Letters to the Ethical Spectacle

Letters policy: all letters may be printed with accompanying name and email address unless otherwise specified.
Dear Mr. Blumen,

Good effort. Keep it up! I look forward to reading the next issue.

(I have a few pet topics I'd like to rant about myself, but I'm too depressed at the moment.)

-- Angus H. (Gus) Rodgers

Thanks, Gus. Yours was the first piece of mail I got, confirming that people are reading this and that it is worth doing. I hope you will write that rant when you get the chance.

Dear Mr. Blumen:

[Re Bulldozing Palestinian Houses :] While I am not Jewish and I do not know who you are I must applaud your courage to put your thoughts on line. We as a society do not have nearly enougth people willing to think out problems. I do not agree with some of what you say but it is refreshing to have someone break out of the main stream and say what the mass media does not seem willing or able to say. More importantly to say it with out a call of violence or intolerance or hate is nice to see.

Thank you again

Steve Homan

Thanks, Steve. One thing I am realizing with great intensity as I write the articles for the Spectacle is that I hold compassion to be the most important human value, with justice second (and in the middle distance.)

Dear Mr. Blumen:

I have to thank you for this article. I have held similar opinions about Israel's behaviour towards the Palistinians since the Infatida began, but, my opinions were generally regarded by my jewish aquaintances as irrelevant - not being Jewish, I just "couldn't understand".

(As a side note, it is interesting that people behave the same way towards my opinions about abortion - not being a woman, I just "can't understand". Sigh.)

Anyway, it is extremely sad to see Israel lower itself this way. Once, Israel was a clarion call to the consience of the world. Unfortunately, it's behaviour lately has eradicated that call from the minds of many. It's almost as if Israel believes that the brutality of the holocaust gives it license to behave anyway it chooses - as if "the ends justify the means" has become "the beginning justifies our means". "Never Again!" takes on interesting overtones when you compare Kristalnacht with the Infatida, as you did.

Unfortunately, the whole situation is a mirror of a wider question - when are you permitted to harm or kill another person? Only in self-defense? What constitutes defense? How abstract must the threat be before a pre-emptive strike becomes pre-meditated agression? I would cheerfully assert that violence is always and forever wrong - except the lifespan of pacifists and their families is never very long.

Where do you draw the line?

Michael Heinz

You are right. Suffering is not like frequent flier miles. You don't build up credits which allow you to oppress other people.

There is a right of self defense. However, that right is compromised when you create the situation that leads to the necessity. If I invade your house, threaten your family and abuse your possessions, then shoot you when you come at me with a knife, that is not self defense.

One conundrum for the Jews and anyone else thinking about the Holocaust is why most people did not resist. Some of the same people who are deeply puzzled by this fault the Palestinians for the Intifadeh. I cannot feel compassion for ambush murderers or suicide bombers, but if you drive a man far enough it is not outside the realm of the human that he will pick up a rock.

Dear Mr. Blumen:

In your article Prohibit All Campaign Finance, you state:

Here is a modest proposal for restoring the health of our political process: prohibit any campaign spending entirely. That's right, prevent all candidates from accepting any contributions, or spending one dollar of private, public or personal money, on campaigns.

Let's force all candidates to campaign via personal contact and the Internet. Millions of us are on it. Special Web servers and newsgroups could be set up to handle the candidate's debates-- while including the commentary and reactions of others as well. For those of us who aren't online yet, the newspapers will pick up the slack, reprinting transcripts of the net traffic. T.V. has its place too, carrying debates, not advertisements.

The problem is that not enough people are on the Internet. Not yet, anyway.

Try this on for size: We currently have a public financing system that is dying on the vine for a lack of voter interest ("Check this box to have 1 dollar of your taxes go to a campaign finance fund.") Stop making this voluntary and make it automatic - or, if that is legally unfeasible, start a public education effort so that more people check the flipping box. While you're at it, raise the amount to something in line with the inflation that has taken place since the box was first put on the 1040 form, say $5 or even $10. While the reduction to federal revenue is minimal, the boost to the fund would be enormous. As for dispersal of funds, preference would be given to those candidates who are running as independants or who can demonstrate fiscal hardship. In otherwords, candidates with lots of contributers may not dip their hands in the free money pot.

Next, something a little more interesting. Over the past century, we have seen the party system weaken as candidates of all parties try to pitch their TV ads to the widest possible audience. Individual candidates adopt whatever individual platforms will get them elected locally, regardless of their party's supposed platform.

To strengthen the parties, and to dimish the hold contributers have over individual candidates, require that large contributions (say, over $10k) and all corporate and PAC contributions to be given directly to the national party's general fund. The party itself then has complete control over how the funds are dispersed. While the party as a whole will still feel "beholden" to its contributers, the pressure on individual members will be both less personal and more obvious - i.e., figuring out where the republican party >really< stands on welfare reform would be a lot easier than now, since the party would be much more united.

