Saturday, January 21, 2012

A modern man or just a cowardly Italian?

Is Captain Schettino just the latest example of modern society's lost values? He was not alone in displaying ungallant behaviour

Theodore Dalrymple

Courage is a virtue and heroism is admirable, but do we have a right to demand them? Which of us cannot look back on his or her own life and remember decisions, or compromises made, or silences kept because of cowardice, even when the penalties for courage were negligible?

If we are cowardly in small things, shall we be brave in large? Have we the right to point the finger until we have been tested ourselves? When we read of the seemingly lamentable conduct of the captain of the Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, who left his passengers to their fate, do we say, "There but for the grace of God go I"?

I have witnessed some very fine instances of bravery. Once, as a junior doctor, I was walking through the hospital grounds when I noticed a patient sitting on a bench slashing his wrists with a broken bottle of vodka whose contents he had just drunk. I asked him to come into the hospital where I could sew him up (sobering him up was beyond my powers). He climbed up the fire escape and clambered over the railings on to a narrow ledge, on which he was swaying drunkenly. A porter and I went up the fire escape: the man threatened to jump if we came nearer.

We decided we had to make a grab for him; as we did so, he jumped. We held him suspended by his arms three storeys up. First he shouted, "Let me go, you bastards!" and then, "Help, I'm falling!" - a metaphor for the whole of human life, when you come to think of it.

By the luckiest chance, two policemen arrived at the hospital and rushed up the fire escape to our assistance. Without a moment's hesitation, they climbed on to the ledge themselves and hauled the man to safety. They brushed away my commendation, and even my thanks; in their own opinion, they had only done their duty, what they were expected, and expected themselves, to do.

I witnessed another instance of great bravery many years later, when times were changed. It was in the prison in which I worked as a doctor. A prisoner set fire to his mattress in his cell, and years of research by the British Home Office seemed to have gone into disproving the old saying that there is no smoke without fire, for the mattress produced the thickest, most acrid, black smoke that I have ever encountered, without much in the way of flame.

With no thought for his own safety, a prison officer entered the cell and pulled the prisoner to safety. As I sent the officer to hospital to be treated for possible smoke inhalation, I praised him highly and said I expected he would receive an official commendation.

He smiled pityingly at my naivety and said: "A reprimand more likely." And so it proved: he had not followed procedure, which was to leave it for the fire brigade.

A world in which a man can be reprimanded for bravely saving another's life is not propitious for the widespread practice of bravery. Virtues tend to disappear in the dissolving acid of rationality.

What might Captain Schettino say in his defence? Let us, for the sake of argument, leave aside the possibility that the whole disaster was an error of his seamanship, and suppose instead that it was what some people call "one of those things".

In a world used to the utilitarian Zeitgeist, he might say that if he had stayed on board and gone down with his ship, nobody who died would have been spared. We imagine a captain on his deck, as he slips under the waves, but this is quixotic romanticism if in fact no one is saved.

Can we be sure that if Captain Schettino had kept calm and carried on, fewer people would have died? Can it be wholly his fault if the crew were not properly trained and not even able to communicate with each other, let alone with all the passengers?

All this is special pleading, ex post facto rationalisation. Before the event, the captain accepted his own authority without difficulty or reservation. He was, however, tried and found wanting, perhaps for reasons partly cultural: not because he was Italian but because he was modern - that is to say, without an unthinking allegiance to a standard of conduct that in some circumstances might be, or might appear, ridiculous or counterproductive but in others is essential to the performance of difficult duty.

Hard cases make bad law and even worse sociology, though they are the stock in trade of philosophy, and there is no wickedness or weakness under the sun that is without precedent. Captain Schettino's story appears human, all too human: possibly a vainglorious man (but there are worse crimes than vainglory) who panicked at the one crucial moment of his career, and who will now spend the rest of his life in a state of bitter remorse and regret.

I hope it is not taken for lack of sympathy for the victims and their relations to say that, on the scale of human monstrosity, the captain does not climb very high. His place on the scale of human weakness is another matter.

As it happens, one of the great books of our literature, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, deals with a similar case. The hero, if that is quite the word for him, is mate on an old rust-bucket that is taking 800 Muslim pilgrims to Arabia. The boat sinks and Jim saves his skin, an act of cowardice for which he pays for the rest of his life. Marlow, the narrator of the story, describes his fate in words that resonate today:

"Nothing more awful than to watch a man who has been found out, not in a crime but in a more than criminal weakness. … from weakness that may lie hidden, watched or unwatched, prayed against or manfully scorned, repressed or maybe ignored more than half a lifetime, not one of us is safe."


Can You Say That On TV? The Supreme Court Debates the Use of Nudity and Profane Language On Broadcast Television As Justices Defend an Array of Positions On the Controversial Topic

In colorful give and take, the Supreme Court recently debated whether policing curse words and nudity on broadcast television makes sense in the cable era, one justice suggesting the policy is fast becoming moot as broadcast TV heads the way of "vinyl records and 8-track tapes."

