DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEWs of Tammy Bruce: The Death of Right and Wrong; The New Thought Police;  Michael Smerconish: Muzzled; Ann Coulter: Godless

 

Author (or Editor):  Tammy Bruce

Title:  The Death of Right and Wrong: Exposing the Left’s Assault on Our Culture and Values

Fiction? No

Publisher:  Forum

Date:  2003

ISBN:  0-7615-1663-8

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 342 pgs, indexed

Relevance to doaskdotell: moral values

Review:

When I was substitute teaching, I recall a newspaper story of an incident in the D.C. public elementary schools (where I did not work), about a teacher taking a lavatory video of a kid learning potty training. The comment was "Some people in the school systems don't know right from wrong." Indeed.

The book starts with a riveting introduction, where Tammy Bruce recounts first “my dinner with Dr. Laura” (Schlesinger) and then her having come home to the suicide of her lover, Brenda Benet, who had been an actress on the bizarre NBC soap opera Days of our Lives, known for its ability to constantly make up scenarios of right and wrong (mostly wrong, and the women on this soap – most of all Sami -- seem to do a lot of the wrong). The main part of the book comprises nine chapters, in informal sections set off with boldface subtitles, that give the book a bit of a rambling effect, but gradually the book gathers steam.

In the early part of this book, Tammy Bruce seems to be getting at moral relativism: regarding behavior differentially in view of the circumstances of the actor. Particularly, she is outraged at the tendency for judges or juries to give lighter sentences (or acquit for insanity) based on mental illness, poverty, or ace (the O.J. problem). The converse of all of this would be hate crimes laws, which punish more severely for crimes perpetrated against certain classes of victims.

To a point, her views are pretty consistent with libertarianism, and the idea of heeding to The Harm Principle in our legal system. But she does deal with more disturbing underlying problems. She develops the concept of narcissism “a  pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one’s self to the exclusion of all others, and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance, and ambition.” On the above-named soap. Sami, Kate (“Katrina”),  Chelsea, and Bonnie all fit that—making the whole family valuable targets of outside rivals (Victor, like EJ and Stefano himself, is definitely narcissistic; Bo, John, Marlena, Shawn, Mimi, Belle, Nick and most of all Patrick are ambiguous, and Max, Lucas and Roman seems like really good guys.) This definition came from Vankin. Then there is malignant narcissism, which is connected with intrinsic evil, as developed by Kernberg and also M. Scott Peck (“People of the Lie”). Malignant narcissism seems to be connected with sadism (and masochism) and also with the extreme self-righteousness of totalitarian ideologies (most of all, right now, radical Islam).     

She then takes up a number of issues, many of them related to the way the Left takes legitimate rights of gay people to privacy and dignity and makes them into intrusive crusades. In general, she accuses the Left of trying to sexualize our entire culture, starting with children. She criticizes GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) for using public funds, and Planned Parenthood for its enemies lists, and she bashes arguments (like Greek culture arguments) that seem like underhanded ways to make adult interest in minors seem morally acceptable (although I don't see mention of NAMBLA). (Late in the book, she provides an interesting analysis of the film American Beauty, with its self-absorbed values.) She surprises readers with some hostility to transgendered causes, particularly men who convert to women to become lesbians (such a person, who had been a Naval Petty Officer, was on "the other" Scott Peck's radio program in 1993).

She gets into the tricky topic of homosexuality and ephebophilia (the "gay Trojan horse"). She carefully distinguishes this from pedophilia, and then attributes the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts as a practical measure to "protect" adolescent teens (and tweens) in the Scouts. First, remember that GLIL (Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty) had actually submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the Dale v. BSA case supporting the BSA's right to expressive association as a private group -- while at the same time it maintained that BSA should not use public resources if it wants to discriminate.  Popular wisdom has held to the idea that they Boy Scouts ban gays out of religious and family values. The ephebophile angle is more troubling. She will later discuss the Catholic priest scandal in connection with ephebophilia, while insisting that most priests really are celibate and serious about their vows of poverty (she disagrees that the Catholic Church should be expected to allow priests to marry in order to attract heterosexuals to the priesthood). The religious right is filled with literature claiming that homosexuals, because of the narcissism of their sexual interest, are naturally attracted to much younger people (the "Oscar Wilde Syndrome"), including under age-of-consent teens. Men naturally feel an attraction to any sexual partner at the "biological summer solstice" but for young men this really happens in the mid twenties, not in the teen years (for women it is earlier)

