The Ethical Spectacle May 1995

Letters to the Ethical Spectacle

Mr. Blumen,

Just a quick note while I gather my thought on your newest issue.

I wanted to note that you complain that I first dismissed "semi-automatic" as an mythical category but then use the term myself. I suppose that is my fault; I was using the term in two different ways - the way the public imagines it to be and in it's technical meaning.

Technically, a semi-automatic weapon is a gun that, through a combination of springs (built into the ammo clip, usually) and gas expansion caused by firing a bullet, will automatically chamber a new bullet and cock the gun each time the gun is fired.

Pistols using this design tend to be more compact than revolvers, but are restricted (as I understand it) to smaller calibers, which is why you never hear of ".357 magnum semi-auto" pistols.

Fully automatic weapons take the semi-automatic weapon to it's logical conclusion, since it's already chambered a bullet and cocked the hammer, it releases the hammer again, firing the new bullet. The process repeats until the trigger is released or you run out of bullets.

A very prosaic description of something that can pump several hundred rounds out of a gun in less than a minute, but there it is.

(BTW - despite many "A-Team" episodes to the contrary, it is so hard to aim a fully automatic weapon properly, that (I've been told) the marines no longer use a fully-automatic version of the M-16. They modified them so they fire three rounds and then stop.)

Mike Heinz

Mike wrote a second letter this month, responding to a letter in the last issue:

Dear Mr. McDougall:

Quick quiz! Who said "All power comes from the barrel of a gun"? Answer at the end of this letter.

You asked of what use private ownership of guns is against the U.S. government. To be blunt, probably very little, in your hands.

The very fact that you asked this question makes me wonder about your knowledge of U.S. History. Of what use were the farmer's muskets against the red coats at Breeds and Bunker Hill? Of what use was Patrick Henry's statement "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Do you think he would have meekly turned over his guns if the Brits demanded it? Did George Washington, freezing in the snow at Valley Forge, really constitute an "all powerful government"? At what point did he suddenly acquire that omnipotence?

At what point did Lenin's forces become a government? Of what use were their guns?

At what point did the Chinese rebels, fighting imperial China and imperial Japan both, acquire the crushing power you believe governments have? Before or after they took control of the country?

On a more modern front, Koresh held the government at bay for weeks, till the feds were forced to use tanks against civilians. The fact that most people blame Koresh for this has more to do with the government's ability to manipulate the press than anything that actually happened there.

Son, you live in a country that was built by the people, for the people. The people have a duty to preserve this country against all threats - including their own government. The weapons of choice are the ballot box and the court room - but if those fail, or if your faced with a man with rifle pointed at your chest, a gun is your only hope - whether that man is rapist or a member of the oh, so, non-violent BATF or DEA.

The answer to my quiz? Mao Tse Tung.

Mike Heinz

Your reference to BATF, which was written before the Oklahoma bombing, is very poignant in light of it.

I think that the right to defend oneself against one's own government had little to do with the Second Amendment, and is a pretty useless right anyway. Its like speaking of a "right of revolution". A revolution is something that happens when people are ready and strong enough for it. If they had a right to do it, it wouldn't be a revolution, by definition, but an election. By taking arms against their government, they become, temporarily, criminals, until they establish a new legality. Since, in the NRA's mindset, gun control would result in only criminals having guns, if revolution ever becomes necessary in the U.S., you will be able to become a criminal and get one.

The self-defense point is interesting. The NRA paradigm is the sole attacker you find in your house, who you back off with a gun. Fair enough; I would consider keeping a gun for that purpose. But the typical victim in my city is a child shot in the back by young men firing wildly at each other half a block away in a public housing project. Who could you arm to decrease or prevent the violence in that situation? The child? Maybe the people cowering in their apartments could set up enfilading fire and kill the warring factions?

You have indicated in other letters and articles you have written that some moderate form of gun control does not offend you. If American government is supposed to be a balance between competing interests, please help find the balance that will protect the people in my city while allowing those in yours to pursue their hobby or to own arms for self-defense. A good place to start might be by writing to the NRA, of which you are a member, to tell them that their absolutist stance does you, and everyone else out here, a disservice.

