Have we lost shame?

I realize that whenever someone sufficiently old says “I remember a time when …” most people conjure up powdered wigs and snuff. So maybe this will appeal only to people who think a lifetime is a relatively short period for major cultural characteristics to radically change. I offer this word of caution to those who are post-modern enough to believe that all values are determined by the market: this may not be of interest to you.

Chester, N.J., where I’ve never been, during an era that may not have existed. (Chester Historical Society.)

That said, let me begin again: I remember a time when there was a set of conventions or aspirations that had been drilled into everybody. It was a vague feeling that you should “try your best,” “think before you speak,” “attempt to get things right,” “don’t bluff,” and so on. Effort, preparation, accuracy, honesty were considered valuable. Posturing, dissembling, bluster, fudging were considered undesirable. Since it was impossible to ferret out all instances of what was quaintly thought of then as forms of dishonesty children were instilled with an internal Pavlovian form of negative reinforcement. Whether you call it a Superego, or conscience or even a “Sense of Shame,” it tended to prevent children from engaging in such minor forms of dishonesty as plagiarism, boastfulness, lying, and so forth, and it prevented grownups from engaging in larger forms of dishonesty. United with this “Sense of Shame” was also a “Sense of Duty” whereby people were often shamed out of greed and selfishness and into ways of helping others, generally called “less fortunate.”

Shame has been a tool that has long been used to spur behavior or mark out a person for odium and avoidance. In Romeo and Juliet Juliet’s nurse tries to persuade Juliet to forsake Romeo on the ground, among others, that he killed Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. She says:

There’s no trust,
No faith, no honesty in men; all perjured,
All forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers.
. . .
These griefs, these woes, these sorrows make me old.
Shame come to Romeo!

Juliet will have none of the imputation of shame on Romeo: “he was not born to shame: / Upon his brow shame is ashamed to sit . . .”

At the beginning of our history, things were pretty much the same. Honor, the flip side of shame, was everything. People fought duels to avoid shame. Slave-owners claimed they were induced to start a war to avoid shame. The post-Civil War Gilded Age was less concerned with shame. When greed becomes the overriding motivation, shame seems not to matter much. There is some correlation there. Of course the leaders of society always set the tone in these sorts of things. And the leaders then weren’t afraid to hire Pinkertons to prevent employees from organizing for higher wages. Since there was no shame for a small group to use force to keep a very large part of the national wealth and to continue to receive a very disproportionate amount of its income, well there didn’t seem to be much need for shame in anything else. And then from the First World War to the end of the Second, there seemed to be other priorities. So it wasn’t until the 50s and early 60s when society seemed to recognize its obligations to any number of groups–vets, workers, poor farmers, African-Americans, and so forth, that the concept came into currency again.

It’s quite possible that everyone in St. Louis actually wanted to move to New York.

This was a specific period of the American Experience and perhaps only among a certain subset, like the middle and lower bourgeoise. Maybe I am remembering it wrong. Or maybe it’s all just a myth. Just like perhaps no one in 1903 had the small town values and love of family and dread of the heartless capitalism of cut-throat New York City that the Smith family did in Meet Me in St. Louis. Even if it is just a myth, however, it’s useful to compare it to the reality of today to see if there is any lesson to be drawn. (As an aside, I am not saying this period was ideal by any means. There was Jim Crow, John Foster Dulles, the rise of Richard Nixon, and the nuclear arms race. I’m only talking about one aspect.)

What am I talking about? It’s the portion of our population, possibly 20-30%, who don’t believe in intellectual honesty, factual veracity or the value of good faith representations of matters of fact. I hasten to add that this preference for deception, as far as I know, only applies to matters of public policy. I don’t believe even Tea Partiers are more likely to commit fraud in their personal dealings than any one else. Nevertheless, public discourse is a significant part of life, has profound effects on the quality of life of us all and is largely what history will remember us for. All of these thoughts were kindled yesterday by the report by the Los Angeles Times that Michele Bachmann was going to set up an exploratory committee as the first step in running for the office of President of the United States. This is the woman who said the following:

