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...

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