Sunday, February 22, 2015

Family Guy and the Banality of Evil

[A version of this is posted on Ordinary Times here.  This version is slightly edited for some typos and formatting.]


This post is about "Family Guy," and I promise I'll get there.  But first I'll start with a long passage from George Orwell's 1984 (hat tip, Eric Blair).  Toward the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, writes the following in his diary [bold added by me]:
"April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never "


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Now back to "Family Guy."  I'm not sure it's okay to watch the show.  I like it.  I don't watch it much anymore, but that's mostly because it's on at inconvenient times for me.  But it's hard to know whether I should laugh at the humor.

Or some of the humor.  Many of its jokes are pretty innocent.  Take the scene where an errant golf ball crashes through a china shop and destroys all the porcelain vases and other breakable things.  A bull, who had been in the china shop innocently browsing the wares, now faces blame from the owner who was in a back room and didn't see what caused all the damage.  (Sorry, I can't seem to find a YouTube link to it, but it's funnier if you watch it than if you read my description.)  Some of the humor also strikes me as decent social commentary.  When Peter meets the crows from Dumbo and makes his comment about "good ole fashioned family racism" [not really offensive, but probably not safe for work], it's hard to deny he's on to something.  There are also a lot of fart jokes that aren't really my thing but are harmless.

But some humor crosses the line.  Take the scene where a barbershop quartet makes fun of an AIDS patient, or the repeated jokes about and abuse toward Meg, or the neighborhood pedophile character.  Everyone's mileage varies and the line-crossing jokes can sometimes be argued to have a point beyond harming others for the sake of laughter.  Examples [not safe for work]:  here, here, and here.

Finding the point—finding the justification for the humor—requires us to rely on irony.  We don't really think that it's appropriate to make fun of someone with a terminal illness.  We don't really think bullying a teenage girl is a good thing to do.  We don't really find pedophilia funny.  Instead, we (by which I mean, "me and others," because this is something I do) say it's so bad it's funny.  In fact, it's funny precisely because it's so bad, because we would never do those things or condone them being done outside movies or tv, or at least outside the cartoon world.  It's the type of thing we laugh at everyday.  We might also say that "Family Guy" is "an equal opportunity lampooner."  I have problems with that argument, both as a general argument and in the particular case of "Family Guy."

But how can we be sure that our laughter or enjoyment is not just another way of performing cruelty?  It's not right to make fun of people with terminal illnesses, but there was a time not too long ago when it was okay or at least not beyond the pale in at least some otherwise respectable circles to make jokes about "the gay disease."  Bullying isn't funny except when it is.  How many times have I made a comment on the internet that I believed to be funny but was probably on some level bullying?  (Answer, probably at least a few.)  Pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse isn't funny, but I suspect a goodly number of people here have occasionally laughed at "prison rape" jokes or whatnot.

Most people who make such jokes or who find troublesome things to be funny aren't sociopaths.  But I'm not so sure that sociopaths don't make such jokes.  And while it's a fallacy to say that because Socrates is a man, therefore all men are Socrates, the family resemblance between "Family Guy" humor and what cruel people do and probably laugh about is disconcerting to me.  Think of the bullies you may have known or people who have punched down (or even up) at you and the jokes they tell.  I'm not so sure they don't tell themselves they're not laughing at the person or the disability or the racial or sexual identity.  I wouldn't be surprised if they say instead that they're just laughing at the irony of it all.


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I began this post with the Orwell quotation for a reason.  What Winston Smith observed at the movie theater is what I'm suggesting happens with "Family Guy."  What entertainment we consume and partake in is also part of what we put out there and might very well contribute to a violent project.  Think of the history of blackface minstrel shows, which arose during slavery and flourished during Jim Crow. 

The analogy is not perfect.  I wouldn't be surprised if in Smith's dystopic world, people are required to watch such movies whereas in our real world we have a choice whether or not to watch "Family Guy."  And Jim Crow has been dismantled, at least formally.  There's also the idea that as consumers of entertainment we are detached.  We suspend disbelief.  And in so doing we are, as I noted above, "laughing at the irony of it all."

Am I just being puritanical?  Not in the Menckenian sense of the word.  I'm not tsk-tsk'ing.  I'm not arguing that "Family Guy" should be banned.  I'm not endorsing a letter-writing campaign or boycott to get it off the air.  I'm not even urging anyone else not to watch it.  I'll probably watch it or reruns someday in the future.

