Mary Katharine Ham

Shame is a virtue—one of which we see entirely too little these days.

It’s an unpleasant emotion, yes, but it can yield great things. It can be what makes us take responsibility for wrongdoing, change old, bad habits and avoid falling into new ones. It can be what makes us see a mistake for what it is and never make it again. It used to be that if you couldn’t muster your own healthy sense of shame that society would make up for it in most cases by telling you when you should hang your head a bit.

Unfortunately, in today’s society, we spend so much time making sure no one is “stigmatized,” that we tend to forget that some things deserve a stigma. A good old-fashioned stigma can be useful.

An L.A. Times editorial claimed this week that criticizing Katrina refugees and Katrina conmen for spending their FEMA debit cards on strip clubs and vacations is tantamount to “blaming the victims.” Well, no.

No one is blaming the victims for the trauma they experienced, nor is anyone discounting FEMA’s role in facilitating the sloppy spending. But is it really too hard for us to say that spending the government’s money—or, more accurately, your fellow citizens’ tax money—on lap dances at Pure Gold in the wake of a national disaster is something folks should be ashamed of, legitimate victims or not?

To be sure, there is shame enough to heap some upon the government’s shoddy oversight, and I am never shy about doing that, but to claim that the victims get a free pass on personal responsibility simply because they are victims is to invite exactly such fraud again in the future.

Excusing fraud produces more fraud. We saw such a pattern play out this week in the fake-and-decidedly-inaccurate scoop from TruthOut’s Jason Leopold about Karl Rove’s imminent indictment. The indictment turned out to be non-existent, and Leopold’s investigative techniques deceitful. Nonetheless, Leopold stands by the story and TruthOut stands by Leopold.

Is there any doubt that this kind of dishonest reporting is partly a result of the lack of professional shame exhibited by the likes of Mary Mapes and Dan Rather? After their laughably sourced Texas Air National Guard hit piece on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, both journalists won prestigious Peabody awards for their work on another “60 Minutes II” piece. Neither has backed off of the assertion that the substance of the National Guard story was accurate even if the documents are questionable (or, as the rest of us call them—forgeries).

Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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