The fact that the party controls the purse strings gives them a powerful tool for keeping their individual members from deviating from the party line. You may not think this is a good thing - but I believe it will actually spur more supposedly "democratic" candidates to run as republicans (Governer Casey of PA comes to mind here), while many others will run as independants or form new parties. I consider all these things, particularly the creation of additional parties, to be beneficial. It will force each political party to be more upfront and unified about its positions on different issues (since members who deviate from the party position could be denied access to party funds).

The biggest risk with this idea is that independants and new, poor, parties still wouldn't have access to big money - but that's what the tax-return checkoff fund is now for - to provide campaign money to those candidates and parties that can demonstrate "hardship".

So, what do you think?

Michael Heinz

Hmmmm.....The hypocrisy of campaign finance laws is that they restrict contributions directly to candidates to small amounts, but permit larger contributions to be made to PAC's, national committees, etc. I thought the solution to this was to restrict these contributions as well; you think the opposite: let's acknowledge reality and require these contributions be made to the national party. Under your system, the individual is slightly less likely to be beholden, but the party certainly will be, and having special interests own the party is not really different from having them own the individual. No.....what you say is thought provoking, but I'll stick with my modest proposal.
Dear Mr. Blumen:

I just read the essays you have on your Ethical Spectacle. I have a few comments to make.

First, I want to compliment you for putting up such thought provoking fare on the Web. I' ve had my fill of Pentuim jokes and other none such.

Second, I'm going to take advantage of this discourse & disagree with some of what is written. In the Schindler's List essay, you call Steven Spielberg to task for basically rehashing "ET". While on some level I can't argue with that. There are a few points I feel I can. First, you state that the little girl in the red dress was a nothing more than a device to gain sympathy from the audience, which is exactly how I felt when I saw the movie. Afterwards I decided to read the book to see how true the movie was to its basis. In the book a Jewish doctor relates in lengthy detail how he watched the little girl in the red dress, I believe she was his niece, wander among the carnage & the stormtroopers. This put the scene in the movie into a different light since it was a real incident that the movie told in a straightforwad manner. Mind you, showing the red dress later did demean the earlier scene a bit. Second, you call Steven Spielberg to task for doing he & Hollywod does best, giving the people what they want. If Spielberg had made a movie, that was depressing & somberly then most likely it would have had a lot less box office appeal. If people really wanted the truth, documentaries like "Shoah" would have done much better. By making the movie the way he did, he ensured that it would reach a larger audince (this is also called pandering). Comparing "Shindler' List" to many (make that all) of his previous movies, he pulled back repeatedly by not not trying to grab your heartstrings and throw them all around. Though, one point I will wholeheartedly agree with you on is the idea of casting white characters as the protagonist of the story. A prime example of this was "Mississippi Burning", supposedly this movie was to document the struggle of the civil rights workers in the deep south in the 60's. What I saw was a couple of white guys stomping around the south & being portayed as the saviors of the blacks. HELLO THERE, to the best of my knowledge, most of the civil rights advances can be ascribed to the struggle by BLACKS.

That's all I have for the moment. Please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors, since I'm at work & doing during lunch.

Tom Ryan

I agree with you! By the way, I had tears in my eyes at the end of Schindler's List, even though I felt I had been manipulated. I disagree a bit about the heartstring-tugging; I felt the Auschwitz shower scene, and not telling us the fate of Amon Goeth's housekeeper for a while after he threw the bookcase on her, were classic Spielbergianisms.

Dear Mr. Blumen:

Hello. I may submit more mail to you and/or an ethical position (I write editorials for my radio show), but for the moment, let me just respond to your bit on campaign financing.

The Founders didn't contemplate television.

No, but they didn't contemplate railroads, cars, mimeos, radio, 50 states, or even the Internet that is your solution.

In the late eighteenth century, before mass media existed, campaigning for elective office surely involved meeting as many of your constituents as possible, attending town meetings and shaking hands. Although newspapers and brochures played a role, the signal to noise ratio must have been far higher than today.


The decline of standards in campaign advertising, the vituperation and personal attacks, the absence of any substantive debate on principles or beliefs, all point to several obvious conclusions:

Totally wrong. The personal accusations and whispering campaigns in pre-television elections was terrible and far worse than today. Television means that everyone knows who is saying what about whom. It's not a great check on deliberate lies (see also Lee Atwater & Jerry Falwell), but it has made what is said and how vituperous it is somewhat milder.

1. A politician stands or falls on his or her television advertising. It takes a tremendous sum of money to buy television ads.

