Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Ethicist, Part 2

Dear Ethicist: I have a strong suspicion that my landscaper Manuel gave me forged Social Security paperwork. Moreover, I am increasingly convinced that he is, in fact, the "El Paso Strangler" who's responsible for almost 20 border murders this year. They sure do look identical, right down to the telltale parallel neck scars. Should I call the cops, or just turn a blind eye?

Randy Cohen: How dare you. How dare you sir. It must be nice, living in that comfortable house with the landscaped garden, sipping on Chardonnay and listening to the crackle of the fire - while all the time Manual stands out in the cold, performing back-breaking physical labor for slave wages, all so that you can have a manicured driveway. Shame on you. Do you KNOW that the documents were forged? You say he's a criminal - are you a criminal investigator by trade sir? You sicken me. A person risks life and limb to immigrate to this country, seeking nothing more than a honest job and a future for his family, and your only thought is to persecute him. Does his brown skin scare you? It does, doesn't it? Does it fracture the ediface of your sham of a house of cards of a blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah....

You see, one of Randy's common tropes is that we all should aid and abet illegal immigrants, underground railroad style. We should be out there setting up water tanks along their ingress routes. We should deliberately overlook fake paperwork. And of course we need to make everything available in espanol to ease their burden. And "ethically", what's his justification for the willful lawbreaking? Well, his argument is that an unjust law need not be obeyed, and our immigration law is unfair, cruel, and a shambles.

Let's consider. Yes, an unjust law can be righteously broken, but..... don't you have to have an overwhelmingly strong case that the law is unjust? Is it acceptable to simply go with your gut? Can we, as individual citizens simply decide that laws 3, 16 and 41 are unjust and then just casually disregard them? Thinking that our immigration policy is unjust and/or disfunctional does not meet the rightous lawbreaking standard by a huuuuuge mile. Randy has a misguided admiration for the nobility and work-ethic of the lawbreaking alien and he confuses his passion for their plight for some kind of solid conviction that immigration law is unjust.

I want to take a moment and try to wrap my head around the logic of Randy's immigration position.

Okay, so we have these jobs out there in agriculture and construction and meat-packing, etc. which we are told "Americans just won't do." Why won't Americans do them? It feels like the implied answer is that we Americans are fat and lazy, and our Mexican friends are just more industrius by nature. But of course that's not the case. We have a globe-straddling economic empire and they have abject poverty and rooster fights. The reason Americans "won't do" the agricultural field labor is that - given how arduous, backbreaking and unpleasant it is - and given that it pays $2.30 an hour - and given that it's 6 days a week with no benefits, perks, or any legal recourse for complaint - well, you'd have to be pretty damn desperate to take a job like that.

It's not that Americans won't pick lettuce, it's that we seem have a national shortage of starving, indigent, frightened, illiterate, desperate people to enlist into slave labor. And this, according to the logic of Randy and our other enlightened and progressive friends, is a BIG PROBLEM.

When they say "Our economy can't run without migrant labor." what they are really saying is "Our economy can't run without a steady supply of miserable, impoverished human beings risking their own lives to come here and be our indentured servants." This, once again, is the "progressive" perspective.

It's never phrased like that though. It's tarted up in the whole kum-ba-yah, help-the-poor, what-are-you,-a-racist? routine. You really need to consider the logical end result of the Randy Cohen immigration philosophy.

If we put all the illegals on a citizenship path - then guess what? The moment they become Americans they cease being desperate enough to take the inhuman field labor jobs. Now we need *new* illegal immigrants to do that work. Am I the only person on earth to realize this? That the "Jobs Americans Won't Do" argument, and the "Bring them out of the Shadows" argument are completely contradictory? As soon as we bring them out of the shadows and give them access to welfare and unemployment and medicare and social security and all the rest, they won't do the "Jobs Americans Won't Do" anymore - and we'll need to import a new freshman class of miserable, starving slave labor.

"Which is why we need a Guest Worker Program" comes the response. And the mechanism that will keep them from overstaying their permitted guest allotment time is...... what, exactly? It's utter fantasy to expect that the Mexican "guest worker" will say to himself "Well, my job's done here. Time to go back to my family in Oaxaca." Unless the guest workers are working with ankle shackles, chain-gang style, why would a single Mexican elect to obey the law and return home, when all 90 of his cousins are living here illegally, making more, and on a "path to citizenship"?

I have to say this one more time, because it really does blow my mind. The PROGRESSIVE opinion, the LIBERAL and ENLIGHTENED position on immigration is that we need a permanant caste of second class citizens to tend our crops. The enlightened position is that the lifeblood of our economy depends on the failure of Mexico as a state, and the resulting desperation and poverty of it's inhabitants. We need the average Mexican to have a life so miserable and hopeless that escaping his own country and working for us for $2.30 an hour is his best plan.

