Clearly, justice must be the same for all, but is this not true also of morality? Yet for some people, under certain circumstances, this is hardly the case. There exist certain persons by whom morality can be uncontestedly flouted.
Profession has much to do with it. One of the callings where truthfulness, i.e., morality, is cheerfully trampled on, is, of course, advertising. Which, even more than social intercourse, elicits unconditional superlatives. The only thing that could achieve honesty in much advertising would be consumer skepticism among a vast majority of people. Too bad that the human brain does not come with the motto “Caveat emptor” imprinted upon it.
Scarcely behind advertising in lack of morality, i.e., truthfulness or honesty, is politics, where that virtue is practiced with notable parsimony. Or, in the case of someone like Donald Trump, where, it seems to me, its cousin amorality thrives from bottom to top, by which I mean his hair, its color quite possibly trumpery. I consider its lack of morality equal to that of a codpiece for Elizabethan trousers, or a microphone for toady’s pop singers.
But, to be sure, not only Trump’s blondness may infringe on morality; a passel of others of his shenanigans are far guiltier, as are those of a good many politicians. Most smelling of hypocrisy is politicians’ abuse of religion. Hardly one who does not claim God to go arm in arm with him, backed up by little more than Sunday churchgoing. Christianity provides a standard moral masquerade. Not that I dispute the zeal of born-again Christians and Tea Partiers, but I wonder whether it is not, like taking up arms against the government, self-righteousness or self-interest: a facile grab for power among the socially and morally underprivileged. Holier than thou is usually less than holy.
This is not to say that genuine religiosity among politicos is out of the question; there must, after all, be a needle in some haystack. I just wish it weren’t in numerous cases so ostentatious and perfunctory, a set of down-at-heal cliches.
But the presumable apogee of immorality thrives among lawyers. The criminal lawyers at any rate seem at the very least amoral by profession. If you attend a play in which the word “lawyer” is so much as mentioned, you are assured of a gust of audience laughter. The only thing comparable is when one character, after a lengthy tirade by another, responds with “No shit?” But even that is becoming less sure-fire than “lawyer.”
True immorality does invade seemingly unlikely places such as sports. Although much reprehended and steadily contested, doping will, I suspect, never be wholly uprooted. But there are other ways of cheating as well, in a field you were not expecting it. After all, is not sport, going all the way back to ancient Greece, supposed to be a noble, unblemished pursuit of excellence, implied by the very word “sportsmanlike”?
Based on the assumption of mens sana in corpore sano, our athletes are meant to be looked up to not only on the playing fields, in stadiums, swimming pools, ball parks, arenas and wherever else professional sports are practiced, but even in the private lives of these glorified and spectacularly remunerated winners, enjoying adulation from millions of fans. Unfortunately, the mens sana is harder to come by than the corpus sanus. In their private lives, we get everything from wife beaters to victims of fabricated muggings near the 2016 Rio Olympics. In Ryan Lochte’s apology even the recurrent term “overexaggerated” for lying is a moral fiasco.
I will skip over such heroes of our times as rock stars, of whose moral grandeur Jimi Hendrix offered as sole example their having taught countless groupies how to give better head. But what about actors then, the nearest approximation to rock stars? Are they not likely to carry the pretense of their finest roles over into their daily lives? There has of course been the notion that big stars, like their producers, enjoy the privilege of the casting couch, whereby pretty women get their roles, especially in the movies, on their performance on that piece of furniture rather than on screen or stage. This, by the way, is a histrionic area in which nowadays handsome young men seem to have rather taken over in defiance of the phrase “ladies first.” In any case, in our more permissive era, any type of sex advancing one’s status is considered perfectly comme il faut.
Certainly sleeping with the director has become pretty much established, almost de rigueur, which reminds me of the case of a famous British actress telling me that she does not figure in the memoirs of a famous director with whom she would not go to bed, whereas another, equally famous but also more willing actress prominently does.
All of which brings me to my profession: what about morality in critics? I have been praised by an academic as the one critic who writes exactly what he thinks, which I would consider a minimal requirement for the job, but given what most of today’s reviewers are like, may indeed be a distinction. These reviewers—they scarcely rate the honorific critic—let pass altogether too much twaddle, it hardly matters whether out of fear of losing their jobs or out of authentic benightedness and genuine poor taste.
In his biography of Pauline Kael, Brian Kellow quotes her as saying about film criticism, “You don’t have to know what John Simon does to be the best at it,” by which criterion she certainly qualifies as one of the best. I maintain that no kind of ignorance is bliss in criticism, and that there less is definitely not more. What is most often held against me, along with alleged homophobia and undeniable taste for good looks in performers is, I’m afraid wit, which admittedly hurts the recipient but regales the discriminating reader.
In his interesting anthology “The Critics Say . . .” Matt Windman quotes Elisabeth Vincentelli (formerly of the Post, now of the Times) about me: “He’s such a great stylist and writer, but his meanness is just too much. It was delicious to read, but sometimes it got in the way of his critical acumen and that kind of spoiled the pleasure in reading him. I didn’t feel like there was any generosity behind it. He often wrote about very real issues that nobody else would touch—the stuff that’s very tricky to deal with—but he wrote about it with such a lack of empathy.’
Well, I wouldn’t trade my lack of empathy for all the king’s horses and all the prevalent critical horseshit. I take comfort from the good things Woody Allen says about me in the new, excellent biography, “Woody,” by David Evanier. In spite of my rather sharp criticism of some of his movies , he thinks that “Simon’s film criticism would endure more than that of any other critic.” And in my copy of the book he wrote “To John Simon—Thank you for keeping me and all of us in movies and theatre honest, Woody Allen.”
And so, I think, the truly moral critic can adapt Falstaff’s “I am not only witty in myself, but also the cause that wit is in other men” as “I am no only honest in myself, but also the cause that honesty is in other men.” And women, too—ask my friend Betty Buckley, or, were she alive today, Madeline Kahn, who had her breasts diminished because of something I wrote about them.