  • “No one that I know disagrees with natural selection — that you can take various breeds of dogs … breed them, you get different kinds of dogs,” she said. “It’s just a fact of life. … Where there’s controversy is (at the question) ‘Where do we say that a cell became a blade of grass, which became a starfish, which became a cat, which became a donkey, which became a human being?’ There’s a real lack of evidence from change from actual species to a different type of species. That’s where it’s difficult to prove.” – Michele Bachmann quoted in the Stillwater Gazette, September 29, 2003. (See here.)
  • “Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” -Rep. Michelle Bachmann, April, 2009. (See here.)
  • “Does that mean that someone’s 13-year-old daughter could walk into a sex clinic, have a pregnancy test done, be taken away to the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, have their abortion, be back and go home on the school bus? That night, mom and dad are never the wiser.” -Rep. Michele Bachmann, on health care reform’s potential to dupe parents, October 2009. (See here.)
  • “And what a bizarre time we’re in, Jan, when a judge will say to little children that you can’t say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn that homosexuality is normal and you should try it.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, appearing as guest on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News”, hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 6, 2004. (See here.)
  • “Normalizaiton (of gayness) through desensitizaiton. Very effective way to do this with a bunch of second graders, is to take a picture of ‘The Lion King’ for instance, and a teacher might say, ‘Do you know that the music for this movie was written by a gay man?’ The message is: I’m better at what I do, because I’m gay.” (See here.)
  • “There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.” (See here.)
  • “We’re in a state of crisis where our nation is literally ripping apart at the seams right now, and lawlessness is occurring from one ocean to the other. And we’re seeing the fulfillment of the Book of Judges here in our own time, where every man doing that which is right in his own eyes—in other words, anarchy.” – Senator Michele Bachmann, appearing as guest on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News”, hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 6, 2004. (See here.)
  • “You have a teacher talking about his gayness. (The elementary school student) goes home then and says “Mom! What’s gayness? We had a teacher talking about this today.” The mother says “Well, that’s when a man likes other men, and they don’t like girls.” The boy’s eight. He’s thinking, “Hmm. I don’t like girls. I like boys. Maybe I’m gay.” And you think, “Oh, that’s, that’s way out there. The kid isn’t gonna think that.” Are you kidding? That happens all the time. You don’t think that this is intentional, the message that’s being given to these kids? That’s child abuse.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, speaking at EdWatch National Education Conference, November 6, 2004. (See here.)
  • On Governor Pawlenty’s “Tax-Free Zones” initiative: “…it’s all for the planned redistribution of wealth which is also stated in this document, the redistribution of wealth which is based on a new concept called equity. And it says this: we must not lose sight of equity, or fairness based on need. Where have you heard that here, today? From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” — Senator Michele Bachmann, EdWatch conference, October 10-11, 2003. (See here.)

Is there even a shred of doubt that this woman is unacquainted with shame? Does intellectual honesty even come into the conversation when Michele is at a debate?

Of course Representative Bachmann’s chances of becoming President of the United States are so small that they must be considered de minimis. But that she is able to raise money for such a venture is evidence that the wealthy have more money than they have useful ways of employing it.

On the other hand, is there really no point to her participating in the Republican debates?

There is a tale that Aesop tells of a fox who lost his tail in a trap. He was overwhelmed with the shame of having to go about without a bushy tail like the other foxes. Then he hit on a plan: He would counsel the other foxes that being tailless had numerous advantages and actually looked better. If all foxes had no tail, he reasoned, then he would no longer feel his shame. Could that be what is afoot? In the fable, a wiser fox exposes the ruse of the tailless one. But in the Republican Party have they all been convinced to go tailless? Sarah Palin surely blazed this trail like a comet and harvested numerous loyal supporters. And she spread the wealth by endorsing Bachman and other shamefully ignorant politicians like Sharon Angel and Christine O’Donnell–people who in my perhaps mythical day would be too ashamed of their lack of even minimal qualifications for the office they sought that they would never have even tried.

