The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995,

Letters to the Spectacle

Dear Mr. Blumen:

I find myself with less time than last month, so here are a few quick takes.

The sight of a gloating Mr. Gingrich and other right-wing Republicans declaring a mandate to lead the country to the right was very unsettling. The Contract With America is a centrist document. As such, it is likely a fraud. By voting for the Contract Republicans, the voters did not vote for any terms not in the contract. But it seems likely that the most important part of the Republican agenda was not expressed there.

Gingrich, Helms, Limbaugh and co. have realized that, barring an actual important political event, close elections are won by 1) sound bites and 2) mud slinging. The Contract On America is an idiotic document; a compilation of several Clinton proposals that were shot down by the Republicans last term (eg election reform), warmed over discredited Reaganomics (which you mention later, eg cutting taxes and spending more) and sound bites (eg the Balanced Budget Amendment). The Clinton proposals have sailed through, but some of the stupider ideas have already seen Republican defections.

Surely the National Rifle Association, in that sense, is the distorted double of the American Civil Liberties Union. How do civil libertarians feel when they hear their own dialog and principles--the absolutism of Constitutional rights, the fear of the slippery slope--echoed back to them in defense of the right to bear arms?

An interesting point, but it misses what happened to the debate. At first, no one was proposing a 'ban' on guns, but only restrictions on purchasing (eg a waiting period), greater controls on already existing laws the NRA was nominally in favor of (eg not selling guns to convicted felons) and restricting public assess to the more dangerous weapons (eg assault rifles).

But the NRA couldn't resist getting hysterical about the subject. Instead of opposing 'restrictions', they opposed any proposals on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to 'bans'. Their arguments against bans were so bad, and their consistent framing of their opposition as supporting bans, that bans became what people were actually proposing. It's yet another case of 'be careful what you with for -- you might get it.'

A five (or seven, as originally proposed) day waiting period is one of those obviously good ideas that the radicals don't like. By framing it as a Constitutional issue, which it isn't, they may have suckered a few well-meaning ACLU members into joining the debate at that level. But it isn't, and we shouldn't be fooled into believing that it is.

Of course, the NRA does not view the Second Amendment as creating a state's right; the militia referred to was always intended to be, or has transmuted into, the body of all citizens taking arms individually against an oppressive federal government.

Interestingly, the President who most corrupted the 2nd Amendment was Reagan. For two hundred years the state militias were under the control of the state governor. But Reagan, who couldn't get support for the Contra terrorists in Congress, ordered the state militias on training missions in Central America. When our Minnesota Gov. Perpich resisted, Reagan took the case to the Supreme Court, where the conservatives he had packed the court with agreed with the administration. Because of Reagan, the role of the federal government was expanded, and that of the state's declined.

As long as men have power in Hollywood, women's nudity on film is likely to be an effect of inequality, and an act of sexual harassment not permitted in any other walk of life today.

Hey now. Women are shown nude because people will pay to see nude women. One of the effects of the women's movement is that more and more people are willing to pay to see nude men. This isn't about 'men in power', this is about the entertainment industry. Heck, a woman directed 'The Brady Bunch Movie', that peaon to the era that you seem to object to most. Producers will go where the money is. Trying to force society to change may be fun, but will lead to the poorhouse.

Indirectly, you are arguing for more government support of the arts. If someone can get funded without having to resort to popular appeal, then a 'good' movie is more likely to be made. The entertainment marketplace is an instrument that preserves the status quo. Change is for people who tilt at windmills.

I think that's why we disagree about movies like Schindler's List (which I still haven't seen... but it's higher up on my 'must see' list than The Brady Bunch Movie...). You're sorry that it didn't Tell The Whole Story, and I'm glad that it Broke New Ground while making lots of money.

Re Gingrich: The man is wholly owned by the conservative news media and the Republican special interest groups. He is a bigger crook than Jim Wright, who was forced to resign for much less. Newt is going down...

The apparent neutrality of the press results in a kind of moral tepidness.

The conservative news media support their own.

Re your response to my letter:

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. ... 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.

My heart is with the peaceful Palestinians who realize that peace with Israel is a good thing. The problem is, the PLO has killed them all.

Your hidden assumption is that the Palestinians in Israel are a unique group. Not so. They are part of the Islamic fundamentalist movement that is staging similar violent campaigns in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Lebannon and has been violently suppressed in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and others. So far, it's only successful coup was in Iran, but it has moved many Arab countries farther to the right.

When viewed in a larger context, Israel's response has been remarkably restrained. Egypt storms suspected terrorist strongholds and hangs people they find there with only a cursory trial. Algeria suspends elections the fundamentalists might win. Iraq sends clouds of poison gas. Israel... makes peace.

