Anti-Shame League holds its annual bash

In the spring of 1980 in Boston there was a murder trial of a notorious pair of thugs, ghetto low-lifes who had raped, murdered and robbed a young nurse in her own home. At the trial, the prosecutor asked one of the murderers about a certain boombox, proved to be the nurse’s, that was in the man’s possession when he was arrested. The exchange went something like this:

Prosecutor: You took that boombox from her apartment.
Murderer: Yeah.
Prosecutor: But when you were arrested, you said that it was your boombox.
Murderer: It is mine.

Now that is what the absence of shame looks like.

For a more recent example of brazen shamelessness, we have the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association.

At the dinner in 2004, George W.Bush pointedly ridiculed the sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines who had been killed in the Iraq war. The audience howled with laughter. He then went on to mock the children who had been left fatherless or motherless, and especially the Iraqi children who had been orphaned, killed, or blinded, burned, castrated or maimed in the war. The audience laughed and laughed, tears streaming down their faces. He concluded by insulting the people of the United States of America in whose name he had done all this rapine and murder; the audience rose to its feet in enthusiastic applause.

That spectacle pretty much showed that the attendees of the White House Correspondents Dinner were about as shameless as the murderer in Boston. Nevertheless, one man made a final brave attempt to look for any humanity that might have been lurking, hiding, in the bosom of the people who would debase themselves by taking part in this disgusting spectacle.

At the dinner two years ago, Stephen Colbert, in his role as invited entertainer for the evening, pointed out that Bush and his cohort were unelected, ignorant, authoritarian warmongers and criminals; that indeed they were a threat to the continuation of our country as a constitutional republic. He also pointed out that the members of the audience whose job it was to inform the public had betrayed the people’s trust and in fact become a part of the junta’s propaganda machine. His talk was not well received, at least by those in attendance.

Colbert made it clear that the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’s Association was no place for decent people. Speaking for myself, I have more respect for people who attend Ku Klux Klan rallies and neo-Nazi gatherings, for at least those people have some measure of honesty about what they stand for.

At the dinner last year, in a pointed rebuke of Colbert and the rest of us who care about this country, David Gregory, the correspondent for defense contractor GE/NBC, did a comedy routine with the traitor Karl Rove. The audience approved. And that was about as big a “fuck you” as can be imagined to any patriotic Americans hopeful that Colbert had shamed some decency into these hacks and whores and millionaire poseurs.

So last night they had their dinner again. Craig Fergusson was the entertainer, and presumably he said something mildly amusing and humane; that’s what he does. Maybe I’m a softie, but I won’t condemn him for going before these lickspittle pukes. He’s an optimistic fellow who came back from alcohol addiction, so he knows of personal redemption and maybe he thought he could succeed where Colbert had failed. But I certainly won’t watch his performance at the dinner, with cameras panning to Bush, his wife, and the disgusting biped bovines in tuxedos and evening gowns sitting around fancy tables in the audience. I would rather drink a bucket of pus.

Over on Doxos a little while back, Lee Malatesta—an Orthodox Christian who knows Latin and Ancient Greek & who likes to write about deep theology, especially where Hellenistic philosophy meets Christianity—had a nice post about the idea of shame as a social regulator from Plato until recently, when it seems to have disappeared.

Go give it a read. It’s a lot more interesting than the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner.


  1. Good points. It drives me nuts when a politician answers for his social crimes with the claim that, “No laws were broken.”

    I don’t suppose, though, that in the whole history of civilization, politicians, the press, and the population at large has suddenly decided for the first time to abandon shame. We are not that special.

    But I am concerned that the force of shame may have been steadily eroded by a view that I hold very dear. I feel that that the single most significant movement of the last five hundred years is relativism. I define this as behavior (social, scientific, legal, etc.) that is informed by an understanding that there is something dynamic and observable that matters other than ourselves.

    As valuable to progress as this idea is, and as noble as it is, I fear that politicians (who may understand relativism more deeply than anyone) may be using it avoid shame and to get away with murder. We should not accept “No laws were broken,” but should hold our leaders to a much higher standard. Maybe relativism is somehow weakening that?

  2. John: thanks for the shout out, and the provocative piece.

    Howard: at first read it seems like your understanding of relativism would increase shame rather than result in a reduction of shame at the societal level. Shame only works if something matters outside the self as per Johnny’s quote from the trial transcript, a lack of shame reduces almost entirely to complete self-absorption.

  3. I’m a fan of the band Jane’s Addiction, but in a lot of songs they articulate this shameless, or “relativistic” (in Howard’s sense) world view.

    In “Been caught stealing”, a song that extols the joy of shoplifting, they sing, “Hey alright, if I get by, it’s mine, mine all mine.”

    In “Ain’t no right” they sing, “there ain’t no wrong and ain’t no right, there’s only pleasure and pain.”

    This relates to what Howard says about what politicians imply: “Ain’t no wrong and ain’t no right, there’s only legal and illegal.”

    If we think back to the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton’s defense was clearly “ain’t no wrong and ain’t no right, there’s only legal and illegal.” The Ken Starr/Republican impeachment point of view was slightly different: “There ain’t no wrong, ain’t no right; there ain’t no legal or illegal. There’s only win and lose.”

    However, I do think Clinton felt shame. That’s what led him to put up his denials for so long, especially to his wife.

    That’s about as deep as I can go on this subject for now.

  4. Oh, one more comment I forgot.

    Jane’s Addiction writes songs that are intended to be provacative; they shouldn’t be taken at face value.

    In several of their other songs they are shrill and moralistic, hectoring people for being racist or conformist or whatever. In those songs they very clearly adopt the point of view that there is such a thing as right and wrong. But they’re rockers (great rockers!), so they by tradition & whatever, adopt the rocker/rebel pose. You can’t do rockaroll without at least pretending to be a rebel of some sort. To do otherwise is what my friend eann likes to call “a category error.”

  5. John:

    I fell in love with Jane’s addiction when I first saw the cover of “Nothing’s Shocking.” I would think the cover of that album combined with the album title would clue most people into their sense of irony. And while I have always read some of their lyrics (`Been Caught Stealing’ is a good example) as an ironic take on disgraceful behavior, I do think it is part of their nature to revel in that which many people think shameful which they do not. As you mention, it’s de rigeur for rock and roll to do such.

    The further irony is that if there were truly no shame left, Jane’s Addiction (and other rockers) would have nothing left to rebel against. Without norms, there can be no rebellion.

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