Welcome to the first, and possibly last, Jack Marshall Day here at Windypundit.
For those who don’t know, Jack Marshall is a “professional ethicist” (he teaches CLE courses to lawyers) who opines on various topic at Ethics Alarms. I started following him years ago because he discussed a lot of interesting topics, and even though I disagreed with him on a number of important issues, he seemed like a serious and worthwhile sparring partner. I spent a lot of time commenting on his blog.
But on this very day two years ago Jack posted a piece that eventually caused me to rethink everything I believed about him. In many ways, it was just another normal-seeming round-up column. One of the items was a response to a proposal to raise the age limit for gun purchases, and at one point in that item Jack digressed into a discussion over the appropriate age for drafting soldiers. Later, in response to a comment on that digression, Jack left a reply which changed everything:
If four year olds were deemed necessary to win a war, then the government needs the power to conscript four year olds,
This was mind blowing. Jack Marshall, professional ethicist, approved of child slave soldiers. It was an event of what Jack likes to call “signature significance.” Child soldiers are a monstrous evil, condemned by the whole civilized world. Except Jack Marshall. This strongly suggested to me that maybe Jack the ethicist…isn’t very good at ethics.
I’d like to say this was a moment of clarity for me, but the truth is, it took me a while to absorb the truth, which eventually force me to cast my philosophical relationship with Jack into a new light. I had been trying to have earnest discussions about ethical issues in Presidential politics, journalism, and the war on drugs with a guy who thinks it’s okay to enslave children to fight in wars. I felt cheated. I felt stupid. I had been taking Jack’s opinions on ethical issues far too seriously. This was like getting into an involved culinary argument over the relative merits of American Wagyu vs. traditional Kobe beef, only to discover that your debating opponent was a cannibal. Clearly, sparring with Jack had been a colossal waste of my time.
I eventually found an appropriate moment to ask Jack about his awful comment. He made an attempt to defend it as an absurd exaggeration — and obviously he doesn’t mean literal 4-year-olds — but in both the original post and his later responses, he clearly defends the idea of drafting children to fight wars:
18 years olds are adults, and no, I have no problem with mandatory military service for men and women as a condition of citizenship. There’s no magic in ages, or where the line is drawn. In a national emergency would drafting physically mature sub-18 teens be justifiable? Sure….if it were a matter of national survival. That’s ethics conflict territory: one ethical principle has to be given higher priority over another.
Jack has changed his justification from “necessary to win a war” to “national survival,” which I suppose is an improvement. But when a country has fallen so far that its leaders are enslaving children as soldiers, there’s nothing left worth keeping. It doesn’t deserve to survive. The people deserve to survive, and if the enemy is at the gates and intends extermination, they may have to arm their children. But no one has the right to force someone else’s child to fight a war. It is my considered opinion that if government agents try to steal your children to fight in a war, the correct ethical response is to shoot them in the fucking head! Shoot as many of them as you can, as fast as you can, for as long as you can.
(It’s amusing — or maybe horrifying, it’s hard to tell anymore — that Jack limits his willingness to draft children to those who are “physically mature.” As if the main problem with drafting 4-year-olds is that they aren’t strong enough to hump a full kit around the battlefield.)
In retrospect, Jack’s blog has been going downhill ever since the start of the Trump era. He seems to recognize that Trump is a huge jerk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking nearly everyone who criticizes Trump. Granted, there certainly are idiots who attack Trump for dumb reasons. Jack mocks them for having “Trump derangement syndrome,” and he’s not totally wrong. But he slings that epithet far too widely, and he’s become just as deranged in his defense of Trump as the worst of those he mocks.
Consider one example from back in October, when Trump tried to award the contract for hosting an international world leadership summit to the Trump National Doral Miami resort. This is Ethics 101 territory. Anyone who has ever accepted a position at a government agency, and almost anyone who’s taken a job at a large corporation, has sat through an ethics training session that spelled out in no uncertain terms the need to avoid a conflict of interest in awarding contracts. Probably hundreds of millions of people have been trained that steering contracts to serve your personal interests is unethical. People are routinely fired or even prosecuted for breaking that rule.
