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 Simpsons. 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 work.

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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 Enterprise, 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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