Maybe I am being puritan in another sense, though.  I believe that what we--by which, again, I mean "you and I"--perform and do is part of who we are and shapes what we become.  I resist calling that "puritanism" because doing so seems to imply that only puritans care about such things.

And we should consider what we laugh at.  It's not always an easy call.  The "prole" in Smith's passage might be on to something. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Duress on the dotted line

[Cross-posted at Hit Coffee, which Will Truman has invited me to join.  His site's a good one--and he and his other co-authors are pretty good writers, so you might want to check it out.]



Free will in the marketplace is a useful construct.  But it's a construct nevertheless and can't explain everything.

About 15 years ago, I was interested in joining a gym.  There was one near where I worked—it's part of a national chain that I'll call "23-Hour Fitness."*  I went there on my 30-minute lunch break to check out their prices.  What I got was an aggressive sales pitch that lasted about 45 minutes.  They gave me a tour of the place and a sit down discussion over the various "membership options," which varied so slightly in price and services that it was hard tell the differences among them.  When the people I was speaking with couldn't find a "membership rep" (who, apparently, was the only one there with authority to sign me up), I finally made my escape, telling them I had to get back to work.

This may seem weird to someone who hasn't experienced a similar ordeal or who has a stronger will than I do. But I felt guilty about leaving them without signing up, almost as if I had unfairly taken their time only to leave them in the lurch at the last minute.  In fact, if they had found a "membership rep," odds are at least even that I would have signed up just to leave with a clear conscience.  And for the record, I knew in the first 5 or 10 minutes that I didn't want to join at all.

What if I had signed and wanted out?  There probably were (and are) some consumer protection policies that could have helped me.  Maybe a grace period of 3 days.  Maybe a cause of action in small claims court or other court.  Maybe some government consumer protection commission.  There probably also were (and are) some non-governmental opportunities.  I could have gone to the "consumers' advocate" that most local media seem to have.  I could have gone to the Better Business Bureau.  I could have closed my checking account to prevent the automatic debits.

I'm not confident most of those things would have worked or that I would have availed myself of them.  I can imagine feeling just as intimidated going in on day two of the grace period and speaking with these same folks as I had during the signup meeting.  And I wouldn't even know how to pursue a claim in court.  And the media option is luck of the draw (they probably get scores of complaints a month and can follow up only on a handful) while the BBB option amounts to a harmless tsk-tsk against the offending company.  (Closing the checking account might have worked, but I'll leave that aside because it's not convenient to my narrative.)

My point, though, is that I might have done something because I felt compelled to even though I "knew" that I had no obligation to do it and "knew" doing it was a bad idea for me.  That's a problem.  But I'm not sure what solution—policy solution or otherwise—can adequately resolve that problem, where "adequately" means, I suppose, that which would protect others similarly situated.  Grace periods can be lengthened.  Causes of action can be made easier to pursue in court.  Etc.

Some solutions are better than others.  I wouldn't ban gym contracts, for example.  And something is to be said for an adult taking responsibility for her or his actions.  And at the end of the day I guess the important thing is I didn't sign, and the problem (for me, in that instance) is hypothetical.


*Disclosure:  23-Hour Fitness is not necessarily related to any organization with a similar sounding name. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

First question, am I a bread thief?

(I've just posted a slightly edited version of this at the OT as a guest poster.  Click here to read it and the comments.)



When is it wrong to steal and when is it okay?


If you believe that all property is theft, then it's not much of a stretch to believe it's never wrong to steal, unless you're talking about someone who owns property, in which case it's wrong for that person to steal.  If on the other hand you believe that private property is the eleventh commandment handed down from Mt. Sinai, then it's not much of a stretch to say it's always wrong to steal.


Few of us (I suspect) swing in that way, and of those who do, most (I suspect) at least allow for attenuating circumstances.  We'd say that sometimes, it's okay to steal.  Or it's never okay to steal, but sometimes it's at least understandable why someone might, and in some cases the thief and not the rightful owner of what is stolen is the more sympathetic party.  (I leave aside here the question of how one's ownership becomes "rightful" in the first place, although the less absolutist among us might very well address that question.)