Jack, on the other hand, defends Trump:
Trump shouldn’t have backed down from holding the Group of 7 Summit at the Trump luxery golf club in Miami. Apparently he did so because Republican members of Congress complained about it, and they complained about it because they knew it would spark more bogus accusations of Emoluments Clause violations […]
That Jack sees nothing wrong with Trump dealing himself some taxpayer money is not the craziest part of that post.
Any and every negotiations specialist will tell you that holding a meeting of adversaries in your own territory is a massive advantage. That is why such meetings are often held in Switzerland, or other neutral sites. Holding the Summit at a Trump property makes the President stronger at the meeting, and that benefits the country.
It would have been nice—responsible, educational, fair, honest—if the news media explained this basic principle to the public, but it doesn’t want to justify the President’s decisions or find benign reasons for them.
The idea that this was some kind of negotiating tactic is batshit lunacy, as is attacking the news media for not explaining a “basic principle” that Jack just pulled out of his ass. Oh, I’m sure there’s some tactical advantage to negotiating on your home turf, but we’re talking about the President of the United States here. His home turf is the friggin’ White House, one of the most recognizable symbols of power in the world, located in Washington, D.C., the seat of government for the most powerful nation that ever existed. That’s a hell of a lot more impressive than a fucking golf resort that gets mediocre reviews on Yelp.
This wasn’t the first time Jack made up special rules for Trump. Shortly after the inauguration, he tried to argue that it’s unethical to disrespect the winner of the Presidential election:
[…] Americans have always realized that the slate is cleared when someone becomes President, and that the individual inherits the office and the legitimacy of that office as it has been built and maintained by it previous occupants. He […] becomes the symbol of the nation, the government and its people, a unique amalgam of prime minister, king and flag in human and civilian form.
This is an illustration of Jack’s authoritarian streak, of his weird devotion to those in power. This is even clearer in a followup post in which he invokes an argument from The Caine Mutiny to justify his exaltation of Trump. This takes place after the Naval officers have been acquitted in court for their actions in taking over Captain Queeg’s command. Their lawyer, Greenwald, is taking them to task.
Ensign Keith: Queeg endangered the lives of the men.
Greenwald: He didn’t endanger any lives.You did. A fine bunch of officers.
Lt. Paynter: You said yourself he cracked.
Greenwald: I’m glad you brought that up, Mr. Paynter, because that’s a very pretty point. I left out one detail in court. It wouldn’t have helped our case. Tell me, Steve, after the yellow-stain business, Queeg came to you for help, and you turned him down, didn’t you.
Lt. Maryk: Yes, we did.
Greenwald: You didn’t approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged on him, you made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you think all this would have come up in the typhoon? You’re an honest man, Steve, I’m asking you. You think it would have been necessary to take over?
Maryk: It probably wouldn’t have been necessary.
Keith: If that’s true, we were guilty.
Greenwald: Ahhh, You’re learning, Willie! You don’t work with the captain because of how he parts his hair…you work with him because he’s got the job, or you’re no good.
Jack tries to apply that to Trump’s critics:
Either the Presidency will make Donald Trump a better man, or Trump will permanently harm the Presidency and weaken it, thus making the office less of an inspiration and source of strength for future occupants. […] It is absolutely in the nation’s best interests to seek the first result. That requires focusing on the office and its strengths, and uniting as a nation behind that office. The relentless, unprecedented assault on Trump since his election by Democrats and the news media may have already done irreparable damage.
This is wrong on so many levels.
First of all, Jack is too much of an authoritarian to recognize that the duty that serving members of the military owe to their commanding officers in a time of war is in no way relevant to the question of how citizens of a free country should treat their elected representatives. The officers of the Caine had joined the military and swore an oath to obey their commanding officers. Trump, on the other hand, is just a guy we elected. We don’t work for him, he works for us. We don’t owe him loyalty, he has to earn it. And if we don’t like him, we get to kick his ass around the schoolyard whenever we want. “Fuck the President” is a perfectly acceptable sentiment.
Second, as Greenwald argues and the officers agree, perhaps Captain Queeg would not have mishandled things so badly during the typhoon if his officers had given him more support. That certainly makes his officers complicit in the problems on board the Caine. But it does not in any way let Queeg off the hook for his own failures as a leader, including his failure to preserve cohesion among his officers. Similarly, Trump is responsible for his own failings, and deserves to pay the price of receiving criticism.