Here is where right and wrong gets tricky, and beyond "the Golden Rule" and immediate consequentialism. The common wisdom is that sexual orientation is immutable and morally neutral. But the religious right wants to connect it to some sort of intrinsic character or developmental deficit. Mature married sexuality, the ability to stay interested in one partner for a lifetime "in sickness and in health," requires a certain suspension of self-awareness where one always feels responsive to competitive pressures and images from the outside world.  It's possible to see the excess of self-focus in "striving" in our educational system as contributing to a problem like this, and it is certainly possible to criticize the media for, with the best of intentions in providing "attractive" teen role models, providing a parade of teen characters, played by adult actors in their twenties and acting much more capable of adult responsibility that most teens really are. As much revulsion as the subject of sexual predation has become, there have always been legitimate arguments to lower the age of consent, as has happened in most of Europe, and giving teens more responsibility for their own "choices." Likewise, there is troubling research that shows that most brains are not fully grown until about age 25 (the auto insurance and car rental industry really understand that!) Sometimes in the media the teen character is seen as seductive, with tragic consequences. In the award-winning WB series "Everwood" a precocious and articulate sixteen year old boy (Ephram) with a gift for piano but teen naivite about conseqeunces  "seduces" a twenty year old college student (Madison), and the resulting unwanted pregnancy deep-sixes the boy's piano career and relationship with his father. That is why, in the eyes of the law, Madison committed a crime.  

***

If you think through her arguments, you see that it's not so easy to stay focused on the "Harm Principle" approach to right and wrong.  Social conservatives criticize the way modern culture makes it difficult for moderately abled people to form families and keep them intact, with so much competitive distraction. It could be argued that participation in family solidarity, or showing some deference to it, as well as sharing in other responsibilities (like defense) ought to be perceived as a moral imperative -- as part of extending the value of one's own life when one cannot be as independent. The sexualization of education that she decries could be seen as an undermining of the ability to care about people on a realistic basis. That sounds more like the old fashioned idea of public morality, which we have been removing from the law.    

The New Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds (2003, Three Rivers Press, ISBN 0761563733, 316 pages, paper)  Tammy Bruce has Dr. Laura Schlessinger write the Foreword, and they are of like mind on the underlying principle of intellectual integrity, more or less talking like Judge Judy. I do need to quote the opening sentence from Tammy's own Introduction: "I am an openly gay, pro-choice, gun-owning, pro-death penalty, liberal, voted-for-Reagan feminist." 

Before going into her main thesis, let me mention one valuable point that she makes. "Intent" is an an important concept in criminal law, but it is not the same as "thought" or psychological purpose. It is simply the reasonably expected outcome of a set of actions in a set of circumstances. The concept seems particularly important in the recent chat room stings nailing sexual predators. In other contexts, like proving that computer virus writers "intended" harm, prosecutors have surprising difficulty in proving their cases. (See Cassell Bryan-Low, "Hacker Cases Come With Own Trials, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2007, discussion  of Agobot case). 

On one level, most of us have heard a lot about the Thought Police and the "speech codes" on campus, with professors and students who violet them being harassed or run off. John Stossel has reported about this in his "Give Me a Break" series. The Fahrenheit 451 book burnings are chilling, and they did happen during the Third Reich, too.  As always, there is more to say.

