, MM, Fred, Judy and The Duke aren’t necessarily  safe: once Rudolf Valentino, Laurel and Hardy, Lon Cheney, Greta Garbo, Boris Karloff and James Dean could be safely called icons. I doubt one Millennial in a hundred could identify any of them. Marlene Dietrich has a thumb-hold on her iconic status only because of  Madeline Kahn’s film-long send-up of her in “Blazing Saddles.”) Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-up: 8/16/17

GOOD MORNING!

1. I’m heading to Boston and Fenway Park in a few hours to meet with two of my high school classmates and together pay our respects to the 1967 Boston Red Sox, the spiritual beginning of Red Sox Nation, and a group of men, then barely more than boys, who had as profound an effect on my life and view of it as anything I have ever experienced.

It’s the 50th Anniversary of that amazing team and the heart-stopping pennant race it won against all odds, in a four team race that came down to the final game of the regular season. I mean heart-stopping literally: the team wasn’t called “The Cardiac Kids” for nothing. TWO of my father’s colleagues at the Boston Five Savings Bank died of heart attacks while attending Red Sox games, during one of the 9th inning desperation rallies for which the team was famous. The only reason I didn’t perish in like fashion is because I was just 16 years old.

Why was this team, and that summer 50 years ago, so important to me? I don’t have time or space to answer that question well, and you’d probably wonder what I was babbling on about anyway. A 2017 film by Major League Baseball called “The Impossible Dream” does a fair job of explaining it, but it’s too short to do the job right.

I had listened to, watched or attended every Boston Red Sox game for five years, as the team lost and lost. From those bad teams, followed weakly by the city in those days, in a crumbling old park that seemed destined to be abandoned and torn down, I learned that winning wasn’t everything, that loyalty wasn’t easy, that Hemingway was right, and that baseball was about courage, humility, perseverance, doing your job every day, sacrifice, and hope, as well as usually losing at the end. That summer of 1967 taught me that hope is worth the effort even though hope is usually dashed by the ice water of reality, that you should never give up, that miracles do happen, and that nothing is as wonderful as when a community is united in a single, inspirational goal, no matter what that goal might be…and that you should never be afraid to give everything you have in pursuit of a mission, even when it is likely that you will fail.

I learned difficult, discouraging lessons, too. When an errant pitch hit Red Sox right-fielder Tony Conigliaro in the face on August 18, 1967, it was the beginning of a lesson that revealed its tragic last chapter 23 years later. That one taught me that life is horribly, frightening unpredictable, and that we envy others at our peril. It taught me that we need to do what we can to accomplish as much good as we can as quickly as we can, because we may lose our chance forever at any moment.

Tony C, as he was and is known as, was a beautiful, charismatic, local kid, the idol of Boston’s huge Italian-American community,  in his fourth season with his home town team at the age of 22. He dated movie stars; he recorded pop songs; he had a natural flair of the dramatic, and was destined for the Hall of Fame. One pitch took it all away. Although he had two comebacks and played two full seasons facing major league fastballs with a hole in his retina and his field of vision, Tony was never the same. After his final attempt to keep playing failed at the age of 30, he became a broadcaster, and at 37 was seemingly on the way to stardom again in 1982 when he suffered a massive, inexplicable heart attack—Tony  did not smoke, and had no family history of heart problems– that left him brain damaged until his death in 1990.

As Henry Wiggin, the star pitcher protagonist of the novel, play and movie “Bang the Drum Slowly” observes as he  reflects on the death of his catcher and roommate, everyone is dying, and we have to remember to be good to each other. But it’s so hard. Ethics is hard. The ethics alarms ring faintly when we are about the task of living, or not at all…

At the end of the story, the narrator, the best friend of the catcher (but not really that close a friend) recalls how quickly everyone on the baseball team went back to their selfish ways after their teammate went home to die Even the narrator, who was the leader of the effort to make the catcher feel loved and appreciated in his last days, ruefully recalls his own failing. The catcher had asked him a favor, just to send him a World Series program (the team won the pennant after he had become too ill to play), and he had forgotten to mail it until it was too late. How hard would it have been, the narrator rebukes himself, to just put it in an envelope and mail it? Why are we like that, he wonders?

1967 was the beginning of my exploration of that mystery too.

So I am going to Boston for the 30 minute ceremony. I can’t even stay for the game; I have a seminar to teach tomorrow morning, and the last flight out of Logan is at 9 PM. There will probably be just a small contingent from the Cardiac Kids: most of them are dead now, or too infirm even to walk onto the field. But Yaz will be there, and Gentleman Jim Lonborg; Rico Petrocelli, Mike Andrews, and maybe even Hawk Harrelson  and Reggie Smith. I will be there to say thank-you, that’s all.

And to show that I remember. Continue reading