As the author of a book about honor, I claim a certain standing to comment on Bret Stephens’s column in The New York Times attempting to draw a contrast between the late Charles Van Doren, a man who was publicly shamed for his participation in the quiz show cheating scandal of sixty years ago, and (who else?) Donald Trump. The column is headed “Trump and the Annihilation of Shame,” presumably because Mr. Stephens thinks our president can be blamed for that “attempted annihilation”—along, of course, with many, many other things. And yet he also shows that he knows the death of shame long antedates the administration of the current chief executive:
Had Van Doren come along a few decades later, there would have been no big scandal in fabricating reality and no great shame in participating in it. The lines between fame and infamy would have blurred, and both could be monetized. Personal disgrace might have been explained away as a form of victimization by a greedy corporation, an unloving parent, systemic social forces—or with the claim, possibly true, that nearly everybody does it.
But then there is this weaselly transition:
The contrast between then and now is worth pondering in the Age of Trump—an age whose signature feature isn’t populism or nationalism or any other -ism widely attached to the president. It’s the attempted annihilation of shame. Shame is neither sin nor folly. It’s what people are supposed to feel in the commission, recollection, or exposure of sin and folly.
In days bygone, the prescribed method for avoiding shame was behaving well. Or, if it couldn’t be avoided, feeling deep remorse and performing some sort of penance.
By contrast, the Trumpian method for avoiding shame is not giving a damn.
The death of shame long antedates the administration of the current chief executive.
As if Donald Trump had invented shamelessness! On the contrary, in a media environment that is all scandal, all the time, the president has taken the only course available to any victim of the media’s scandal-mongering—that is, pretty much any Republican and many Democrats who are unprotected by a scandal-proof identity, such as trans, gay, black or Muslim—which is to appeal, not without success, to a scandal-weary public not to give a damn.
Mr. Stephens is also wrong about the prescribed method for avoiding shame, which could never have been “behaving well” (i.e. irreproachably), at least for those of us whose lives fall somewhat short of the saintly. In those bygone days, the only “prescribed method” of avoiding shame that was of any practical use to those who are not morally unimpeachable (which, apart from those in the media elite, includes most of us) was keeping it quiet, shame being (unlike guilt) a public emotion. The media used to understand this, and, in days so far bygone as to have allowed them to harbor some gentlemanly qualities, they would often cooperate with public men (they were, after all, mostly men in those days) who wanted to keep things quiet—as they did, for example, with President Kennedy and his many sexual intrigues as well as his parlous state of health.
The other thing that has killed off shame is its now obviously partisan usages.
Obviously, those days are very far bygone indeed. For the other thing that has killed off shame is its now obviously partisan usages. When only one side of the political divide is subject to shaming, it ceases to be shame anymore and becomes tantamount to mere calumny. Though the media reported some of the many Hillary Clinton scandals in 2016, they always resisted reporting them as scandals, so far as they were able. Like James Comey, they could always give her intentions the benefit of the doubt. Nobody ever wrote about her as having attempted “the annihilation of shame,” though it is certainly arguable that she has a better title to that dubious distinction than Mr. Trump. It was the same with Barack Obama, only more so. He is actually written of by the allegedly non-partisan media as having run a “scandal-free administration”—proof, if proof were needed, that nothing is scandalous until the media says it is. And then anything can be scandalous.
If some benevolent deity granted me the media’s power to decide what is scandal and what is not, I would put at the top of the list of scandalous behaviors the kind of impugning of the motives of those who disagree with him that Mr. Stephens is guilty of in the same column, when he writes that “It was once the useful role of conservatives to resist these sorts of trends—to stand athwart declining moral standards, yelling Stop”:
They lost whatever right they had to play that role when they got behind Trump, not only acquiescing in the culture of shamelessness but also savoring its fruits. Among them: Never being beholden to what they said or wrote yesterday. Never holding themselves to the standards they demand of others. Never having to say they are sorry.
Trump-supporting conservatives—the self-aware ones, at least—justify this bargain as a price worth paying in order to wage ideological combat against the hypostatized evil left. In fact it only makes them enablers in the degraded culture they once deplored. What Chicago prosecutor Kim Foxx is to Smollett, they are to Trump.
There, ladies and gentlemen, if there are any of you left, you may behold a man who has lost the power of political reasoning in the excitement of hopping on board the media’s thrill ride of the argumentum ad scandalum. It’s the kind of argument you can never lose because it presupposes at the outset your own position of moral unassailability. Like so many NeverTrumpers, Mr. Stephens is incapable of recognizing that “acquiescing in the culture of shamelessness” is not optional anymore, at least not for anyone who continues to read his newspaper, or that “shame” takes two: the shamer as well as the shamed. The media’s appointment of themselves to the position of our forever unshamable shamers-in-chief is what has killed off real shame—Charles Van Doren’s sort of shame—not Donald Trump.