Here in MN, our Sen. Wellstone won with a shoestring budget in 1992. You are mostly correct, but not totally.

2. People with personal wealth have a significant advantage over less wealthy opponents (even incumbents), but are not necessarily smarter, more ethical or better leaders.

True, but CA residents rejected Huffington.

3. A candidate is beholden to the people who contribute to campaigns, and is likely to carry out their will while in office, to ensure they contribute again next time. A candidate will oblige significant contributors even in contravention of the voters' desires, because they have shorter memories than the contributors do.

True, but what's wrong with that? A big company is also a constituent. What I object to is having this influence happen behind our backs. As long as it's public knowledge, anyone should be able to contribute to a candidate.

4. Public financing of campaigns has failed to make this process fairer, because politicians still need private money to get public money.

5. Limits on amounts of contributions are ineffective, because contributions to PAC's and national party committees allow wealthy contributors legally to circumvent these limits.

Fairness in politics? When?

6. Neither Republicans or Democrats are likely to fix the problem.

Clinton tried, but the Republicans stopped the campaign reform bill.

Here is a modest proposal for restoring the health of our political process: prohibit any campaign spending entirely. That's right, prevent all candidates from accepting any contributions, or spending one dollar of private, public or personal money, on campaigns.

Oh, hardly. I want written position papers, pictures, maybe even a campaign button or two. The present system allows anyone to be part of the process. Ross Perot being a good example of someone who couldn't have gotten anywhere under the system you propose. You would guarantee a return to party politics, since name recognition would be nil.

Let's force all candidates to campaign via personal contact and the Internet. Millions of us are on it. Special Web servers and newsgroups could be set up to handle the candidate's debates-- while including the commentary and reactions of others as well. For those of us who aren't online yet, the newspapers will pick up the slack, reprinting transcripts of the net traffic. T.V. has its place too, carrying debates, not advertisements.

1) Not everyone is on the net.

2) Those who are are certainly not representative of the voting public. They're more wealthy, and far more conservative than the rest of the country.

3) The candidates would have to be computer literate which, while a good thing, is not a requirement for office.

4) How could you tell it was really the candidate on line?

Let's force political campaigns back onto the high ground.

What, and lose the entertainment value?

More seriously, my proposal is the opposite of yours: Give every candidate a cable tv channel. They could run whatever they wanted: speeches, rallies, music, old cartoons, whatever. Local candidates could split time. Every party would have the same access to the public as every other. Most people have tvs and most of them have cable.

TTFN, Dave

Wish I'd thought of that! Your cable channel idea is more (small d) democratic than my Internet idea. How about combining both?

Dear Mr. Blumen:

Hello again. I commented on your essay on campaign financing, and I'm now responding to the other essays.

Re Schindler's List: I confess I haven't seen the movie, so my comments will be brief and generic.

Hollywood must always be about exceptions.

Yeah, okay. So what? That doesn't make it dishonest, and your essay doesn't prove that it does. Indeed, the Holocaust (and WWII) are so big, as you point out, that one movie couldn't possibly do it justice. Shoah didn't. The closes thing I've seen is Maus. The CD is terrific.

What Speilberg did was tell one story. That's what he's good at, that's what movies are good at. Don't knock him for making a good movie.

That several of his movies have a similar theme (the outsider) doesn't bother me. Whether it's ET or Peter Pan or Shindler, how an individual relates to a society that doesn't accept them at face value is a terrific story to hear, and one that I want a master craftsman to tell.

Do you want Ethical Spectacles to be decided by the majority?

Your essay on bulldozing Arab houses is equally flawed. You make it sound like there is this nice, peaceful Palestinian family about to sit down to dinner when the mean ol' Israeli's come and knock down their house with them still in it. That is not true.

In most of the cases I've heard about (usually, like you, being critical of the process), it's clear the Israeli's are justified in doing so. The people who built the house had no right to build it there in the first place. Most of them were on land bought, lived in and then developed by Jews who were slaughtered and/or behind enemy lines when the arabs didn't accept the UN resolution partitioning Israel. Further, the houses which are bulldozed are those of terrorists in jail, or people in jail awaiting trial. There have been no lives lost in any of these bulldozings.

No, we haven't learned the lessons of the Holocaust. One of the lessons you haven't learned is peacefully telling someone that they can't steal your land is better than the terrorism of the Nazis or the Palestinians.

Your comments on Minorities and the Net makes me want to give up on you completely. What you're saying is that minorities are disproportionately poor and that poor people don't have computers and that people without computers don't surf the internet.

And then you want to tackle the last problem first.

Please, wake up and smell the coffee. Let's work on equal opportunity and fairness in education and job opportunities before we stick people with expensive hardware and connect time.