Dear Sir,

Your readers may like to know of the ERaM (Ethnicicty, Racism and the Media) Programme, recently established at the University of Bradford, UK. ERaM supports two email mailing lists for the discussion and dissemination of any and all information and research concerning issues of ethnicity, racism and the media. Topics under discussion include: the representation of ethnicity in the media, ethnic minority media production, and the recruitment and employmeny of ethnic minority persons. Further information may be had at URL:

Yours sincerely,

Apurba Kundu

Convenor The ERaM Programme Department of Social and Economic Studies University of Bradford Bradford BD7 1DP England

Direct e-mail:

Dear Mr. Blumen,

After reading "End All Federal Support of Controversial Art", I must admit that I am a bit confused. The title suggests that you wish to separately consider the NEA funding of controversial art from the funding of all other art, but then you go on to conclude that the the NEA should not be funding art at all. I disagree with both arguments, but find it hard to respond to something which can't decide what argument it is pursuing.

I might first point out two important considerations. First, the designation of what is and is not radical is very subjective. Consider that many of the Renaissance works that you admire today were denounced as being ugly or sacriligious at the time that they were created. Second, the percentage of money spent by the NEA on works that most people would consider controversial is much smaller than those people have been led to believe. You did not explicitly state otherwise, but the tone of your article certainly seems to support the misguided notion that the cost of a few well publicized controversial works account for more than just several percentage points of the NEA budget.

What is controversial art ? You never try to define it, and you freely interchange the terms controversial, provocative, and radical. You also make the completely unsupported assertion that all government funding works must be either bland or puerile. Given a fair and objective sampling of NEA funded projects, the average person might very well find a few to be bland or puerile. They would find others to be exciting and meaningful, and would find most of them to lie somewhere in between the extremes. Nor would all people agree on their assessments of the individual projects. I assert that this is evidence that the NEA is doing its job effectively. If the NEA pushes the limits, one has to expect that it will occasional go over those limits; if it did not push the limits, then it would always fall short of its full potential.

Many NEA funded works, of course, do not become controversial until publicized by NEA opponents, who typically describe the works inaccurately and out of context in order to stir up anger in their audience. Consider your glib dismissal of Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ" as "A crucifix in a jar of urine" and your suggestion that he should not have even considered accepting money from the government. Do you really know what "Piss Christ" is, what it looks like, or what the connection between NEA funding and Piss Christ was ? Hint: it is not a crucifix in a jar of urine and the NEA did not give money to Serrano to create or display it. Should you ever decide to see "Piss Christ" and judge it free from preconceived notions about the sanctity of separating profane and sacred elements, then you may be suprised to find out that "Piss Christ" is a work of "great beauty which expresses ideas about piety, religion, and the nature of man".

Pointing out that moving, provocative pieces of art have been produced without government funding is entirely irrelevant. The NEA has never been intended as a substitute for private or local funding nor as a welfare program to support artists who choose not to seek funding elsewhere (another misconception commonly used to argue against funding but thankfully appearing nowhere in your article). In fact, one of its main priorities is to stimulate investment in the arts by private and local sources. Art funding has increased dramatically since the creation of the NEA, as have the number of organizations providing "legacy art". Although it is impossible to determine for just how much of this the NEA is responsible, the numbers suggest that it has been performing effectively and efficiently.

I think that the government should be involved in the business of bringing people to art. I don't believe that the government should be in the business of bringing art to the people. This implies turning art into the kind of vacuous, passive entertainment that most people today have been conditioned to accept. Bringing people to art, however, means giving them the opportunity to benefit from everything that uncompromising art has to offer. If the free market left alone does not achieve this, and if a small investment by the government can stimulate a great deal of activity towards this end, then I am all for it.

Bob Cantor

Usually, when someone responds to me with indignation, I have to admit I enjoy it. When I annoyed Bob, I felt sad, and I realized that the reason was that I overstated my case in the article about N.E.A. In normal times, I would have no problem with the government spending some money on any kind of art it chose to. These are not normal times, and when the present administration is so beleaguered, it makes less than no sense to be setting up straw men for the conservatives to bat down. I stand by my point that a radical artist who takes government money is no radical.

I said all this in email to Bob, and this is what he responded.

Dear Mr. Blumen:

You said:

I don't take issue with a lot of what you say, and have to admit I have never seen "Piss Christ."