Take the poor, starving bread thief, who steals a loaf from SuperMegaWalCorporation to feed his family.  To honor the spirit of this example, we should suppose that the thief has no other way to get bread or comparable aliment, that the family is truly starving, and that SuperMegaWalCorporation will not be noticeably harmed by the missing food item.  (If you want, we can stipulate that the bread is about to expire and SuperMegaWalCorporation would have to write it off as a loss anyway.)


I suspect most of us would probably say it's not wrong for that person to steal that item in that circumstance.  Or if we concede the theft to be wrong, most of us would hesitate before throwing the full condemnation of law and morality against him. 


How often do those circumstances actually happen?  I don't know.  I suppose they occur more often in the developing countries than in the first world.  Not having lived in poverty myself, for all I know the occurrence is much more widespread in the first world than I think.  But with due regard to what I do not know or have not experienced, I suspect that such circumstances tend not to occur in such a sheer, unrelenting form, where the thief is so destitute, the stolen item so needed by people so easy to sympathize with, and the "victim" of the theft so unharmed.

For most intents and purposes, the bread thief situation is pretty close to a pure form or pure ideal, which real life situations may approximate but probably rarely resemble exactly.  The destitute person may have made at least some mistakes or decisions that put him and his family in their predicament or worsened their predicament.  (Maybe a month ago he bought a king-sized Hershey's chocolate bar and now could have spent the money on a loaf of bread.)  The item stolen might be money, with which bread could be bought, it is true, but other less necessary things can also be bought.  The thief might not even have a family to support.  Maybe the stolen bread comes from the local bakery struggling to make ends meet and not from SuperMegaWalCorporation.  Or maybe the "assets protection" employee at SuperMegaWalCorporation is a minimum wage worker trying to support her own family and may have recently been warned that one more shoplifting incident, no matter how trivial, will result in her being written up.


I'm not saying any of this to trivialize hardship.  Again, I have never known poverty.  And I actually have a lot of sympathy for the person who, for example, makes some very poor choices and is now suffering hardship and who feels that best option at one point might very well be shoplifting.  I have less sympathy for the SuperMegaWalCorporation.  (But not no sympathy.  There's a margin.  Real people—employees, customers, and perhaps elderly retirees who grew up in the Depression, fought World War II, and hold all their savings in a 401(k) plan heavily invested in SuperMegaWalCorproation's stock—are adversely affected, or would be if enough such thefts occur.)


Rather, by calling the bread thief example a "pure form," what I mean is that it's one end of a spectrum.  The closer one is to the "bread thief" condition, the more justifiable—or at least understandable and sympathetic—the theft.  The closer one is to Bernie Madoff's condition ca. 2005, the less justifiable the theft.


But most of us aren't (I suspect) in the bread thief's position and most of us aren't (I'm fairly confident) in Mr. Madoff's position ca. 2005.  We're (probably, or at least sometimes) somewhere in between.  Someone with my affluence, advantages, and privilege would be wrong to shoplift from SuperMegaWalCorporation (assuming that we're not talking about the rightness of sticking it to corporate America).  Someone who is poorer might be more justified, or at least less wrong, to do so. 


I'm not pleading for a way to judge others.  If I were, I'd probably say the most charitable thing to do is to believe from the outset that the thief in question, even Mr. Madoff, probably on some level believes or has convinced himself that he really is a bread thief.  But like most injunctions against judging others, it's so hard to do in real life.  For one thing, it's easy for me to plead understanding for Mr. Madoff when I haven't been victimized by his scams scams.  For another thing, one paradox of the New Testament's "motes and beams" admonition is that once you invoke it against someone else, you're no longer honoring it.


Instead, I'm pleading for self-reflection.  If I took a survey of the OT's readers, I imagine that at least a majority would say that stealing is generally wrong, or at least wrong in some circumstances, but acceptable (or mitigated) in other circumstances.  Same thing with lying.  Same thing with killing.


But how confident are we—how confident am I—that we are more like the bread thief and less like Mr. Madoff?  Is that music video I watch on YouTube for free an instance of me getting something I really need, or is it me stealing from the artist and production crews?  Does my suspicion that Mr. Obama's "if you like your insurance you can keep it" lie was necessary to pass the ACA justify the dishonesty as long as poorer people get better coverage?  (For the record, I do watch/listen to YouTube music videos without any concern for whether the video is sponsored by the artist.  And I do temporize Mr. Obama's lie because of the end it (probably) helped effect.)


