Shame is getting to be one of those words like “thrifty” and “discipline” that seems to smell a bit musty every time it’s pulled-out and glued down somewhere. Maybe what we need to do with some of these words is use them more often, such that the exposure to fresh air would dry out that dampness they take on waiting in the dark to be deployed. Or perhaps like old clothing, we grow or bulge out of certain things. When was the last time you tried on your “shame?”
I’m not talking about guilt. Without guilt, life as we know it would be impossible. So long, diet soda industry. Lose the ability to feel bad after committing adultery and half of television drama goes away. Certainly television after midnight would disappear. TV content in the early morning hours is mostly infomercials and at least half of those are about losing weight and dieting. What those TV spots play on is guilt. If they targeted shame by alleging that being overweight was actually wrong in a moral universe equipped with a scale … I think viewers would get angry, maybe sad, rather than be inspired to change.
Last week, the media’s 24/7 trolling for shame brought up two good-sized catches; large shame fish that wriggled and tossed about in the nets. There was the business with the rip-offs and scamming of the system at the GSA, and the Secret Service prostitution/drinking party/lax. I won’t try to guide you on your feelings but I will toss-in something pointed out to me by a friend that prostitution is legal in more places than we care to think about, such as Colombia.
There’s some trending in “shame” I find interesting. We seem to want our politicians and public servants to have intense reactions to shame. Yet, in a larger sense we seem to be losing our appetite for atonement and even our desire to shine a bright light on shame. We find the Bush-Cheney manipulations with alleged WMDs to be disgusting, but we don’t press for convictions or even seem to have appetite for holding anybody’s feet to the fire. As the film “Inside Job” illustrates, several enablers of the economic collapse are still busy working in the Obama administration. Almost as quickly as the fires at GSA and the Secret Service broke out, cooling water started flowing. The GSA has always been bulky and had these kinds of administrative problems; the Secret Service guys didn’t party when the President was actually in Colombia … the flames receded immediately.
Parallel these situations to incidents of (what at least looks like) shameful behavior in entertainment and you see even greater latitude. Is there any sort of official boycott against Mel Gibson? That situation has already flipped to Hollywood insiders suggesting that Gibson needs psychological care, you know, the kind post-war Germany empathetically offered-up to its grouchy and shouting anti-Semites. We slurp from our big delicious glasses of Lindsay Lohan, but at the end of the day we’re rooting for the kid to find her way back even if it involves stopping off for some nude photos. It’s as though we have the appetite for enjoying shame-related stories based on some residual ethical and even Puritanical mores, but that pointed part of us that used to follow-through on comeuppance has been ground down to a smooth nubbin by wave after wave of … well, what, exactly?
When a generation that had experimented with drugs began raising their own children, there was likely what we might call some softening of the cement. Throw into that overlapping eras of sexual liberation and self-exploration and you can see where things started to get hazy. We didn’t become less questioning, but I think our responses slowed. Our reaction time took longer and longer until it just about evaporated. Prosecute politicians for “war crimes?” Oh, yeah, definitely. But not this weekend. My kids have a huge soccer thing.
But all that may not be a bad thing. This column recently suggested that what has been afoot of late is resurgence in the old activism, with citizens of all ages on board for “Occupy” events, marches, rallies, and outspoken moments of discomfort for politicians at “Town Hall Meetings” about health care. I definitely believe that’s happening, and I’m counting on those who got off the sofa for Obama four years ago to do so again. But in day-to-day life, a shot of a GSA exec sitting in a hot tub or some fuzzy video of “hookers” in Colombia seems like we’re saving ourselves for the “big picture” stuff now and not taking the bait as often on these trendy news cycle indiscretions. And rather than slower responses, what we might be seeing is greater consideration before investing our emotions.
We were told that the logical next step in our “war on terror” was to invade Iraq. We invested the emotions that had been ignited by the events of 9/11, and now we know that we could have made more deliberate decisions. Those who stirred us back then, in service to their own agenda, will soon be telling us that we’ve gone down a wrong road and bet on the wrong guy. They will offer us instead a haircut that views service to America as buying up companies and laying-off workers so that investors can make money. Man, if we bite into that (expletive deleted) again, we won’t need news channels to serve-up any fresh “shame.” We’ll have plenty of our own.