Right And Wrong
January 8, 2006
I watched the movie of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent this morning, and through all the legal twists and turns, I found the most egregious twist to be that innocence is relative, guilt is sometimes not guilt, and perverting the law is okay if it helps someone else.
Of course, Scott Turow is a lawyer, so all these things are to be expected.
Plot summary: A DA has a fling with some female lawyer, she’s found dead, and he’s accused of the murder even though we know he didn’t do it. The evidence against him is substantial, but he’s eventually found not guilty. Then [plot twist warning], he discovers that his own wife actually killed the woman, and planted all the evidence, thinking that it’s so thin that he’ll never be accused of it—but of course, he is, and it’s only through some skullduggery that the evidence against him disappears, during which time we discover that the dead tramp was a Truly Evil & Corrupt Person (which, clearly, makes her murder sorta-okay), and the prosecution aren’t angels either, being pretty corrupt themselves (which also exonerates the defense’s wrongdoings). (There’s a huge gaping hole in the plot, by the way, but that’s not relevant to the point of all this.)
The end of the movie has wifey confessing the crime to him. He doesn’t turn her in, of course, and the voice-over (his) which closes the movie says that he’s not going to deprive his son of his mother, and he’ll have to suffer the torment of knowing that he’s living with a murderer.
Am I the only one who thinks that this is relativist nonsense?
I am reminded of the real-life FBI agent in (I think) North Carolina who discovered that his own son had killed someone. Rather than protecting his son, which he could have done simply by keeping his silence, the FBI agent turned him in, even knowing that his own son might fry in the chair or go to jail forever. Now thatwould have made a good morality play, and a fine movie, because every single parent could say to themselves, “I hope I’m never faced with that decision, and if I am, I hope I have the moral strength to do what that man did”—because few would. I don’t know if I would.
But that movie will never be made.
When I compare real life to Hollywood, I find that in Presumed Innocent, Hollywood has made an open-and-shut case of morality into something a little more cloudy (surprise, surprise), where “the slut deserved to die because [blah blah blah]”. And the torment of the hero knowing his wife’s guilt, and of his own complicity in not revealing this, somehow makes up for the fact that a woman was killed just because she screwed another woman’s husband. And it’s okay to hide evidence because the prosecution is also doing the same kind of thing. And, and, and… the list of moral excuses runs on and on.
After watching the movie, I cannot tell you how dirty I felt. Because I’d followed the story avidly, seeing morality being bent and twisted this way and that, and all I could think at the end was: No wonder that murderer O.J. Simpson was acquitted.
That’s the pernicious effect of Hollywood, and its insidious effect on our modern culture cannot be underestimated. Wrong is right, provided there are extenuating circumstances, right can be wrong if the other side isn’t being honest on their part, and so on.
At the end of all this, there is no moral compass left on which one can make the proper judgment. The only important thing is winning in the short term, regardless of what harm comes from so doing.
It’s not just in the movies.
I watch people playing sport, and bending the rules to their utmost extent to try to gain a little advantage. I see little honor in sport nowadays: if I were playing Wimbledon, and the linesman made a call against my opponent which was clearly wrong, I would either tank the next point in protest, or I would complain to the umpire and insist on the call being reversed—warning that if not, I would tank the next point in protest.
But that never happens, and these so-called “sportsmen” go on and win huge sums of money, sometimes based on the certain knowledge that they won because of a wrong decision. How do they sleep? I’m not interested in saying that “it happened to him today, it could happen to me tomorrow” and using the law of averages to excuse a wrongful action. I’m not interested in excusing such behavior because great sums of money are involved, either. That’s like excusing a shoplifter because he only stole “a little” money.
Because not correcting an obvious mistake, and profiting thereby, is as wrong as committing an unnoticed foul and going on to win in consequence.
People ask me why I watch golf. You know why? Because golfers call fouls on themselves, even if they may be disqualified from the competition thereby. Golf may be the last true sport left in the world, because people still play the game with scrupulous honesty.
I’m not setting myself up as some paragon of virtue, and that’s not the point of all this.
But in the so-called “bad old days”, Hollywood movies were supposed to show that crime doesn’t pay—even if there are extenuating circumstances. In High Sierra, Humphrey Bogart dies for his crimes, even though his downfall was caused by his feelings for a crippled girl. In modern-day Hollywood, that would be sufficient to secure his escape, and with all the money he’d robbed from a bank into the bargain.
We all chuckle at those old-fashioned rules, where wrongdoing had to show its consequences, and sneer about “censorship” and censors inflicting their “morality” on others.
Let me tell you something.
When the history of this era comes to be written, and people wonder how a society which had become so prosperous, so healthy and so settled, could have sunk into such depths of depravity that the Menendez brothers weren’t executed for cold-bloodedly shotgunning their own parents to death, all the evidence will be found in novels and movies like Presumed Innocent.