Actually, I've only seen reproductions and read about it. The original is a carefully composed and skillfully printed 5 feet tall color photograph of a spectacularly illuminated crucifix immersed in an amber liquid. Most would be willing to call it beautiful if the title did not betray what type of liquid the crucifix is actually immersed in.

Serrano, who was raised as a Catholic, has done a series of works with bodily fluids, saying that it relates to the Catholic obsession with the body and bodily fluids of Christ. Thus he has also worked with blood, milk, and semen. He has also created a "Piss Satan", "Piss Discus" (discus thrower figure), and "Piss Elegance" (fashion model figure, I think).

The NEA money went to a North Carolina arts organization to stage a travelling juried exhibition (it was, of course, only part of the funding). Serrano entered, was accepted, and won a prize.

I think the work does raise a lot of interesting questions. Why, for instance, are people so disgusted with urine when it is actually a very sterile substance, less capable of carrying disease than something like cow's milk ? People have called the work a desecration, but can one really desecrate a graven image ? Just what is so disturbing about mixing sacred and profane elements in an image ? This just touches the surface of the questions that an in-depth critical look at the work can stimulate. Maybe I'm not a good person to judge the appropriateness of such funding since I'm one of the few people who actually got something positive out of the work.

What I believe however is that art, or the artist, is better off not taking government money, and that a liberal democratic government (such as it is) is better off rolling up its sleeves to get some real work done then taking a pummeling over artworks like "Piss Christ".

That's certainly a reasonable position. When the government tried adding loyalty oaths as a condition for accepting funds, many artists and organizations did refuse the funding (only a small minority, though).

I do find it annoying, however, that NEA opponents who have not yet managed to cut funding for the program may still be able to make the entire program worthless by completely politicizing it. Imagine if it decided to supported only those projects heartily endorsed by Jesse Helms - Helms would become an ardent supporter of NEA funding (in fact, he always has supported projects that channel money to his constituents) and current supporters would switch to opposing it. This would certainly make for some interesting arguments.

Bob Cantor

Dear Mr. Blumen:

Here's an abridged version of an email letter I sent to Newt. The full-up version went into considerable more detail relative to my background, and the reasons why he should give up the miles and book deal. The edited version I've enclosed below is the essence of the problem. I naively expected him to read it, say "Oh yes, that makes sense.", and then do the right thing. I got 0 response.

(truth in advertising clause)

I am also guilty of an ethics violation because it's probably more my ego that's hurt here than Newt's failure to do the right thing.

Jerry Morris

Here is Mr. Morris' letter to Mr. Gingrich:

Dear Mr. Gingrich:

Both these issues are related to the Shays act, which forces Congress to live under the same laws as every other American.

The first is the Frequent Flyer milage issue. Federal employees both civilian and military, are not allowed to use their miles for personal trips. You guys already get 32 round trip tickets to your district, so it would not be that big of a deal for you to say that you will not use the frequent flyer miles. In addition, if all members of Congress did this, you would save almost 10% on travel costs. Please consider giving up the milage perk like every other American who works for the Federal Government. You would 1) be a hero for saving 10% on the Congressional travel budget, and 2) force the Democrat cry babies to find something else to whine over.

The second is the book issue. In the Air Force we have a regulation, AFR 30-30, which basically says we cannot engage in any activity which even "appears to be a conflict of interest." Other Federal Government agencies have a similar regulatory requirement. The fact is that the Congress is going to have to get involved with Mr. Murdoch, directly or indirectly. Accordingly, this book deal could be interpreted as a conflict of interest. I recognize that giving up the book deal would force you to give up a potentially large amount of money, but doing so would have two positive side effects 1) make Americans recognize that you are willing to undergo personal sacrifice to achieve your vision, and 2) it would shut up the Democrats, and force them to deal with real issues (instead of smoke screens like books and frequent flyer miles).

In summary, the Shays Act requires Congress to obey the same laws as every other American. Every other Federally employed American cannot use frequent flyer miles, and every other Federally employed American cannot engage in activity which might appear as a conflict of interest. I therefore urge you to reconsider your position on these issues. I thank you for at least considering the viewpoints of the "common man."


Gerald R. "Jerry" Morris