Shame

Mary Katharine Ham

6/19/2006 12:05:00 AM - 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).

Leopold will undoubtedly use a version of the same argument, and he can hold out hope for success with his upcoming memoirs ala other should-be-ashamed notables as Jayson Blair and Jessica Cutler. Shamelessness can get you on the road to a very lucrative career these days.

Shame is almost always in short supply in the United States Congress, but that fact has become more obvious as bloggers and other citizens have begun paying closer attention to the way Congress spends money in the form of earmarks. These pesky citizens’ efforts have brought forth this jewel from Sen. Trent Lott:

“I’ll just say this about the so-called Porkbusters. I’m getting damn tired of hearing from them. They have been nothing but trouble ever since Katrina.”

Lousy constituents and their aversion to fraud and waste.

And, this from Rep. Jim Moran:

“When I become chairman [of a House appropriations subcommittee], I’m going to earmark the s—t out of it,” Moran buoyantly told a crowd of 450 attending the event.

Then there are Jesse Jackson and D.A. Mike Nifong, partners in shamelessness in the quickly unraveling Duke lacrosse rape case.

Jesse Jackson offered a full college scholarship to the alleged victim in the case, courtesy of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, even if her allegations prove false. In Jackson’s eyes, the victim should not only be unashamed of bringing false allegations on the Duke lacrosse team, but should be rewarded for it with college tuition. If the allegations are false, and the alleged victim gets her scholarship, I shudder to think what fraud that will encourage in the future.

And, Nifong, who so obligingly trumpeted his rock-solid case to the national press when the Duke story first broke—during the run-up to his primary election—has gone silent now that the case is beginning to look increasingly as if it were built on sand all along. He seems not to care that he may very well have tainted the presumption of innocence for the defendants and besmirched the reputations of all the lacrosse players who went uncharged.

Shame is not just an emotion. It has function. It can make us better and prevent future wrongdoing. In the future, all of these folks would be wise to remember that when someone asks, “Have you no shame?” the correct answer is not, “Why, no, I don’t. Thank you for noticing.”