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Jewish World Review Aug. 3, 1999/ 21 Av 5759

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Nihilism and politics: ethics on the lam -- MIRTH ABOUNDS each Sunday in Randy Cohen's column in the New York Times. Mr. Cohen, known as "The Ethicist," misses both issue and solution as he ignores morality in solving dilemmas posed to him by the ethically flummoxed. Mr. Cohen provides answers without offense and solutions without rules for the morally adrift in their sea of circumstantial ethics and inconsistent but comfortable standards.

A few samples of the Cohen wisdom illustrate. A high school sophomore wrote in despair because he wanted to ask out a female classmate whose parents prohibit dating. The love sick teen asked Randy whether he should "be Romeo and Juliet or just call the whole thing off." Randy could have suggested that they were both too young to date or dished up a reminder about respect for elders. But the guru of all the ethics fit to print offered this gem, "If you pre-emptively decline to ask her out, you assume a kind of power over her that is not yours to take. Her obedience is a matter between her parents and her, not between them and you." Empowered teens have served us well. There were more casualties in American high schools this year than in the war in Kosovo.

One reader saw a shopper lift a box of cereal but said nothing about the heist. Randy offered salve for her conscience by explaining that stealing a "sweater or pot roast" requires reporting, but not cereal for "To witness a small crime against a big institution is to be afflicted with unwanted information." So, it's the size of the theft, not the stealing that counts.

But there's more to Cohen on knaves and thieves. Whether something is stealing also depends on who you took from. So, Randy added, "What's $40 to Kmart? Help protect Kmart? Probably not. A neighborhood deli, maybe."

For a worker upset that not all of his co-workers wanted to participate in his favorite charity, Randy said, "nice as it is that Bill Gates gives money to libraries, a decent country would tax Microsoft at a rate that lets cities buy their own books." Cohen's theories defy not only morality but economics.

Were Randy's moral gymnastics peculiar to the New York Times, press agent for Senator Rodham, the world could simply enjoy the comic relief. But Mr. Cohen is the tip of the iceberg. The discovery of Sara Jane Olson, a.k.a. Kathleen Soliah, former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and accomplished cop car bomber and bank robber, reveals a world of Randys.

Mrs. Olson, wanted since 1976 for conspiracy to commit murder, was found after 23 years in brilliant disguise as a soccer mom in St. Paul. Suburban mother of three and devoted physician's wife, she resided in an upscale neighborhood, served gourmet meals to friends (talent in mixing pipe bombs is apparently transferrable), acted in the local theater group and was a good little Democrat. Republicans can be so testy about folks on the lam.

Her friends have raised her $1,000,000 bail and brought her home to Minnesota. A Democratic state senator attacked the FBI in classic Cohenesque style, "Don't they have any real crimes to fight?" A Democratic candidate for mayor labeled their resident galloping gourmet "a great citizen of our community." Her theater director called Ms. Soliah "a pacifist and liberal Democrat who supports gun control." Just not bomb control or the use of guns during bank robbery. A minister explained that is "really a person who was sharing God's love in the community," which apparently involved kidnaping and terrorism.

Mrs. Olson is a coward who has run from the law and accountability.

Two decades of an upscale liberal life complete with a herb garden are not atonement for attempted murder. A society without absolutes and enforcement is begging for anarchy.

Supporters complain that Ms. Soliah committed no "real crime," just sixties-type rebellion. The indiscretions of youth involve eggs and toilet paper, not pipe bombs and automatic weapons in bank heists. Perhaps the relatives of those who were killed during the SLA bank robbery could define real crime for us.

It ain't the conduct, it's how we feel about it.

It's not about right and wrong, but circumstances and even how you feel about the circumstances. A true scallywag is Columbia Bush, wife of Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, a world-class shopper who wrangled her way through customs without paying duty on $19,000 of Paris booty (valued at $25,000 U.S.). She was caught and fined $4,100, more than three times the duty. Newspapers cheered sanctions for this lapse in ethics but ignored one of Mr. Clinton's commerce undersecretary's judgment when she smuggled in Beanie Babies. It's not really nihilism but politics that controls today's morality.

Ripping off big business is acceptable. Mrs. Olson as a Republican would still be in jail in LA. Larry Flynt is a pornographer, but has the right views. And so Randy drifts each Sunday for a new adventure in the world of the morally clueless but politically astute.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments to her by clicking here.


07/26/99: Of women, soccer and removed jerseys
07/23/99: Not in despair, a mere mortal doing just fine
07/20/99: "Why me?" How about "Why us?"
07/13/99: Bunk, junk & juries
07/06/99: An Amish woman in a Victoria's Secret store
06/30/99: That intellectually embarrassing Second Amendment
06/24/99: Patricia Ireland eat your heart out --- but check out the recipe in 'women's mags' first
06/22/99: Dems and the Creator coup
06/17/99: True courage is more than just admitting troubles

©1999, Marianne M. Jennings