The Death of Shame
Have you no shame, sir?
At the risk of sounding like the Dowager Countess, a relic from a long-gone era, I repeat: Have you no shame, sir?
I’m asking YOU, Ralph Northam, Governor of Virginia. Blackface is an abomination, and you were old enough to know better. Forget about the polls, what about shame? Seriously, Governor, stop the political calculations and own up to the moral failure that photo represents. And do the right thing: resign.
I’m asking YOU, all the other politicians who are excusing away blackface as something you did when you were young and naive. You weren’t that young. You knew it was wrong, racist, despicable. Shame!
I’m asking YOU, Jeff Bezos, richest man in the world. Cheating on your wife, sending selfies of yourSELF to your flame, and now you want people to think you are a hero for standing up to a blackmailer? Have you no shame?
I’m asking YOU, Jill Abramson — yes you, former New York Times editor. Plagiarism is a serious intellectual crime, and not just a few simple “mistakes.” Have you no shame, madam?
I’m asking YOU, Brett Kavanaugh, now Justice of the Supreme Court. Now that you are safely ensconced in your robes and high chambers for life, do you ever have a moment of feeling shame for what we learned about you at the hearing? Or is your capacity to feel shame dead, anesthetized by the power and privilege and protection you now have?
I’m not bothering to ask Donald Trump, I know the answer. But in the Trump era, we have come to witness the Death of Shame, an old-fashioned idea that once helped normal adults to restrain their own behaviors and keep outlandish actors from seizing power. In a byegone era — say, when Wilbur Mills was chasing Fanne Foxe around the Tidal Basin — a politician caught on tape bragging about assaulting women (as in the Access Hollywood tapes) went into early retirement. Or a leader caught in thousands of lies every day, every week and month, would not have lasted very long.
But in the Trump era, there is no shame, only polls, only political calculations about how long it takes for the tsunami of outrage to crest, for the ebb tide to sweep away the evidence of shameful misconduct. Given the incessant cresting of the news cycle these days, the most shameful behavior lasts only nanoseconds before being swept away by new revelations about someone else.
Yes, it is true, we have seen the most insouciant rejection of shame in other presidents and other eras. Bill Clinton’s famous claim that he did not have sex with “that woman” might have been one of the all-time most shameless statements by a president about his truly shameful misconduct. Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” was shameless, brazen, and ultimately belied by the truth of his maudlin resignation speech.
But in our current era, something has happened to the normal restraints on most adult behavior, a deterioration of the firewalls that would normally stop shameful misconduct, or upon discovery of such misconduct (e.g., blackface and klan pix in a college yearbook) would normally result in a loss of power and prestige.
Instead, in the Trump era, exposure of bad acts seems to lead to brazen defiance followed by a torrent of rhetoric some of which is untrue, most of which is simply a torrent of words with no real meaning other than to get past the news cycle.
The Death of Shame results in three truly evil collateral diseases:
First, the End of Ethics as any kind of reasonable moral guide for both public and private conduct. By anesthetizing any real conscience about the impact of personal acts, public officials have fewer restraints on their conduct, leading to the potential for even worse abuses of power and position.
Second, the endless news about ugly cases of shameful conduct by public persons has a deadening effect on the conscience of the society, itself. As we read about, hear about, more and more cases of famous or powerful people engaging in the most ugly sorts of conduct, we tune it out, look the other way, slowly come to accept the abnormal as very, very normal, even requisite for powerful people. Social fragmentation is hastened when the fundamental ethical principles of our lives erode.
Third, perhaps the worst consequence, the rising generations come to see shameless behavior as acceptable and even desirable. If the president of the United States lies constantly, how can we teach kids about truth? If a leading journalist commits plagiarism in a book and defends it mightily, how can we teach our students that plagiarism is completely unacceptable. If the powerful Amazon creator sends those kinds of pics, why not a teenage boy? If a justice of the Supreme Court engaged in drunken misconduct and sexually abused women in his younger days, how can we convince the future leaders of our nation that this behavior is simply wrong?
Yes, Virginia, YOU are a mess right now in so many ways, though you are not alone. But you are a real case study. Your lack of shame, your denial of historical truths, your claims to rehabilitation while tolerating the most shameful forms of racist expression are a disgrace to our nation. Your leaders have betrayed our values, and no amount of television interviews and newspaper columns and apology tours can make up for the fundamental lack of shame in their response to this crisis.
I am not commenting right now on the situation with Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax because we await more on the facts. But if he is at all guilty of what his accusers say, then he, too, must go — and shame on him if his defense is a lie. But also — and here is the real test for Virginia right now — shame on Virginia if Northam gets a pass while Fairfax gets grilled. BOTH men face terrible scandals, and both must do the right thing to atone for what they have done. I have no patience with those who say it’s a political calculus blue-red thing. It’s about ethics and what’s right. Shame on those who don’t understand that.