Here's my takeaway.  Whenever you are tempted to do something that you otherwise believe is wrong, I suggest you ask yourself, "Am I a bread thief."  If you can't honestly say "yes," then maybe you shouldn't do it.


To be clear, my admonition is more like a suspensatory veto than a red light.  If you're not a bread thief, then maybe you shouldn't do what you're contemplating   But maybe, pending further investigation, there may be other reasons to do it..  I don't have a firm opinion whether or when my admonition falls in line with the ethicist's holy trinity of duty, virtue, and utility.  But I think it works as a good first step, a practical question we should ask before action.

Ain't no fortunate son

(This is a reprint of a guest post I submitted to the Ordinary Times blog a while back.  I have edited it, mostly for clarity, but if you want to read the original and the comments (which are now closed), please click here.  Tod Kelly at the league came up with the title, which I think is a good one.)


Joseph Epstein has written a defense of the military draft at The Atlantic online.  In that article, he rehashed the points generally raised in favor of the draft.  But those points are not as strong as he thinks they are and they fail to address some critical objections to the draft.


We are probably all familiar with the arguments Epstein uses to argue for the draft.  He says the draft would make policymakers more careful about committing soldiers abroad.  He suggests that a truly universal draft would foster a sense of shared sacrifice among Americans, improve the military, and function as a social mixer, bringing together rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Gentile and Jew (and atheist?),* black and white, and so forth.

The “truly universal” in my previous sentence does a lot of work, and Epstein doesn’t utter the phrase.  But it is the necessary component of what he advocates (“[a] truly American military, inclusive of all social classes….”).  He presumably would not have approved of the “substitute” system of the Civil War, through which a draftee of means could hire a “substitute” in order to avoid service.  He is critical of deferments during the Vietnam era, stating they made Vietnam “the first of our wars to be fought almost exclusively by an American underclass and, in part because of this, at no time did it have anything like the full support of the American people.”

His arguments don’t convince me.  Let’s take what I believe to be his strongest point, namely, the egalitarian potential of compelling people from different backgrounds to work with each other.  I can’t dismiss that point altogether.  My only ready anecdatum runs in support of what Epstein says.  The father of a friend of mine was drafted to serve in Vietnam.  He says he entered the military a conservative racist and came out a pro-civil rights liberal.  (I’m paraphrasing my friend’s own paraphrasing of what his father said.  Take the dose of salt you deem appropriate.)  I can’t deny that a “truly universal” draft might very well foster a sense of mutual understanding via interaction.  And my own leveling instinct takes a certain pleasure in seeing some people (other people, not me, of course!) being knocked down a few pegs and compelled to work with their supposed inferiors.

But still, I’m skeptical.  If one person becomes more broad-minded by working with a diverse group of people, I can imagine another type of person for whom familiarity fosters a hyper-tribalism of the sort that says, “I’ve worked with those people and believe you me, you don’t want to know them.”  Okay, there will always be incorrigibles among us and maybe most people—maybe even most incorrigibles—really do soften their own bigotries by working with others.

I’m also skeptical because a “truly universal” draft is a fantasy, even when there is little likelihood of escaping service altogether.  If it’s not hiring substitutes or winning deferments, it can be having connections to get you into the National Coast Guard Reserve, it can be having the social capital, intelligence, or skills to get the type of job that keeps you more out of danger.  What about conscientious objector status?  Well, if we are to have a draft, I’d want there to be C.O. provisions, and I’d want access to those provisions to be expansive ones.  But then the draft is not truly universal (and C.O. status, as I understand, is hard to secure anyway, and someone with legal representation—read:  social capital and real capital, or being born into a religious tradition that disavows violence—would have a much better shot at it).

But as I said, that was Epstein’s strongest point and I can’t dismiss it altogether.  It reminds me of a very thoughtful comment ScarletNumbers made a while back in response to one of my posts on neoliberalism:  “I would still rather have a Fortunate Son serve in an ‘easy’ position in the military as a draftee, rather not be in the military at all” (asterisk omitted).  Even in an unfair system, some service for all is fairer than some people getting off free.  And ScarletNumbers might have also added that in modern warfare, the “‘easy’ position” is not always safe or easy.  (My uncle was “only” a mechanic in the military in World War II, and he had very disturbing memories of what he saw and underwent, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.)  And at any rate, because non-combat positions outnumber actual “combat” positions, there is a strong likelihood that any given draftee would have the supposedly “easy” position.

