The Shaming Sham

Punishment, ostracism, humiliation," thundered Tory essayist
and avowed high-cholesterol gourmand Digby Anderson, slamming
his fist onto the table. It was an unusual discussion panel I
had stumbled upon at the Sheraton Washington Hotel in March 1994.
National Review Institute, the in-house think tank of conservatism's
flagship periodical, was holding a summit conference on "Challenges
to Conservatism," and this panel held forth on the ailments
of modern culture. English conservatives, like their American
brethren, apparently see little but ailments. Anderson, the
founder of the Social Affairs Unit, a London-based research institute,
was certain he had the cure.

Art by Taylor JonesHe would publish his bile the following year as part of a collection
he edited for National Review's press. Titled This Will
Hurt: The Restoration of Virtue and Civic Order
, the book's
brutally proscriptive tone, its chillingly precise descriptions
of how to deal with violators of proper social order, suggested
an eighties-era Saturday Night Live skit, "The Anal
Retentive Chef." But even a parody could not come up with
chapters like "Administering Punishment Morally, Publicly,
and Without Excuse," "Uniformity, Uniforms, and the
Maintenance of Adult Authority," and "Ostracism and
Disgrace in the Maintenance of a Precarious Social Order."
Gertrude Himmelfarb's preface set the tone: "It is evident
that we are suffering from a grievous moral disorder. . . . And
that moral pathology requires strenuous moral purgatives and restoratives."

American acolytes of such collectivist tough love might not recommend
to the decadent West the strategy of Afghanistan's theocratic
government, where adulterers face a public execution by stoning
in a mosque courtyard. Still, Senator Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican,
who favors public hangings as a deterrent to street crime, wouldn't
feel that to be completely out of place. Neither would former
Education Secretary William Bennett, who once said he is not "morally
opposed" to public beheadings of convicted drug dealers.


Having lost the battles for government censorship, conservatives
had to find some other way to stigmatize cultural enemies into
feckless mush. Enter moral censorship, the New Ostracism, or simply,
shame. It's the preferable alternative to official censorship,
and it works—or, at least, that's what its champions would have
the public believe. Candidate Bob Dole frequently called upon
filmmakers and television producers to feel a "decent sense
of shame"; popular conservative author and socialite Arianna
Huffington coined the term "shamership" for precisely
this end; Newsweek devoted its February 6, 1995, cover
story to the subject of "shame."

By now the charges have hardened into editorial cant. Our culture
is "coarsened." Hollywood and other media messengers
are bombarding Americans with gratuitous sex and violence. The
nuclear family is an endangered species. "Increasingly .
. . individualism has gone awry, veering from self-reliance to
self-indulgence," writes columnist Jay Ambrose. "Some
Americans, it sometimes seems, can't differentiate liberty from
libertinism." A certain desperation seems to have set in
among these social critics. In its November issue, the conservative
magazine First Things sponsored a symposium that included
such luminaries as Robert Bork and Charles Colson. The theme was
that America, long in the hands of alien forces within, may be
so far gone as to require a revolution. Colson prayed it would
not have to be violent—a sign, perhaps, that his Watergate days
are not quite fully behind him.

The principal tool of their revolution is shame, for little else
has sufficed. The election has given us four more years of Bill
Clinton. A reduced welfare state, while desirable, won't deter
the wealthy Unassimilated Other ("Hollywood") who don't
need welfare in the first place. Philanthropy, even if guided
by conservatives, can with hold, but cannot punish. Legal censorship,
though needed in measured doses, is not feasible. Short of violence,
shame is the best way to control errant behavior. "Where
shame recovers vitality, the fear of shame can be a regulator
of social conduct," wrote Michigan State University political
philosopher William Allen in This Will Hurt.

But here's the rub: Shame is an expression of collective will.
It is not simple opposition, however vociferous, to someone who
is objectionable. Author P.J. O'Rourke, with his periodic (and
not quite entirely facetious) Enemies Lists, may seek to stigmatize
those dreaded Birkenstock-wearing liberals who eat low-calorie
yogurt and listen to National Public Radio. But as a muckraker,
he needs some heavy-duty help. Shame enables communities to let
oddballs know there is nowhere to run or hide. That means, by
extension, each member not only must avoid shameful behavior,
but also must join the ritual punishment of offenders. In a culture
war, slackers need not apply. The challenge is to find people—moral
censors—with the will to lead such efforts.