If I say sensible things like "Seal the Mexican border air tight." then I'll be called a racist. If I say "Citizenship should be contingent on true English fluency, a respect for our laws, an admiration of our way of life, a working knowledge of our history and civics, and some useful skill that we need more of." then I'm a racist. If I say "We should be working toward helping Mexico stand on it's own two feet so that it's people don't dream of sneaking in here." then again, I'm a racist. If I say "Americans should do field labor for real market wages." then I'm naive.

But that's how it should be. Yes the price of produce and textiles will go up. But that in turn spurs innovation - he who can build the automatic bean-picker will make the money. And building the automatic bean-picker is the true goal, because, really, NO ONE should be out there doing the back-breaking bean-picking labor. (with apologies to Mario Batali of course)

Well there. I went and did it and got all political. But man it gets me steamed. These pro-illegal-immigration people are like the homeless advocates who work tirelessly and zealously to achieve their noble goal: that every homeless person can be out there legally - begging, squatting, panhandling, loitering, sleeping on steam vents and in the subway - what a tremendous victory!!! You win, homeless advocates! They do have the right to beg and live in squalor on the street! Go on, do your victory lap, what a tremendous accomplishment!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Ethicist

I have been absent here for a while. Laziness is the real culprit - not a shortage of irritations by any means. It's just - it will always be easier to head out for poker and beer than to sit down and write about how much I can't stand the elderly. (And I do. They're awful.) But I was stirred out of this stupor by Time Magazine's predictable barf-worthy choice for Person of the Year.

2006 was really one of your standard off-years that you get periodically. This is one of those years where you find a philanthropist or a scientist and give him the limelight. Some guy in Japan made a synthetic immune system cell that will be responsible for major cures in 10 or 20 years? Perfect. Give it to him. If you absolutely have to make it political, give it to the Iranian president. Show him on the cover with bones all around like the Hitler cover in the 30s.

But again, it's this bullshit where it's the common man. Thanks, Time. The message? There are no great men. Great individuals are probably frauds. William Buffet gave away so much money this year that the effects will be rippling for centuries. But somehow, he's not going to be getting too many invitations to speak at commencement. And he wasn't in the running for POTY. I guess he's a villain for making the money in the first place.

But I get too queasy thinking about POTY. Let's talk about the Ethicist, the weekly column in the New York Times Magazine. This is Randy Cohen's column, where people write in with their ethical dilemmas and Randy gives his advice.

For a while I was a huge Ethicist fan. More than anything, it was great for dinner table conversation. I have a mental file of great Ethicist questions that are always fun to chew on. I started out agreeing with Randy Cohen nearly all the time. I still think that in some categories, he has a nearly perfect batting average. He's particularly good with "Who should pay the bill?" type questions. And the "Should I interfere?" questions - he's strong there too.

But.... whenever the question being asked has just the slightest whiff of politics to it, Randy the considerate and even-handed guy morphs into his own little Mr. Hyde where logic can be conveniently discarded in the quest to arrive at the solution that legitimizes every little white-guilt fixation he has (and he has them all).

The reason I began disagreeing with Randy more and more was that he started publishing more of these kinds of questions. Nowadays I'm maybe 50/50 with the Ethicist. And that's pretty poor. But what am I supposed to do when he leaps at any opportunity whatsoever to bash corporate America, the rich, the legal system, the military, chain stores, flag wavers, the religious, smokers, etc. Maybe when he's not concentrating he reflexively bashes Israel too and then has to hurriedly tap on the delete key. One problem I'm going to have here as I vent about Randy Cohen is that I really should footnote all these accusations with direct references to the columns themselves. The problem is that the New York Times has been very efficient in locking up all its content under paid subscription. Good luck finding a single old Ethicist column floating around cyberspace. Furthermore it will be a cold day in hell before I shell out a dime for Times content. So the bottom line is I'm going to have to rely on memory here.

Of course, I do have free access to the current column, and it was this column that got me annoyed enough to forgo the poker and beer. Here you can see the nauseating side of the Ethicist on full display. The side where accusations of racism fly fast and free. Share and enjoy:

Last Christmas, I took my grandchildren to “The Nutcracker,” a ballet I love. My enjoyment was severely marred by the appearance of a black snowflake and then, even worse, a black Snow King. The aesthetic incongruity was inconceivable. The entire ballet was spoiled. It is analogous to a one-legged midget playing Tarzan. Does this make me a racist? Name withheld, Sewell, N.J.

Randy's response:

This does make you a racist — not in the sense of exercising a virulent antipathy toward African-Americans but of being, like most of us, affected by feelings about race.

Here’s one way to think about your reaction. When you see “Gladiator,” the hero is not portrayed by a citizen of ancient Rome; he does not speak Latin. He is a New Zealander, and nobody complains (except a few carping movie critics who are just jealous of Russell Crowe). When you go to “The Lion King,” the title character is not a lion. Movies, theater, ballet — all are artificial. To experience them is to accept many contrivances. In Shakespeare’s day, men played the women’s roles, and people did not see this as an “aesthetic incongruity” but as a theatrical convention.