The case involves programming that is available to all viewers free over the air — even though many now receive it through paid cable connections — during hours when children are likely to be watching. Some justices said they were troubled by inconsistent standards that allowed certain words and displays in some contexts but not in others.

One example frequently cited by the networks was the Federal Communications Commission's decision not to punish ABC for airing "Saving Private Ryan," with its strong language, while objecting to the same words when uttered by celebrities on live awards shows. Justice Elena Kagan said the FCC policy was, "Nobody can use dirty words or nudity except Steven Spielberg," director of the World War II movie.

Other justices seemed more open to maintaining the current rules because they allow parents to put their children in front of the television without having to worry they will be bombarded by vulgarity. Chief Justice John Roberts, the only member of the court with young children, hammered away at that point.

Roberts wondered why broadcasters would oppose FCC regulation, especially when cable and satellite service can offer hundreds of channels with few restrictions. "All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where ... they are not going to hear the S-word, the F-word, they are not going to see nudity," he said, an AP news release reports.

Justice Antonin Scalia placed himself on the side of the government. "These are public airwaves. The government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency. I'm not sure it even has to relate to juveniles, to tell you the truth," he said, according to the release.

But at least one justice, Samuel Alito, talked about how rapidly technological change has effectively consigned vinyl records and 8-tracks to the scrap heap, suggesting that in a rapidly changing universe, time will take care of the dispute. Already nearly nine of 10 households subscribe to cable or satellite television and viewers can switch among broadcast and other channels with a button on their remote controls, reports the news release by AP writer Mark Sherman.

"I'm sure your clients will continue to make billions of dollars on their programs which are transmitted by cable and by satellite and by Internet. But to the extent they are making money from people who are using rabbit ears, that is disappearing," Alito said.

The First Amendment case involves programming received by antennas on top of a television set, a house or building. Much of that programming now also is available through cable and satellite connections, but only the over-the-air transmissions are at issue.

The case pits the Obama Administration against the nation's television networks. The material at issue includes the isolated use of expletives as well as fines against broadcasters who showed a woman's nude buttocks on a 2003 episode of ABC's "NYPD Blue."

The broadcasters want the court to overturn a 1978 decision that upheld the FCC's authority to regulate radio and television content, at least during the hours when children are likely to be watching or listening. That includes the prime-time hours before 10 p.m.

At the very least, the networks say the FCC's current policy is too hard to figure out and penalizes the use of particular words in some instances but not in others.

The administration said that even with the explosion of entertainment options, broadcast programming remains dominant. It also needs to be kept as a dependable "safe haven" of milder programming, the administration said.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said that if the court were to overrule its 33-year-old decision, "the risk of a race to the bottom is real."

But Carter Phillips, representing the networks in connection with the awards shows, said that little would change because broadcasters would remain sensitive to advertisers and viewers who don't want the airwaves filled with dirty words and nudity.

Phillips and former Solicitor General Seth Waxman, arguing on behalf of ABC, noted that broadcasters could face fines from thousands of pending complaints, including some relating to the broadcast of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The opening ceremonies "included a statue very much like some of the statues that are here in this courtroom, that had bare breasts and buttocks," Waxman said, the release reports.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor is not taking part in the case because she served on the appeals court during its consideration of some of the issues involved.


Dear Nanny

Peter Saunders

In England, where I live now, I let a house to a group of students. In 2004, the Blair Labour government passed a new Housing Act which, among other things, required landlords like me to install a hand basin in every bedroom, ‘where practicable.’ This clause is now operative, so just before Christmas, I met at the house with my tenants, a qualified plumber, and an inspector from the local Council to determine whether it was ‘practicable’ to install basins in the five bedrooms.

I admit I wasn’t much in favour of the idea; it is an expensive job and I have visions of drunken students heaving basins off the wall and flooding the whole house. My tenants didn’t like the idea either. They thought basins would take up valuable wall space that could be better occupied by desks, book cases or Che Guevara posters. The man from the Council thought the new rule was ridiculous, too, but his hands were tied. And my plumber had to admit that, with a soil pipe immediately outside two of the windows, it would be quite ‘practicable’ to install basins in two of the five bedrooms.

So we all agreed that in two of the five rooms, basins would have to be installed to comply with the Act, even though it made no sense to do so. The tenants promptly asked me to delay this ‘improvement’ until after they move out.

At the last election, the Tories promised to scrap all unnecessary red tape, so I wrote to my local Conservative MP and suggested that this particular provision of the 2004 Housing Act might be a good place to start. She forwarded my letter to the (Liberal Democrat) Minister responsible for such matters (the Tories are in coalition, remember, and all the boring jobs have been given to Lib Dems). He has just replied to me.

He tells me that the law requiring a hand basin in every room is necessary ‘to ensure that standards are decent.’ The implication seems to be that, unless we are tightly controlled, we avaricious landlords will condemn students to live ‘indecently’ (in my experience, many students manage this quite nicely with no prompting from me).