Censors everywhere take an interest in culture mainly to rid every
medium of expressions of immodesty. Today's censors are as clueless
as their ancestors, save for their application of a faux-scientific
"content analysis" better suited to the news than to
the arts. Roughly speaking, that means conservative researchers
train and pay people to watch television, and tote up the number
of positive and negative references to the family, capitalism,
and the military on ten randomly selected episodes of the The
That way, L. Brent Bozell, III, chairman of the
conservative watchdog group the Media Research Center, can throw
red meat to activists and grouse: "During the so-called family
hour, the depictions of sex outside of marriage outnumber those
of it within marriage by a factor of 8 to 1." This is the
sort of arid "cultural" perspective that cares not a
whit for films with Woody Allen or Hugh Grant but very much about
their stars' insufficient repentance for offscreen peccadilloes,
always with the tantalizing possibility of driving them out of

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Culture-war propaganda, which is all war and no culture, is descended
loosely from the neoconservatives' appropriation of Karl Marx's
idea of capitalism as its own gravedigger. In devolved propagandistic
form, however, its already shaky arguments lack even a modicum
of subtlety, something mirrored in its choice of political language.
Routinely, these warriors of the right describe contemporary American
culture with metaphors such as "sludge," "raw sewage,"
and "pollution." What we need are, as George Will would
put it, "moral environmentalists." Pat Robertson has
referred to American institutions as being run by termites, adding
that the time has arrived for a "godly fumigation."

It won't help to poke fun at hyperbolic accusations and wildly
exaggerated fears like these. Nor is there point in telling moral
environmentalists that their tactics mimic the political correctness
of the far left—an authoritarian mindset many conservatives (myself
included) relentlessly attacked only a few years ago. Yet it can
do some good to explain why peddling fear, conformity, repression,
disgrace, and humiliation as instruments of social control not
only will strategically backfire, but may also open the door to
more pernicious activities by the state.

While pledging all due allegiance to the Bill of Rights,
the new moral crusaders say that fear of ostracism, blacklisting,
or a boycott is an efficient, "market-based" prod for
self-policing within the artistic community. (How convenient that
the free market and moral righteousness should be mutually reinforcing!)
John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a think tank
based in Raleigh, North Carolina, offered the following defense
of William Bennett and Charlton Heston's (successful) campaign
to shame Time Warner into selling its stake in the perfidious
Interscope Records: "Bennett and Heston never called for
government action. Their chosen means of affecting corporate decision
making were boycott threats and public shaming, both perfectly
acceptable modes of discourse in a free society," he wrote
in the July 1996 issue of Reason magazine.

Conservatives don't have the monopoly on this kind of thinking.
Even generally liberal (or at least neoliberal) commentators like
Jonathan Alter, writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, would
have us believe there is a nice, clean philosophical line separating
the censorship practiced by government through law and the censorship
practiced by the private sector. Writes Alter: "Wal-Mart
is not saying you can't make a CD full of explicit sex or gangster
garbage; it's simply saying Wal-Mart won't sell it. Huge difference."
The argument that groups acting outside of the political system
have the right to set standards for decency and appropriate behavior
also finds a voice in the communitarian movement, whose advocates
include scholars (such as Michael Sandel) and political intellectuals
(such as Amitai Etzioni) most observers would describe as progressive.

Yet private censorship doesn't look so harmless when you start
to apply it. Sure, reflexive boycotts and shaming crusades by
committees of cut-rate Comstocks technically fall within the realm
of free speech. But moral censorship has a capacity to intrude
upon a person's privacy that no bureaucracy, federal or otherwise,
can match. John Stuart Mill recognized more than a century ago
why morally mobilized citizens, on the lookout for enemies, are
society's ultimate censors. The informal social mandate, he observed,
"practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds
of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such
extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating
much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul
itself." Protection against the tyranny of the magistrate
would not be enough. Needed as well would be protection against
"the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling"
that, as its goal, would "compel all characters to fashion
themselves upon the model of its own."