What prevented your doing likewise at “The Nutcracker” were your ideas about race. Remember, we’re talking about dancing snowflakes here, yet none of the dancers were crystalline specks of frozen water. The entire event eschewed any pretense of corresponding to the real world. What you call an aesthetic response is invariably more complicated than that, a product of many of our ideas.

Not so long ago, some folks would have reacted similarly to a Jewish singer in a leading role at the opera. But as anti-Semitism waned in America, so did such attitudes. As race-neutral casting becomes commonplace, I think you’ll no longer see it as incongruous; you’ll judge a dancer by her skill, not her race.

How enlightened! How progressive! If you object to a black snowflake on the grounds that snowflakes are supposed to be white, that makes you no different from anti-semites who objected to Jews singing opera! No different! Really, no different at all!

Randy mentioned The Lion King. He'd have no objection to an all-white cast performing the Lion King on Broadway, right? No objection whatsoever. (I mean after all, it's not like a *real lion* is being cast!)

How about Leonardo DiCaprio playing George Washington Carver in "The Peanut Butter Story"?

Randy Cohen: "Well now there you're dealing with a real person and the question of historical accuracy, and blah de blah blah blah."

Me: "Sure. Historical accuracy. So then you share my opinion that Morgan Freeman shouldn't have been cast in Unforgiven, seeing as, historically, he wouldn't have been treated as an equal and besides, there weren't any black, landowning cowboys in 1870's Wyoming."

Randy Cohen: "Well no, in that case it's okay, because b'blah b'blah-blah-blah, blahbuh blah."

Me: "Ahhhhhh, I see. Well then clearly you weren't bothered by that controversy where Angelina Jolie was cast as Mariane Pearl, the half-African, dark skinned wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl? You know how everyone was complaining that it was wrong to cast a white woman in the role? I guess you've made it clear we should judge the actress by the performance, not by the skin color.

Randy Cohen: "Well now hold on. That casting was inappropriate, not to mention insensitive, because blah blah blah blah blah di-blah blah blah blah blah open borders blah blah blah."

You know I had a professor once who snapped at me "Don't you think it's funny that no matter what the union labor dispute is, no matter what the issues are, conservatives always seem to be able to take management's side? They'll weigh the situation, they'll claim to consider all arguments, and yet somehow they always end up siding with management. Isn't that funny?" Well whenever I see Randy weighing in on a difficult racial issue, I always remember that little outburst. Isn't it funny how no matter what the individual circumstances are, Randy always finds a way to side with the non-white-skin-pigmented person? No matter what racial double standard he has to endorse, there's always seems to be a good, sound case for it? Funny, huh?

For example, a white man writes in and asks if it's wrong that he finds Asian girls prettier than all others and prefers to date only them. Is that racist? Yes, it's racist, says Randy, busting out his most aggrieved "How dare you" tone. Randy had the cojones to suggest that there was something illegitimate about this man's utterly personal choice about who to find physically attractive. Can you imagine living in Randy's world, where if you were caught dating a disproportionately high number of Asians you'd be subject to everyone's scorn? I have a followup question for Randy on his column. When I decide who to find attractive, should I be considering the racial demographic mix of just my local area? Or should I make some attempt at outreach?

But this is getting off topic. We were talking about the free and easy double standards. If a black man wrote in and said he found black women uniquely beautiful and preferred to date them exclusively, and does Randy have a problem with that, what would Randy's fiery, principled response sound like? I think it would sound like this.

I think Randy Cohen does in fact have a coherent position on these racial issues. It is this: If you belong to one of the cherished American victim classes, (non-white skin pigment being the most basic proof of membership) you are entitled to certain double standards. That's just how he feels. That's his position. It's a stupid position, and it shows that in all ways that count he's a lightweight, but it is coherent and consistent.

But of course he'll never come out and say that that's his position. Instead we're treated every week to these elaborate logistical cartwheels trying to demonstrate how a new racial double standard is ethically justified. Observe the flop sweat as he labors to show why black hospice patients can have racial nurse preferences but white patients can't. Throw a counterexample at him that uses his own logic but is clearly preposterous (Jews were oppressed - can they request Jewish nurses?) and then watch him discover a special footnote to his already confusing argument that disqualifies your counterexample. (Randy: "Jews don't have that same cultural fear of the white medical establishment." Me: "Ah, that makes perfect... huh?")

(Side note: Randy and I did have that back-and-forth. I'll at least give him props on responding to his reader mail)

How many times have we opened up an Ethicist column to read some bizarro, parallel universe question like: "My husband and I are remodeling our Greenwich country house kitchen. Just the other day, we noticed that the contractor has both an NRA sticker and a Right-to-Life decal on his worktruck. Is it justifiable to spit directly into his face, or should we just fire him quietly?"

Those questions are great for Randy because they set him up to be the voice of moderation. Randy: "As much as I sympathize with your predicament (and who wouldn't want to send a little salivary buckshot back in this guy's direction!) we must remember that in a free society, people are entitled to their opinions, no matter how unsavory." Bravo Randy!

To be continued...