I'm a programmer for a non-profit radio station that serves as a forum for people who otherwise don't have a voice. We have programs in French, Spanish and Hmong; for women, men, kids and parents; about news, science fiction, jazz, rock and beyond. I know what it takes to get people active in their own lives. And it starts with them. Let's level the playing field, and then access to the information superhighway comes later. Haven't you ever heard of Maslow's Hierarchies?

I'm not going to comment on your essay on the two party system, except to say that it's rehashing an old argument and doesn't count as an Ethical Spectacle.

Well, in general I'd give your first issue a C-. It seems to have little to do with ethics and more just a forum for your views. That's fine and dandy, but if you want a forum for ethical debate, you're going to have to wander farther afield. Just as I was considering abandoning my support for Affirmative Action and other level-playing-field laws, the internet continually shows the need for it.

TTFN, Dave

Ouch. Well, thanks for being honest.

A few comments. I agree that Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is one of the best things I've read on the Holocaust and recommend it to everyone who hasn't yet read it. I haven't seen the CD.

You ask if I want ethical spectacles to be decided by the majority. No, of course not. In Hollywood, they are. Movies cost so much, and so few recoup the investment, that Hollywood can no longer take risks. This means that very few honest movies get made. The Dutch version of The Vanishing stood out because of the appalling cruelty of its artistic vision. The American remake changed the ending, turning into another tired action adventure. If Hollywood remade The Crying Game, Jaye Davidson would turn out to be a woman. Hollywood panders to the majority in order to recoup its investment. Schindler's List was not a risky movie.

I have a serious issue with your satire of the peaceful Palestinian family and the mean Israelis, as it has nothing to do with what I wrote. Jeffrey Dahmer was a vicious killer, but we didn't knock down his parents' house, before or after his conviction. "But he wasn't political," you say. "His actions didn't threaten the existence of our state." The World Trade Center bombers made an attempt on the lives of 50,000 people, in pursuit of political ends, and we didn't knock down any houses either. "Yes," you say, "but they didn't threaten the existence of the U.S." The "small beleaguered country, doing what is necessary" argument is not a moral position, any more than starving in a lifeboat is a moral, rather than a practical argument for cannibalism. Go too far down that road, and you lose the values that would make survival meaningful--for if we must survive as wild beasts, what have we preserved? The Israelis are too far down that road. No people has a single identity--my heart is with the Israelis who realize it and are trying to retreat from the brink.

I have never heard anyone make your argument before that the Arab houses which are knocked down are on stolen land. I will look at any evidence you have on this issue. (Even if it turned out to be true, there is such a thing as due process.) In the New York Times article which sparked my essay, an Israeli official was quoted on the issue of why they did not bulldoze the house of the Israeli who killed scores of people in the mosque. The answer was not that his house was on legal land--I am sure most Palestinians think his house is on stolen land, as a settler-- but that he acted alone, while the Arabs whose houses they seal or destroy are affiliated with a terrorist group. The answer radiates hypocrisy and malice, for no Israeli's house will ever be sealed or bulldozed in Israel, no matter what he does.

The scariest comment you made justified the bulldozing of houses by saying the residents are either terrorists or "people in jail awaiting trial." In other words, you acknowledge a denial of due process-- people's houses are destroyed who have been convicted of no crime--but see nothing wrong with it.

On a friendlier note, we are not really far apart on the issue of minorities and the Internet. Perhaps I didn't go into enough detail, but my idea is to engage minority children in the Internet. Inexpensive facilities at school, in church or at home can give them a view of possibilities, access to advice and friendship of role models, and a social structure around which to organize themselves. Thus I see computers as being the key to avoiding self-destruction and promoting economic self-improvement for these children. (Contrast Newt Gingrich, who suggested this week that we use tax money to buy laptops for the poor.)

You do not agree with my choice of topics, my ideas or my means of expression, but I am glad you took the time to write, and hope you will continue reading and responding to the Ethical Spectacle.

Dear Mr. Blumen: Your article on Mosaic about minorities was interesting and very accurate. As a Hispanic computer scientist and a person who group up poor in East Harlem, NYC, I am taking the initiative and introducing young Hispanics to the computer world/technology.

On weekends, I bring high school and college kids to my job and show them everything we have (super computers, silicon graphics, internet, Mosaic, etc.). I even started a program where I was able to raise some money and buy four Mac Powerbooks with portable printers. 20 Hispanic students share the computers and are learning Excel, PowerPoint, Word. etc.

The bottom line is that if the system does not help, we, minorities - especially those that have made it, need to step to the plate with solutions and help others that are not as fortunate as we.

Samuel Sanchez sam@eos.hitc.com

I was most happy to get your letter. Talk is cheap, and its hard to know sometimes (when talking about other people's lives, very different from one's own) what makes sense. I am glad my ideas bore some relationship to your experience.