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Posts Tagged ‘ethics and society’

My father-in-law, Dick Soule, was a colorful character.  He had many sayings – some of them made more sense than others – all interesting, some timely.  And maybe none were more timely than the one I’m using as title for this post.  Lots of people have talked about the President’s fondness for ‘alternate facts,’ a behavior embodied by his press secretary and top aides.  For those who rely on digital media for their news, and tend toward information coming in fast bursts that don’t involve reading (let alone reading print publications “Of Record,”), it’s becoming tricky to know whether to believe what you hear and see.

And so the messages continue to be cranked out – about Putin, about the ‘crooked media,’ about lack of coverage of terrorist threats – even the “Bowling Green Massacre,”  which – it turns out – is one of those ‘alternate’ pieces of information ginned up by a Trump aide.

Which brings me to another of my father-in-law’s sayings.  He – and my husband as well – loved to distract our kids by pointing in a direction over their shoulder (particularly if there was, for instance, a brownie sitting on a plate in front of a child) and saying, “Look!  A Linotype!”  Linotypes, of course, haven’t been used for years…and hardly any kid (and few adults) would know what they are!  But the idea of pointing in one direction to grab the cookie off your plate, or throw you off your game (just like the old Quarterback Sneak) – now that is alive and being used with verve right now.

Because, of course, it turns out that the Administration — the one that we are supposed to respect and admire — would far rather have the media get distracted on ‘proving’ that they really HAVE covered stories of terrorist threats – and covered them enough (what the heck is enough???) to exempt themselves from the criticism of the White House.  At what point will the reputable media – the ‘failing’ New York Times, for instance; the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the like – respond to this kind of criticism by not responding and being distracted?

PT Barnum, famous showman, was well known for staging stunts.  He talked proudly about hiring a child in a town where his circus was, to carefully place six bricks outside of the tent where his show was.  People would gather, watching the child and the bricks and then, curious, they’d go inside to be entertained by acrobats, dancers, Gen Tom Thumb, and others.  They’d leave, feeling that they had experienced a great show, and spread the word to their friends.  Evidently – even though Ringling Brothers has announced the close of their circus – we haven’t learned the lessons Barnum wanted to teach us, more than 100 years ago:  we can be duped.  Over and over again, just like (as my husband likes to say) “shooting fish in a barrel.”  It’s easy, and it’s working. And more than that:  we know what this game is, yet still, we play it, over and over again.  “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” said WC Fields, who seemed to embody the spirit of Barnum years after the showman had passed.  Evidently we’re the chumps, not smart enough to know that our ears are wet – and no, it’s not the rain coming down on our heads.

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For several years I’ve spent part of many Sunday evenings watching one excellent HBO series or another.  This all started with “The Sopranos,” and proceeded on to include “Carnivale,” “Rome,” “Deadwood,” the superb “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Big Love.”  I’m not sure if the uber-executives at HBO planned it this way or whether it’s just a coincidence, but all these series (most of which I find terrific, by the way and worth viewing on DVD or on demand) have a common thread: characters whose lives exist in a society where there are no rules, or where the rules don’t apply.

In Deadwood, South Dakota (a real lawless town that was born during the Gold Rush), a lot of what you see in the HBO series really occurred.  Unwitting prospectors are lured out to the hills at night and shoved off cliffs, then thrown to the pigs by Chinese immigrants, the lowest of the low in this community.  Whores are brought in to amuse the prospectors and beaten brutally when a saloon owner doesn’t like a glance or an attitude.  The Sheriff has no real power and is left to try to act as a moral presence in a town where swindling, shooting and conniving are everyday activities.  And in “Big Love,” the series now in its final season, modern-day polygamists who have moved into a Sandy, Utah community hoping to advance the principle of plural marriage try to blend into contemporary society, all while threatened by the adherents of a fundamentalist faith who inhabit Juniper Creek, the ‘compound’ outside of city limits — and city laws.

These activities aren’t only the stuff of TV drama.  In the United Kingdom a grandmother bashes a group of would-be robbers to foil their plans for a heist, while in the US a man goes mad, stabbing people on the street and in the subway, and a mother and her toddler son are found, dead in a dumpster. While it’s true that these things have always gone on, it seems to me that over the last year there has been a proliferation of situations in which people, for many reasons, are deciding that the rules don’t apply to them.

It’s true that times are tough, and difficult days can lead to desperate measures.  However I’m hesitant to chalk up such behavior to the economy.  What role do our faith communities, society, our education system, our government, play in this drama?  Are people no longer guided around the expectations of living in a society and a particular culture?  While horrible abuses occurred in Egypt during the recent revolution, I was also  impressed with the public statements, made by ordinary citizens and generals, that seemed informed by their sense of what ‘their God’ told them to do…as if the arc of the moral universe moved within them to help plot their decisions.

More and more, there seem to be too few examples of the moral universe moving in us.  Why else do we decide to try to beat not only the conventional systems set up to exist in society, but our neighbors?  Why does membership in some political groups lead individuals to decide that “the right to bear arms” also means the right to use them – whenever we feel wronged?  The oft-quoted statement attributed to Martin Luther King (but first articulated by Rev. Theodore Parker) states, “The arc of the universe is long – but it bends toward justice.”  The question is: whose justice?  In whose name, for whose benefit?  Sometimes the rules just don’t apply.

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