Fred Upton

The Death of Shame

Is a sense of shame, embarrassment, fear at being discovered central to what makes us fully human? The old story in Genesis suggests so - (from the King James translation):

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. [...] And the serpent said [...] in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. [...] And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. [...] And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

The first emotion of the couple awakened by knowledge of good and evil was not joy, but shame. To be human is to err, to make mistakes. To do things that are truly embarrassing. It's part of who we are. But it is not just the mistake-making, it's recognizing those mistakes. To actually be embarrassed, to feel shame, to be afraid of the consequences of what we've done. If we routinely do stupid things but don't even recognize that we've done anything wrong, we're living a paradise of ignorance, a pre-fall state of unconscious bliss.

It's become clear to me this is the state which US political and media culture is aiming for. A return to the Garden of Eden, where nobody can do anything wrong, and it is impossible for any public figure to ever feel shame. Where the media has no ability and feels no responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil - except on those rare occasions where the bad guys are foreigners and everybody on our side can agree.

There are still occasional exceptions. Elliot Spitzer, briefly. You have to give the guy credit for disappearing from public view for a while after that business - and he was our governor too, a really powerful figure. He really, sincerely looked ashamed and embarrassed at the exposure of his sinful behavior. John Edwards is a worse story - and I and a lot of other people feel embarrassed about that one, I was a big supporter of the guy before his mess became public. But at least Edwards quit his campaign and really did look highly ashamed about his own behavior.

There have been a couple of minor congressmen resigning recently for stuff of that nature, but it seems to be pretty few and far between. Why is David Vitter still in the US Senate? John Ensign? Why did that Idaho senator and S. Carolina governor hang on until their terms ended? Yeah, yeah, Bill Clinton too. Though at least you could sort of feel his pain at times.

And those are just the sex scandals. When it comes to the more serious wrongdoing with respect to their actions in office, there seems to be no sense of shame at all, ever. John Murtha completely unrepentant. Charlie Rangel. Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and friends. Ted Stevens in Alaska. The many scandals of the Bush administration (and Reagan before). Did any of those folks every admit that anything they did was wrong? Did you notice how governor Walker of Wisconsin reacted when the recent prank Koch call became public?

I am sure that reality shows and celebrity obsessions are a contributing factor in our culture of shamelessness. Perhaps that form of popular entertainment is a real source of harm, but I am far more concerned about the harm done by the lack of recognition of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, among our political and media classes. It almost seems brazenness in the face of what to regular people would be highly embarrassing is an asset for politicians.

My evidence that we have now reached the pinnacle of shamelessness in US politics is this markup hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, held on Tuesday March 15th. The subject of the hearing was House Resolution 910, titled the "Energy Tax Prevention Act". The committee, chaired by Fred Upton, makes the claim that their work to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases will reduce gasoline prices.

Politifact examined Upton's claim on this and found it to be False. But at least the claim that regulations cause prices to rise and therefore is a little like a future "tax" (despite not involving taxes at all) has some rationale. So the bill title, while distorting the truth, isn't perhaps a completely implausible and blatant lie.

And one can understand that representatives might vote against something that on its face sounds like a good idea for legitimate reasons, or conversely for something that otherwise sounds like a terrible idea. Though the vote in committee on the final bill was pretty clearly against the facts of the matter, as this editorial in Nature put it:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the US Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness, a sad state of affairs in a country that has led the world in many scientific arenas for so long. Global warming is a thorny problem, and disagreement about how to deal with it is understandable. It is not always clear how to interpret data or address legitimate questions. Nor is the scientific process, or any given scientist, perfect. But to deny that there is reason to be concerned, given the decades of work by countless scientists, is irresponsible.

Worse than the title and distorted spin from the committee chair are the actual words uttered by some of our duly elected representatives during that hearing. This is not just an intellectual wilderness, this is a moral wilderness where completely provably false statements are just accepted, treated as legitimate points of view, where nobody needs to apologize for being wrong, ever.

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