Let's talk about the controversy over Dr. Laura, because that generates a lot of the rest. "... if you're gay or a lesbian, it's a biological error that inhibits you from relating normally to the opposite sex. The fact that you are intelligent, creative, and valuable is all true." The Vatican, remember, relished in the phrase "objective disorder." This does grate on me, too. Let me put my own spin on it. Yes, had trouble as a boy conforming to the performance norms that are supposed to go with my gender. I focused on my own needs and my own artistic sensitivities. I simply did not experience the need to reproduce myself biologically the way others do, because other expressions (artistic) cause that to be squeezed out (the modern term is "pruned"). But that creates a problem because other family members believe they are entitled to loyalty from me, to help protect them the way a man would. They tend to feel that I must be expected to do this before I express myself my own way. I resent that, because then I am playing by the rules of other people that would make me inferior. Yes, that matters. I become the nigger, whose life is valued in a religious sense but not permitted anything but a low profile, only to show up publicly on their terms. I realize that I didn't develop a "normal" complementary emotional empathy with others that would make fatherhood and marriage appealing, and that would make personal "measurement" less relevant (remember Clay Aiken's song "The Measure of a Man"?) Yet the moral issue is whether I developed the ability to carry my weight in common responsibilities. Perhaps I did not, and many others do not. That is a real issue.

That is somewhat how I experience all of this. I think you can see where a lot of the GroupThink comes from. Most social units -- families, tribes, or political communities -- have leaderships that believe that they paid their dues and should not be questioned. It's not that contradictory speech is harmful, it just invalidates the personal credibility of those in charge, who feel that they are entitled to the power that they have by competing by some previous set of rules.

I recall some days, as a young but balding man in the early 70s sitting in cold drafty wooden rowhouses in inner city Newark, NJ, with the Peoples Party of New Jersey, taking in the mood of revolution that could quickly become as intolerant as the Establishment.

Anti-defamation groups get attention in this book, and they clearly are set up to stop speech harmful to groups (the old "blood libel" concept). The Jewish ADL and GLAAD get discussed, particularly in conjunction with stopdrlaura.com, and the chains of threats of vandalism and violence against sponsors or various other business associates of Dr. Laura, ultimately resulting in the mailing of fliers to neighbors where she lived. A similar issue with judges has been reported in the media, with a few home attacks on judges after unfavorable verdicts having occurred. This "heckler's veto" (which amounts to terrorism) could present real problems today in the post 9/11 world, and they might even apply to relative novice speakers who had promoted themselves on the Internet, instead of just to established celebrities. Imagine the actuarially incalculable risks that landlords, employers and insurers might imagine that they could face. (This actually sounds like an argument supporting hate crimes legislation, an idea that Ms. Bruce doesn't mention; however many people would counter by saying that this kind of hate crime, striking at stability and trust, ought to be prosecuted as terrorism.) Actually, the flier mailing (or door-to-door posting) has been used in neighborhoods where accused or suspected but not convicted sex offenders live (as in a recent incident -- 2006 -- with a former Catholic priest in Herndon, VA). Bruce has certainly pointed out a very serious problem, that we have already seen in Europe from radical Islam (with the assassination of a Dutch filmmaker and threats against Salman Rushdie from various Islamic extremists), all discussed by Bruce Bawer's "While Europe Slept" and it makes a chilling comparison, or, rather, augmentation.

Bruce gives other interesting examples throughout the book, such as the attempt at one school to squelch speech against reparations for slavery. She talks of her own view of the O.J. case (she mentions the movie The River but it was really The River Wild).

What does this all come down to, anyway? One concept that I think matters is "the right to be listened to (or the privilege of being listened to)." In today's "flat world" as described by Thomas Friedman, it's possible for someone to develop a public reputation just for managing knowledge, instead of taking care of people. There will be those who insist that everyone must pay their debts of loyalty to others before they may be heard from speaking for themselves.

Tammy's concern for intellectual honesty carries over into today's debate (raging since about the beginning of 2006) about employers checking social networking site profiles and personal blogs. (This book, written in 2001, predates understanding of this controversy in the context of today's troubles.) I have become very concerned that employers could use this to enforce social conformity or "political correctness" (she spends a lot of time on the "politically correct" notion), on the theory that customers or stakeholders will be driven away or disturbed when they find controversial material. Some ideas, less threatening to groups, would be perceived as more acceptable than others, that might be threatening to specific individuals in specific problematic circumstances. I would love to see her update her book with an update on this controversy. 