I sympathize with those thousands of Palestinians who have wanted peace but were tortured to death by Hamas and the PLO. More, I sympathize with the Israelis who want peace, but are dealing with people who are willing to go to any extremes to sabotage the peace process. Why don't you?

Aside, re land ownership: Again, the current people who bear the name 'Palestinians' do not have roots there. They were imported around the turn of the century when the Ottoman Empire needed migrant workers (and to dispute British claims). If you really want to annoy a Palestinian, ask questions about the Bedouin. They were the people who actually lived there for a couple thousand years... except that they were mostly nomadic, and never claimed the land...

TTFN, Dave Romm

I always enjoy your comments and agree with much of what you say, until we get onto the topic of Israel, where I think you have a blind spot. The Israelis, as you do not seem to acknowledge, also have their violent fringe. (See "Two Snippets of Israeli History" in this issue.) You are very lenient where the Israelis are concerned, but tar the entire Palestinian people with one brush. Statements like "the people who bear the name 'Palestinians' do not have roots there. They were imported around the turn of the century..." are upsetting for several reasons. Human beings are not objects or livestock to be "imported". My ancestors came to this country about 70 years ago; does this mean we have no roots here? The ancestors of much of the existing Israeli population arrived at or after the date at which you acknowledge the Palestinians did; does that mean the Jews also have no roots in Palestine?

Dear Mr. Blumen:

Just wanted to let you know that I am enjoying your comments in the Ethical Spectacle. It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is to get people to see the "obvious"; you do it nicely.

My own efforts in this vein appear as "Anathema of the Week" (URL: on my weblet. It's a little rough around the edges right now, but I'd appreciate your comments on my first Anathema (against Pat Robertson).


bill hovingh

Thanks for writing. I read and enjoyed your first two anathemas.

Dear Mr. Blumen:

A open question for Michael Heinz (or anyone else who would like to answer):

I'm a gun control nut. I think that private ownership of firearms should be illegal. Period.

I realize that many people disagree with me. For the most part, I understand why they disagree with me. People who want to own firearms typically cite the following reasons:

As it happens, I don't think that the benefits of these activities justify the risks of owning guns. However, this is a matter of opinion, and I at least understand the views of those who feel differently about it.

But people who want to own guns sometimes cite another reason - protection from the government.

I don't understand this at all. I mean, I understand the underlying desire to be free from government interference. But I don't understand how owning a gun will advance that end.

This is not a rhetorical question. I'm not trying to set up a straw man, or be disingenuous. The idea of owning a gun in order to protect yourself from the government seems utterly senseless to me.

The government is the organization with enough power to take everyone else's guns away. That's what being the government is all about. That's the *definition* of a government.

People who try to "protect" themselves from the government end up dead, or in prison. Like David Koresh. Like that guy out west, who lost his wife and son.

Owning a gun isn't a sign of freedom, or a defense against tyranny. It just means that the government doesn't think that you constitute a threat. If they did, they'd take your gun away. Sometimes they do.

A friend of mine has a sister who works for the Red Cross. She was posted to an aid station in Watts during the Rodney King riots. After a few days of bumbling by the California National Guard, federal troops arrived and restored order. They did it very simply. They went door to door, searched every house, and confiscated all the guns.

So when people say they want a gun to protect themselves from the government, I just don't understand what they're talking about. When I disagree with someone, I at least try to understand their point of view. Can anyone explain this one to me?

Steven W McDougall

Mr. Blumen, In your February issue you asked and answered the following question:

Q: Is it fair for two percent of the population to pay 24% of the taxes?

A: Absolutely yes (and please note that I am in this 2% myself). As far as I know repealing the graduated income tax is not part of the Republican program. If we acknowledge that we need a graduated income tax, it follows that the most highly compensated will pay the most taxes.

It is not fair (and please note that I am not in the 2%). Would you think it fair if users fees imposed by the government were based on your income? How about if McDonald's charges you more for a Big Mac than me because you are in the top 2%? Income tax as a percentage, whether graduated or flat, is a way to take from the rich and give to the poor. How can this be ethical?

Paul Eccles (

As someone who is highly privileged and whose grandparents arrived here poor, and enjoyed the opportunities and benefits of this country, I feel an ethical obligation to give something back, according to my means. Therefore, I don't mind paying high taxes (short of the confiscatory) if the money is being effectively used to benefit the least privileged. The McDonald's comparison is not apt; McDonald's does not have a right to charge me more than another in order that the owners profit from it, but I don't mind my country charging me more than another if the funds will go to support education, for example. Dear Mr. Blumen:

On the execution of an innocent man: I, too, was astonished. What I can't understand is why the media hasn't made more of this. Instead of hounding the governor of Texas out of office over this murder-by-the-state they just let it ride. What are people in Texas thinking? Where are their brains?