Filmmaker Oliver Stone, a bête noire of America's shamers,
knows this. He has pointed out, rightly, that shaming at heart
is McCarthyist. Senator Joe McCarthy never disavowed the First
Amendment; he instead favored bullying political and cultural
enemies into "behaving," or, failing that, he drove
them out of work. That's the main idea behind shaming in any era:
to break the nonconformist's spirit, instill in him self-loathing,
and induce him to turn on his former comrades-in-arms. Art by Taylor JonesA "shameful"
person is less a criminal than one who hasn't cooperated with
his putative moral betters, as clinical psychologist Robert Karen
notes. "(S)hame itself is less clearly about morality than
about conformity, acceptability, or character. To be ashamed is
to expect rejection, not so much of what one has done as because
of what one is," he writes. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, writing in
This Will Hurt, argues for shaming illegitimate children,
surely a grotesque example of applying scarlet letters to social
status rather than behavior.

Never mind that the cultural conservatives say it takes Mom and
Dad, not a village, to raise a child—they're interested in the
village too. University of Houston political scientist Ross Lence,
in This Will Hurt, argues that families have broken down
because modern cities cannot provide the reputation-shattering
gossip found in smaller communities. Can suburbs, at least, create
a healthy moral climate? Probably not, argues Karl Zinsmeister,
writing in the November-December 1996 issue of the American
, because their physical design precludes vigilant
neighbors from acting in loco parentis. "In traditional communities,"
he observed, "neighbors watch for trouble and offer aid and
encouragement to families. Children are expected to take direction
respectfully from all adults. Relations between parents and offspring,
and between husbands and wives, are subject to informal social
regulation. If mistreatment or neglect occurs, ostracism and sanctions
will come from the whole community." From such a standpoint,
it takes a grid-style block to raise a child.

Of course, cultural conservatives usually balk about what
to do about those pesky nonjoiners, but sometimes, among ostensibly
friendly company, they let their guard down. I can recall a ghastly
conversation I had in the early 1990s with a fellow Heritage Foundation
policy analyst (who shall remain anonymous) on the subject of
MTV. The network was a menace to the American family, he averred,
but he noted a new technology (the V-chip) could enable parents
to shield their children. I suggested in return that not all parents
would be interested in such a contraption, and in fact some might
even enjoy MTV. Chuckling and nodding his head, he responded:
"We'll find out who these people are, and deal with them
accordingly." He was not clear as to what he meant by "deal."
I asked him if old-fashioned censorship would work. "I suppose
it's too late for that," he answered. Too late! The implication
was clear. If only we'd nipped Lenny Bruce, Hugh Hefner, William
Burroughs, and Bob Dylan in the bud, the counterculture never
would have grown out of control.

This leads to the second fatal design flaw of the campaign for
moral censorship. Cultural conservatives would have people believe
that shame merely substitutes for official censorship. They don't
want to be faced with the messy possibility that it leads to,
and reinforces, censorship. Try this quick exercise: Ask a "nice"
cultural conservative what he or she would do if moral censorship
fails to achieve its purpose. Shame, after all, only can transform
people with the capacity and willingness to feel it. The typical,
nervous response will be something on the order of, "Well,
maybe some government censorship would work, though I wouldn't
want to overdo it." It never occurs to such people that honest
artists and intellectuals resent "some" censorship,
and just might fight back to prevent more to come. Bassist Krist
Novoselic, who played for the band Nirvana and is an active lobbyist
against censorship, is not the only person to observe that the
mind of the censor starts at the "weird" edges of creativity,
and gradually works its way toward the center.