There have been numerous incidents where student journalists, especially at colleges, have been censored for satirical editorials that offend the sensibilities of some people. At Central Connecticut State University in Feb 2007, an writer and editor (John Petroski and Mark Rowan) was censured for Petroski's op-ed "Rape only Hurts If Your Fight It" in the school paper The Recorder.  NBC4 news story is here.     

Michael A. Smercornish: Muzzled: From T-Ball to Terrorism--True Stories that Should Be Fiction. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. ISBN 1-59555-050-X, 292 pages, hardcover, indexed. Introduction and 28 short chapters.  This book provides a comprehensive account of how free speech and fairer public policy and, in some instances, security, are all hampered in the name of political correctness. Some of the anecdotes seem silly: a Wall Street executive is fired for a humorous picture on a company leaflet because of downstream "political" repercussions; teachers are discouraged from using red ink or even giving grades; a newspaper is pilloried for presenting pictures of 18 African American murder suspects when it has no white suspects; companies are chased because of historical association with slavery. One of the most galling cases concerns a lawsuit by an African American employee whose feelings are hurt when he is given a copy of John Molloy's book Dress for Success, which, admittedly, has some dated advice regarding how racial minorities in sales should dress (to please whites); I remember the passage and found it a bit silly. (I don't know if the newer version, available on Amazon from resellers, still has it.) Some of his most interesting discussions occur toward the end when he deals with terrorism, and particularly that the use of that word ("terrorism") is often discouraged in official media publications (particularly in Britain) because of its connection to stereotyping of Muslims. He also offers a cogent analysis of the Fox series Program "24" and how it ventured from the scenario of the radical Muslim sleeper cell variety to subterfuge by rich right-wing executives in the U,S., who actually stage an e-bomb (EMP) attack, similar to what was warned by Popular Science in 2001, one week before 9/11.

Obviously a libertarian-leaning conservative, Smerconish favors a live-and-let-live attitude toward gay rights. On gay marriage he writes

"Show me the homosexual man leading a life as a husband and father who would, given the legislation of same-sex marriage, abandon his family and get together with another man? He does not exist."  (p 165)

He does support the right of the quasi-private Boy Scouts to have their own DADT policy regarding gays, while recognizing that if homosexuality is immutable, gays should not be treated as second-class citizens. He is critical of the United Way of shunning them because of their internal policy.  

Smerconish also authored Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post 9/11, Running Press, 2003.  

Blogger entry is here.

Ann Coulter. Godless: The Church of Liberalism. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007, Paper, 326 pages, indexed, with new Afterword. ISBN 978-1-40000-5421-3, with 11 Chapters. The book covers topics like criminal sentencing, abortion, what she sees as coddling of public school teachers (she makes disturbing aspersions about teachers who become sex offenders with minors, proportionally numerically more, she claims, than Catholic priests), AIDS, IQ, race, and most of all evolution and intelligent design. She sees an eluctable derivation from Darwinism to eugenics. A couple of choice quotes:

"A lot of people in America have difficult jobs. They are men sleeping in their boots in Afghanistan right now so the rest of us can sleep peacefully at night. There are store owners who haven't taken a vacation in twenty years. There are entrepreneurs working weekends and risking everything for an idea that will make the world better or safer--or on the other hand might fail and land them in bankruptcy court. (And they don't get summers off.)"  p 159

That quote ironically reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed.

"A big theme for the Nazis--demonstrated in charts, posters, pictures, and even newsreels and movies--was that too much money was being squandered on keeping 'idiots' and mental defectives like princes in ivory towers, while healthy, hardworking Germans were starving in the streets. This is why Hitler hated Christianity. It filled people's heads with silly, sentimental notions about helping the weak and infirm."  p 272

How about the Christian ideals of forgiveness or unconditional love?

"The only lesson liberals learned from Hitler is: Don't discriminate! Not that human life is sacred, but that we must never say people are different. Girls are the same as boys, and homosexuals are the same as heterosexuals, and blacks are the same as whites." p 278

Blogger entry.

 Related: Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors                   my narcissism essay   Susan Jacoby: Age of Unreason

 

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