On your article on limiting the fourth amendment: I have to agree that "good faith" searches are a farce, although I would like to issue a counter point - you argue that proving a cop acted in bad faith would be quite hard. I would argue that the spectacle of a policeman testifying that he was ignorant of the basic laws governing search and seizure would be quite interesting to most juries. I suspect that the courts will quickly limit "good faith" to those rare occasions where evidence was seized under a warrant that was later shown to contain errors. Like many Congressional floor shows, this one was a lot of noise, without, I think, much practical impact.

At the end of your article, how ever, you state that the NRA believes, that guns are the only real guarantee to political liberty in America. I'm afraid that they're not the only ones. Wasn't it Mao Tse Tung who said that power comes from the barrel of a gun?

Any person's or group's civil rights are liable to be limited at any time, in any country. In civilized times, the people defend against this with civilized tools - the press, the protest march, the vote.

But things can turn uncivilized in an awful hurry. Ask the Jews of pre-War Poland about that, or David Koresh for that matter. When that happens, you have only two choices - give in or defend yourself. The problem is, when things do turn uncivilized, it's usually too late to go out and buy a gun. Do you really imagine in the land of the KKK and the moral majority that we will never see a return of the brown shirts? Or that in the land of the Great Satan we'll never see a religous group attempt to overthrow the government? Or does that only happen in little undeveloped countries like Algeria. After all, we know that big countries just go on forever - look at how stable the Soviet Union is!

On welfare reform:

Does anyone have any statistics on how much of the money the government spends on AFDC,, actually goes into the pockets of the recipients? Here's what I mean: A few years ago there was a spate of stories about "charities" that actually spent far more on lining their administrator's pockets than on the causes they were allegedly helping. The guideline I saw was that I shouldn't give money to any cause that didn't spend at least 80% of it directly on that cause, and that direct overhead should be less than 10%.

To me, this information would be far more enlightening. Lets see, you said the median income was $366. At five million families, that's 18.3 million a month, almost $22 billion a year. How much money was allocated to AFDC in the budget?

What I'm getting to is this: Is there a better/more efficient way to get this money into the hands of it's recipients? One with less overhead?

On a related issue, you point out that nearly 90% of the fathers are missing from these families - sounds like we need to bring the hammer down on child support. (oops. Didn't Clinton say something about that recently? I hate it when he and I end up on the same side of an issue... ;-? )

In support of the Republicans:

The federal debt is a monstrous problem that effects Americans everyday - it expresses itself in high mortgage rates and as a drag on investment. (Who's going to invest in some risky start up when they can get guaranteed returns on federal debt? Who's going to give me a 4% mortgage when the can get 7% from T-bills?) It must be reduced. Does it need to be reduced by eliminating AFDC, school lunches, etc? Probably not. But the USA is not as rich as it used to be and every government program must be re-examined. The ones that don't work should be shut down, whether it's a helium repository in Ohio or an aid program for inner-city schools. Those functions which do work should survive but with an added emphasis on doing more with less (and I mean less in Washington, not less in the classroom...)

On "Who Are You?"

Well said! I have often said that who I am is not determined by what I think but by my relationships with the people around me. Going beyond mere dreams has been an ongoing challenge for me throughout my life, and one I wrestle with each day. (Is wrestle the right word? How do you wrestle with lethargy?)

Thanks again for writing. On the Fourth Amendment issue, a cop would not usually claim he was ignorant of Fourth Amendment requirements; in fact, this would not qualify for the "good faith" exception. He would, rather, testify that due to a miscommunication or that ever-reliable excuse, the computer glitch, he thought he was acting pursuant to a valid warrant.

Not sure what your point is about guns. We could also forestall an Algeria-style take-over by going out today and killing everybody we thought capable of attempting it. Reminiscent of the Pentagon's famous alleged announcement that it was necessary to destroy a Vietnamese village in order to save it, some of the measures recommended in the name of self-defense suggest that there will be nothing left to defend.

Interesting point, comparing welfare to charities. The allocation in last year's budget for AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the real name for "welfare"), was only 14.4 billion, suggesting your calculations are off somewhere. Note that this is one percent of the Federal budget, a fact that stuns most people, who think we are somehow cutting twenty or thirty percent of spending if we get rid of AFDC. By comparison, the sacrosanct parts of the budget, defense, Medicare, social security, and interest on the national debt, add up to $977 billion, 64% of the budget. Since, in today's political climate, none of these things can be touched, to eliminate the deficit all cuts would have to come from the remaining 36%, which would have to be cut by $180 billion--one third. To accomplish this, you would have to slash or eliminate items such as Medicaid, unemployment, federal pensions and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). My source for this information: Marc Breslow, "Budget Balancing Nonsense", in Dollars and Sense magazine for March/ April 1995.