In a perverse way, we owe a debt of gratitude to such paladins
of the radical right as the American Enterprise Institute's Robert
Bork and Irving Kristol. They freely admit official censorship
must accompany the moral kind. The eighth chapter of Bork's most
recent book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, is titled "The
Case for Censorship"—as in government censorship. Obsessed
with rooting out "filth" from everyday life, he acknowledges
the "tactical necessity" of shamership a la Bob Dole
and Bill Bennett, but then makes clear the unpleasant duty ahead.
"Is censorship really as unthinkable as we all seem to assume?"
he asks. "That it is unthinkable is a very recent conceit.
From the earliest colonies on this continent over 300 years ago,
and for about 175 years of our existence as a nation, we endorsed
and lived with censorship." For good measure, Bork adds,
"By now we should have gotten over the liberal notion that
its citizens' characters are none of the business of government."
Meanwhile, Bork's AEI colleague, Irving Kristol (the husband of
Gertrude Himmelfarb), weighs in with this blast at the film industry:
"Censorship, some will say, is immoral—though no moral code
of any society that has yet existed has ever deemed it so. And
it is authoritarian. . . . (G)overnment, at various levels, will
have to step in to help the parents. The difficult question is
just how to intervene."


All this naive zeal suggests a national campaign—notwithstanding
the avowed fondness for devolving political authority back to
the states and local government. The conservative fight is to
save all of America, and more than ever the entertainment and
communications industries cross political borders in this age
of the Internet, cable television, and satellite dishes. Controlling
the nexus of commerce and culture requires central direction—a
White House culture czar, perhaps.

In this light, champions of shamership like Hood and Huffington
are the "good" part of a bad cop-good cop interrogation
team. Neither type of moral cop exhibits a glint of political
wisdom, a vague sense of having absorbed a basic lesson of Hobbes,
Mill, Kafka, or Camus that a climate of moral interrogation reinforces,
rather than obviates, a popular longing for authoritarian strongmen.

Neither type seems to grasp that intimidating citizens into self-censorship
is the very stuff of political tyrants everywhere.

Moral conflict in politics is inevitable. And American conservatives
have raised valid moral issues; there's no sense painting a happy
face on drive-by shootings, crack addiction, or an estimated $40-billion-a-year's
worth of telemarketing fraud. But their critique goes well beyond
that, in their selective, highly charged use of facts, and in
their touting of moral vigilantism as the price one pays to restore
a supposedly lost normalcy. The arts, most of all, would suffer
from politicization. Cultural conservatives, in a real sense,
are today's Maoists, working to arrange a marriage of politics
and culture into "uplifting" party-line agitprop. David
Gelernter, computer scientist and cultural critic, is quite smitten
with the idea of establishing a conservative museum of culture.
As a carrot, the notion is as silly as a Marxist museum.

There has always been—and always will be—disagreement about the
limits of free expression and thought. But whatever one's views
on these matters, the point is that censorship through shaming
isn't so different from the legal kind; it should be viewed with
similar skepticism, and combated with similar zeal. Let us be
frank here: Prominent figures in culture, commerce, and politics
are going to have to play hardball with censorship-minded conservatives.
To their credit, some cyberspace leaders are not taking the moral
thuggery lightly. "We're not going to censor down to the
lowest common denominator. We let people make choices," says
America Online's CEO and president Steve Case. He knows that moral
censors don't like people to have choices, which is why they practically
ran over each other to support the Communications Decency Act,
which a panel of federal judges had the abundant good sense to
block from taking effect (this past December the Supreme Court
agreed to review the case). Too bad the television industry didn't
show more courage in resisting the spate of calls for tough, "voluntary"
program ratings.

What is the likely result of this moral-legal crusade?
What sort of bridge is it building for America's twenty-first
century? A few strong hints can be gleaned from authoritarian
paradises like Indonesia, Chile, and Singapore. Prosperity and
fear coexist in those places—and conservatives like it that way.
If none have artists and intellectuals of real significance (at
least who can show their faces in public), families are protected.
That's what really counts, right? Singapore has held out special
promise for American virtuecrats, ever since it followed through
on its promise to administer a brutal caning to a young American
petty vandal, lending vivid meaning to the phrase, "This
will hurt." Cal Thomas and Pat Buchanan, among other prominent
conservatives, endorsed the punishment as the lad's just desserts.
Thomas a few years earlier had praised Singapore's ban on the
importation of Guns 'N Roses's Use Your Illusion double-CD
release. That kind of tough talk may not exactly be fascism, but
in America it's a fair imitation.

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