Third, the arguments made by Greenwald in the film and by Jack in his blog both make the implicit assumption that everybody is working toward the same goal. That’s accurate in the film, since everyone involved is at war with the same enemy, and for all Queeg’s problems, no one thinks he’s a Japanese agent. But what if he was? What if Queeg had announced his intent to seek out U.S. supply convoys and sink them? That’s literally treason, and officers would have been idiots to say, “Well, he hasn’t actually sunk any American ships yet, so we need to support him!”
I’m not saying Trump has done anything treasonous, but we’re not talking about overthrowing him by force. This all started because Jack overreacted to comedienne John Oliver’s criticisms of Trump. This is about the ethics of Trump’s opponents criticizing him and refusing to help him accomplish his agenda, because they sincerely believe his agenda would be bad for the country. Again, Jack is ignoring a basic Ethics 101 concept: If you see that something evil is about to happen, and you are in a position to stop it, then you have an obligation to try to stop it. It’s nuts to argue that Trump’s opponents instead have an obligation to give him a running start at screwing things up.
Fourth, some of the people Jack is criticizing will be harmed by Trump’s policies because they don’t support him. Me, for example. If I wanted to buy a new car or air conditioner or any other product made outside the U.S.A., Trump had announced his intention to oppose me. Because of the policies he intended to enact (and has in fact enacted by now), armed government agents will either prevent those products from entering the U.S. or else force me to pay a steep tax. Either way, I lose. In the absence of a prior obligation to Trump — analogous to the Caine officers’ obligation to the their commanding officer — by what ethical principle could I possibly be obliged to help him achieve a goal that is directly harmful to me?
I think I’ve gone on long enough. You may, in fact, wonder why I’ve gone on at all. If I think Jack is such a waste of time, why do I bother to write about him? You’d think after reading his posts claiming that it’s a myth that wars kill innocent civilians or that black people were racists for not voting for Mitt Romney or that it’s unethical to give your cat catnip, I’d have learned my lesson and stopped reading his blog.
The truth is, I don’t entirely understand it myself. It’s like picking at a scab: It hurts, and you know you should stop, but somehow you just can’t.
I can still remember when Jack’s blog was a pretty good place. We’ve always had disagreements, but that didn’t stop his blog from being an intelligent forum for discussions of ethics. And he still raises some interesting issues and calls out some genuinely bad and good ethics in current events. It’s just not worth it any more when the good bits are surrounded by a pro-Trump authoritarian shit show.
It doesn’t help that he is increasingly intolerant of dissent. When he claims to be “objectively” correct and denounces those who disagree as “morons,” it no longer feels like he’s still inviting genuine discussion. He has kicked out commenters that disagreed with him, ostensibly for being rude, while allowing some of his more asinine supporters to continue being jerks in the comments. And when some of us take the hint and stop contributing, Jack calls us cowards. Fuck that shit.
For some time now, Ethics Alarms has mostly been a hate-read. I’d go there when I wanted to find some crazy shit that I could get righteously angry about. (That used to be a good way to work up a blog post). Lately, however, I’m trying to preserve my sanity by keeping away from Ethics Alarms. I’ve stopped commenting on the blog, unsubscribed from the posts in Feedly, and stopped following Jack on Twitter, all to avoid the temptation to read his blog.
It’s not really working. I just can’t quit. I still give in and take a peek to see what he’s up to, or to check his reaction to a news story. (Did he think Shakira and JLo brought too much of the sexy to the Superbowl halftime show? Of course he did.) But I’m still trying to back away, and my latest plan is to try to limit myself to writing about him once a year, on this, the anniversary of his worst ethics opinion ever.
I’m writing about my plans here as a way of burning that bridge, of making a public declaration that will be embarrassing to go back on. It won’t be easy, though, and it doesn’t help that I’m in a loose-knit private Twitter conversation with several of his former commenters. We occasionally post screen shots when he says something really outrageous. It’s fun, but it’s probably bad for our mental health. And like me, they can’t explain this obsession either.
And truthfully, for some crazy reason, I still kind of like Jack. If he ever got better, and returned the blog to to something decent and interesting, I’d be tempted to return to commenting there if I was still welcome after. But it’s a sad place for now, and it’s probably for the best if I can’t go back.