But this wilful ignorance can’t all be due to Palin. Take this past week when Ann Coulter wrote a column for the shameless Human Events arguing that radiation is actually good for humans and then went on the O’Reilly Show to promote it. The claim was so mind numbingly irresponsible that even Bill O’Reilly was somewhat stunned and although he undoubtedly knew that his employer did not look kindly on criticizing Ann Coulter, he even cautioned his viewers (who one can assume are not among the more talented of critical thinkers) not to follow the natural consequences of Coulter’s thesis. The ostensible purpose of the column was to support nuclear power in the face of criticism following the accident in Japan. But the themes of conspiracy and us-against-them became so hopelessly intertwined that in the end she made the claim that the media suppressed the studies that the New York Times published a decade ago. Having the Times (usually conservatives’ chief example of liberal lies and political correctness) end up the “hero” of Coulter’s story is one of the surprising consequences of this particular intellectual fraud. Coulter is amoral in the Ayn Rand sense, so whatever she says (like what Glenn Beck says) is done purely for shock and self-promotional purposes and not intended to be acted upon, particularly not acted upon by herself.

More serious than the writings of a clownish shock commentator are the actions of a congressional committee. On March 15, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on the basis of one day’s hearings, voted to substitute its own view of environmental science on global warming for that of the EPA. As the prominent British science journal Nature noted in an editorial, at the subcommittee

“hearing on 14 March, anger and distrust were directed at scientists and respected scientific societies. Misinformation was presented as fact, truth was twisted and nobody showed any inclination to listen to scientists, let alone learn from them. It has been an embarrassing display, not just for the Republican Party but also for Congress and the US citizens it represents.”

Nothing is above ignorant denial and distortion: History, science, objective reality. This new group of reactionaries will fumble about on each piece of news until the members reach agreement on the new illusion they will pedal. On any new issue they will be all over the lot and until they reach consensus they will even contradict each other, but they all eventually fall in line and forget past inconsistencies–because the essence is groupthink. Notice how Gingrich himself argued exact opposite positions on the Libyan airstrikes until he could fall in line with the approved right-wing consensus. In fact, check out for yourself how the criticisms have been inconsistent, unprincipled and plain stupid. But it doesn’t even matter how blatantly ignorant or  inflammatory or uninformed the statements are, right-wingers will not criticize those that eventually get with their delusional program and goose-step in unison.

John N. Welch exposed the fraud of Joe McCarthy on national television.

This is beyond conservative versus liberal. This group that I speak about is a subset of conservatives but they have taken over the Republican Party and have excluded the few reality-based conservatives, like Richard Lugar, left. This moment is much like the periodic impulses to riotous ignorance and anti-intellectualism that America often goes through–like the witch trials, the Illuminati nonsense, the Know Nothings, the slave-owners’ conspiracy ravings, the red scares of the 1910s, McCarthyism, and so on. But it all comes down to the first step: losing shame. The way to end this reign of ignorance is to get the social discourse back on to a basis where the charlatans are rebuked. Is it possible? Well, an avuncular lawyer from Boston was able to start the downfall of McCarthyism with this genteel barb: “Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Incidentally, it was shortly after this hearing that my mythical era which promoted intellectual honesty and a sense of shame took place. Maybe they were related.

It will take the right time and the right moment and probably the right person. But it will require confrontation and exposure of the lies–not “bipartisanship.”

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  1. Saw the O’Reilly tag and just couldn’t resist. Nice piece. It seems as though even morality has a price in a “free” market system. Then again it’s only free until tax dollars are required to bolster balance sheets or for subsidization. Methinks Mr. Smith is long overdue for a return to Washington.
    I am continually baffled as to how characters like Bachman and Palin rise to national prominence given the absurd positions they advocate. When Palin was selected as the VP candidate in 08, I think it showed the low esteem in which the Republican party holds the American public’s sophistication. Either that, or VP has devolved into such an inconsequential post that a person with the geopolitical savvy of a 10 yr old would be selected for the position.
    Keep fighting the good fight.

    • I Have become more cynical than I was two years ago. Having read Mark Leibovich’s book, I now believe that if Mr. Smith went to Washington today, he would serve one term, vote for tax cuts for the rich and entitlement slashes for the poor, then become a partner at a K Street lobbying firm.

  1. April 22nd, 2011

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