I have written back to the Minister asking why he thinks a politician in Westminster is a better judge than the landlord who owns the house, the tenants who live in it, and the local council that regulates it, to determine whether or not a bedroom requires a hand basin. I’ll let you know if I get an answer.

Meanwhile, on the same day that I received the Minister’s letter, I had an email from a certain Ben Plowdon, who tells me he is ‘Director of Surface Planning’ at something called ‘Transport for London’. I don’t know Ben, but he seems to know me, for he addresses me personally. He writes: ‘Dear Mr Saunders, I am writing to both drivers and cyclists reminding them to take care on London’s roads.’

I can’t remember the last time I drove or cycled in London. Nevertheless, I was so touched by Ben’s concern for my welfare that I decided to write back immediately:
Dear Mr Plowden,

Thank you for your email telling me to “take care on London’s roads.”

Up until now I did not realise it was necessary to take care when driving in London.

I will do my best to follow your advice in the future – just as soon as I have taught my grandmother to suck eggs.

Yours sincerely

Peter Saunders

PS How many GCSEs do you need to do your job?

SOURCE (GCSEs are a middle school qualification, well short of a degree)

Victimhood has its privileges

To Obama Justice, only underdogs of history are worthy of equal protection

The U.S. Justice Department is ever-vigilant against signs of “voter suppression” these days, most recently blocking - on the grounds that it would hurt blacks - a South Carolina law that would require voter identification. But the voting rights of some minorities, it appears, are more worth protecting than others.

The territory of Guam, for instance, has called for a plebiscite on the territory’s relationship with the United States that could provide momentum for an independence movement. But the only people allowed to vote will be citizens who were native inhabitants in the year 1950 and their descendants. The provision limits the franchise to a group made up overwhelmingly of indigenous Chamorro people and excludes nearly all whites, Filipinos and other racial and ethnic groups who have moved to the island in the past six decades.

When presented with a complaint in 2009 by a white resident, retired Air ForceMaj. Arnold Davis, the Justice Department declined to intervene. In response late last year, the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) and former Justice Department Attorney J. Christian Adams filed suit in Guam federal district court to block enforcement of the voter restriction.

“The Obama administration shows hypersensitivity to race in South Carolina,” Terence J. Pell, president of the CIR, told me last week. But in Guam, where a racial agenda permeates the politics of the island and government action points to intentional race discrimination, he says, “the Obama administration can’t be bothered to look into it.”

I agree with Mr. Pell’s assessment, with one caveat. In Guam, the issue isn’t race - it’s ethnicity. Blacks living on Guam will lose their voting rights just as surely as whites, Asians and non-native Pacific Islanders. The common impulse behind Obama administration policy is its proclivity for favoring what it deems to be historically victimized minorities.

Guam was colonized by the Spanish in 1668 and then ceded to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American war. Organized as a U.S. territory in 1950, the island was granted increasing rights of self-governance in succeeding years. Guamanians are U.S. citizens, and their island of 155,000 residents sends a nonvoting representative to Congress. The United States lavishes the island with hundreds of millions of dollars in transfer payments, but collects no taxes in return.

But Chamorros were never given the right to vote on the constitutional measures affecting them, and some still feel like victims of colonial oppression. One obsession is the continuing demand for reparations to compensate for the depredations committed by the Japanese during World War II. Apparently, some Chamorros resent the Americans for permitting the island to be conquered - never mind that it was the Americans who subsequently liberated it.

Chamorros nurse other grievances. They worry about the erosion of their cultural identity as the U.S. continues expanding its military presence on the island and outsiders swamp the natives. Leaders felt snubbed not long ago when a major congressional delegation stopped on Guam to refuel on the way to Asia without doing the courtesy of meeting with them, and again when President Obama did the same.

To borrow the anti-colonial rhetoric of the left, native Guamanians were despoiled by an imperialist United States and were powerless to stop their country from being overrun by outsiders who now outnumber them. Chamorros make up only 37 percent of the island’s population today. They are a minority, and they are victims. Therefore, the Obama Justice Department reflexively sides with them.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a measure that allowed only native Hawaiians to vote when electing trustees to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Reasoned the court: “Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.”

The Guamanian measure seeks to circumvent that ruling by making the voting restriction based on residency, not race or ethnicity. However, the measure clearly imposes what liberal legal theorists might term a “disparate impact.”

The Associated Press cites numbers showing that 30 percent of South Carolina’s registered voters are nonwhite, while 34 percent of voters lacking state-issued photo IDs are nonwhite. The Justice Department deemed that 4 percentage point difference jarring enough to warrant overturning the law.

The “disparate impact” of the Guamanian law would be immeasurably greater. Chamarros may make up 37 percent of the island’s population, but it is likely they would account for 95 percent or more of the electorate voting on the plebiscite.

Clearly, the Obama Justice Department applies the principle of proportionality only when it suits it. At some point, the rest of us have to say, “We’re sorry about what happened in the past, but get over it. We’re all American citizens now. We all have equal rights. End of story.”



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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