Shame, Come Back!

Really good article by Neal Gabler in Politico today. In How conservatives lost their moral compass, America’s Republicans, Gabler writes, have decided that shame is some sort of liberal plot designed to hobble tough, robust Conservatism. Hence, Perry’s unseemly boast about his record-setting execution numbers. And Paul’s (theoretical) condemning of an uninsured 30-year-old man to death if he can’t pay for medical care.

As Gabler notes, the crowds at the debates cheer for this sort of nastiness.

An excerpt:

American history can be read as a series of episodes in which we reached what could be called a “tipping point” of shame — when our behavior became so egregious that we, as a people, decided to desist from our worst excesses, whether it was slavery or antipathy to immigrants.

Take civil rights. The majority of Americans, even outside the South, might originally have had little real enthusiasm for the civil rights movement. Most urged patience. It was only after the public saw the beatings during the Freedom Rides, the firehoses and police dogs at Selma and the church bombing in Birmingham that Americans were shamed into accepting the claims of African-Americans to equal justice under the law. Shame was the moralizing force.

Shame also defeated the hatred of Father Charles Coughlin, the famous “radio priest” who laid the Great Depression at the feet of Jewish international bankers, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who recklessly accused his critics of communist treachery. Both had reached that tipping point at which ordinary Americans felt these provocateurs had gone too far. Americans felt shamed.

There is a reason we have never previously had a hatemonger like Rush Limbaugh enjoy popularity for as long as he has. The reason was shame. You couldn’t find enough people, let alone a broadcaster, who wanted to be identified with that sort of viciousness. The initial enthusiasm for it eventually waned.

But that was then. Surely when a group can publicly cheer a man’s death for not having health insurance, the sense of shame is gone. It faded not only because liberals had subverted it by casting it as a conservative scheme to corset society, but because conservatives managed to delegitimize it. They attacked it as yet another elitist scheme, contrived to neuter strong conservatism.

Great stuff. I highly recommend reading it. I would only add that Gabler could be a little more inclusive.

I would stop short of saying this shamelessness is shared equally by liberals, but you’re not paying attention if you don’t see it across the political spectrum. Consider how giggly  the Secretary of State became when she sat down with Diane Sawyer to have a Just-Us-Girls chat about the death of Gaddafi (“We Came We Saw He Died”), or Obama’s joking about using predator drones to assassinate the Jonas Brothers. Ha-ha. You thought he was joking? Nope. Sixteen-year-old boys in foreign lands are legitimate targets these days. Or maybe not. Maybe Awlaki’s son, vaporized as he sat down to eat with some friends, was “collateral damage.” Obama won’t say,  because he doesn’t have to ask permission, and he doesn’t have to explain.

I wrote in an earlier post about the giddiness I notice when politicians like Madame Clinton play at being tough guys. In the last week, Ice T said she should be the next president and brought the tough-guy schtick to an entirely new level:

She did the Secretary of State job, she was a G, she held it down, she didn’t cry.

Set aside for a moment the patronizing “she didn’t cry.” This is a shout-out from Ice-T! Hillary Clinton an honorary “G”! I’m pretty sure that HuffPost piece has been printed out and taped up somewhere conspicuous at the Secretary’s office. Did it gave Hillary and her staffers another case of the giggles and high-fives all-around? I have a feeling it did.

True, the Democrats do not seem to revel in cold-heartedness (theirs is still a little school-marmish, “it’s for your own good” affect–see Albright, M.),  but let’s look at the bipartisan coldness that is at large in the land.

Start by taking a look at Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on our sprawling, and growing, prison complex, and the ugly fact that, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.”

Is that only the product of Republican mean-spiritedness? I think not. Is it possible for a situation like the one described by Gopnik to exist without broad support from politicians of all stripes?

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

As Gopnik notes, the fact that we’re sticking millions of our citizens down a hole for decades at a time is just the beginning. Absurd numbers of prisoners are singled out for solitary confinement. The very existence of even one “Supermax” prison is pretty much enough to indict our culture as broadly vindictive, even sadistic. There are dozens of  prisons with Supermax wings, and I would venture to bet they are in districts represented by politicians of both parties.

And, if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, not only will you be locked up, you will be pretty much on your own vis a vis preventing yourself from being raped. This should be the subject of much outrage, right? Uh, no. Gopnik again.

Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing.

Again, I’m not rejecting Gabler’s point. There’s no question: the state of “conservative” discourse has changed into something that is unspeakably ugly to behold. The past months of virtually non-stop debates have put this fact on dramatic display (while at the same time setting the range of topics for whichever candidate emerges from this clown/monster show to debate Obama).

There are of course significant differences between the parties, but a similar agenda gets enacted no matter who wins. Bold prediction: It will be More War, More Austerity and More Prisons for the foreseeable future. Three things few voters are clamoring for. And you’ll have a hard time finding a politician of either party willing to apologize for (let alone be ashamed of) that state of affairs.

Shame, Come Back!

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