But that last point—non-combat positions outnumbering actual combat positions—feeds into my critique of what I take to be Epstein’s weaker point, the notion that a truly universal draft would convince our policymakers to be more careful before committing soldiers to action.  Because non-combat positions, which are supposedly “safer,” outnumber combat positions and because (I suspect) “only” a small percentage of people in actual combat positions suffer debilitating physical wounds, a policymaker might very well believe the odds are pretty good in favor his or her loved ones in the military, coming out okay.

I suppose that because we’ve never had a truly universal draft, I don’t really have a basis of comparison for Eptstein’s claim that policymakers would be more careful with their use of the military.  But I will point out that Truman committed US soldiers to Korea pretty quickly even though there was a draft.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which occurred during a time when the draft was in force and which empowered President Johnson to wage the Vietnam War, passed the Senate with only two dissents, fewer dissents than the authorization to invade Iraq in 1991 and 2002.

And then there’s World War II.  I admit, it lends support to Epstein’s point.  That is so not only because of the sense of shared sacrifice Americans supposedly felt during the war, but also because before Pearl Harbor there was fairly strong, albeit eroding, opposition to entering the conflict, and FDR had a hard time convincing the US to go to war.  Maybe what opposition there was to entry owed something to the fact that the draft had already been implemented in 1940?  Even so, the “Good War” was, I hope, exceptional, as noted by the tendency to call it “good,” as if wars by definition are presumptively bad.  If a similar conflict arises, or if, as in a hypothetical commenter Roger once offered, the Mongols are surrounding the city gates, I’ll be prepared to reopen the debate, at least as it applies to that conflict.**

But that debate will have to account for one objection that Epstein—who says that “[a]rguments against the draft…are mostly technical”—declines to address.  Compulsory military service meets my common-sense definition (but apparently, not the Supreme Court’s definition) of “involuntary servitude.”  It requires a person to put his life on hold for a time—I believe the standard term of service was two years during the Cold War Era draft—and while in service, that person can be ordered to put his life in danger.  And I believe involuntary servitude is wrong, unless it is the punishment for a crime for which someone has been duly convicted.  And even without the Thirteenth Amendment, I’d still believe it would be wrong.
True, the draft is not chattel slavery.  But it is compulsory service, and if someone who would otherwise not choose to serve is compelled to serve or to face harsh consequences for not serving, then his service is involuntary.

The chief argument against my “involuntary servitude” point is to draw an analogy to jury duty or to the United States’ history of militia service.  And while I don’t fully sign on to Vikram Bath’s argument against analogies, I’ll point out the differences between military conscription and jury and militia service.  For most people called to jury duty, the process lasts only one day unless they are empanelled.  For most people who are empanelled, the duty lasts only about a week.  For only a small number, the duty may last months.  And only in very rare, Grisham-style, circumstances is a juror’s life ever in danger.  (Am I wrong?  I admit I don’t have a cite, but I do ask for the proof.)

Militia duty, when it’s not just an opportunity for homosocial male conviviality, is regular training for the possibility that the local community, or perhaps the country, might be invaded or imminently threatened in some way.  I’m not in principle opposed to militia duty defined that way.  But even then, I’d want the threat to be imminent.  And if the Mongols*** truly are at the city’s gates, I’d want to be sure that a tribute to pay them to go away is not a possibility before I’d admit to the state’s authority to compel my or anyone else’s service.

Whether in the moment I’d have the courage of my convictions to refuse to serve—or more likely, given my less-than-draftable age of 41, to help others refuse to serve—is another issue.

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*Yes, I’m aware that Jewishness is as much an ethnicity as it is a creed, but Epstein’s example—a sergeant berating his Christian soldiers to go to Church and his “Hebrew” soldiers to honor the Sabbath—focuses on the creedal aspect of Jewishness.
**For the record, I believe Roger was arguing against compulsory service, stating that his hypothetical situation rarely arises.
***It probably needs to be said that I mean no offense to Mongolians or people with Mongolian roots.  I also realize the “Mongol horde” was not what European and Chinese myth has made it out to be and according to one interpretation, seems to have fit in a pattern of China’s relationship with its neighbors to its North.  See Thomas J. Barfield’s The Perilous Frontier:  Nomadic Empires and China, 221 B.C. to A.D. 1757.  (1989)