The Absence of Shame
Lacking decency, Fox pundits and the GOP continue their lying ways. Will they be held accountable?
“Have you no sense of decency?” On June 9, 1954, Boston lawyer Joseph Welch uttered those searing words about Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that ended his virulent anti-communist campaign. This was nearly four years after McCarthy had destroyed the careers and lives of dozens, if not hundreds of people, claiming that communists had infiltrated the State Department and other federal agencies.
Welch, hired by the U.S. Army to defend itself against McCarthy’s attacks and confronted with McCarthy’s assertion that one of his attorneys was tied to a communist organization, fought back. "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Welch said in a nationally televised hearing, his anger rising. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"
The question hit like a rocket. McCarthy’s popularity evaporated. He was ostracized by his fellow senators. Soon, the media ignored him. Welch, in questioning McCarthy’s decency, had succeeded in shaming him. Within three years, Joseph McCarthy, a broken man and alcoholic, was dead.
Yes, this was nearly seven decades ago—another time, another seemingly quaint era, when it was possible to shame a man in power and end his nasty reign. The arrival of the Me Too movement, if not always shaming sex harassers and abusers, has convinced victims to speak up—“Have you no sense of decency?”—sometimes motivating corporations and law enforcement agencies to drive them out of power and charge their criminal behavior. The exposure of extreme behavior by such public figures as Tiger Woods (serial adultery) and Lance Armstrong (lying about using performance-enhancing drugs) also demonstrates that the experience of shame is still a real thing in some spheres with some people, especially when there’s a financial price to pay.
But then there’s Fox "News” and Tucker Carlson. Then there’s George Santos and Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert and Kevin McCarthy. Then there’s the Grand Old Party. Then there’s the grand daddy of them all, Donald Trump, who showed them that shamelessness is a powerful weapon that immunizes you from the burden of morality and can enhance your grifting operation. He’s still proving that there’s no need to apologize for bad, anti-social behavior, no need to resign or give up power, no need to stop lying if it’s working, no reason to take responsibility or expect to face real consequences.
On Tuesday Dominion Voting Systems released a second document filing from its defamation lawsuit against Fox, including texts sent by Tucker Carlson two days before the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and insurrection. “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” he texted. “I truly can’t wait.” And then he added this (the target of most of the headlines since its release): “I hate him passionately.”
Days after the election, Carlson also texted this about Trump, the man that he was publicly praising to his audience: “What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that.”
Such newly exposed private observations have not changed Carlson’s tune. Nope, he was on air Wednesday this week insisting that the Jan. 6 mob was “mostly peaceful,” mostly “sightseers” who were “orderly and meek” and “revere” the Capitol. (Over 1,000 have been arrested and criminally charged so far.) Forget apologizing for his own lies to his viewers, he used his megaphone to shamelessly decry liars and provide a lesson on what lying is all about.
“People who are telling the truth are calm,” he told his viewers in discussing the surveillance tapes that he was given exclusively by Kevin McCarthy and the blowback to his false narrative. “If honest people turn out to be wrong about something, they’ll admit it. They don’t double-down on false…Liars behave differently. Liars are touchy, sometimes to the point of hysteria. They are hiding something—that’s the whole point of lying—and they’re worried you’re going to find out what it is. Liars are fragile, because over time lying makes you weak and afraid.”
No embarrassment, no shame, no expression of remorse for having lied to millions of his viewers who were convinced by him and his fellow propagandists that the election was stolen and Donald Trump is the rightful occupant of the White House—even though we now definitively know they knew the truth and privately acknowledged that fact.
As New York Times book critic Jennifer Szalai has written, shame “requires an awareness of others and their disapproval, and it has to be learned. Aristotle thought of it as fundamental to ethical behavior; Confucius saw it as essential to social order.”
While it has often been used to unfairly humiliate or shun—think of the scarlet letter “A” or children put in dunce caps or the mockery of people struggling with poverty, obesity or addiction—it also should be a working tool to hold the powerful accountable and minimize the damage that the worst among us can inflict on others and undermine the healthy functioning of society.
Consider this from Cathy O’Neil, author of the 2022 book, The Shame Machine, who distinguishes between shame that “punches down” and shame that “punches up.” She quotes the words of Frederick Douglass to explain how he employed shame in an effort to drive positive change and appeal to American ideals. Douglass used “the public exposition of the contaminating and degrading influence of Slavery” and sought to “shame [America] out of her adhesion to a system so abhorrent to Christianity and to her republican institutions.”
Trump feels no shame in lying about winning the election (or any of the tens of thousands of other lies). Kevin McCarthy expresses no shame in exploiting lies and extremism to secure the speakership. Green and Boebert experience no shame in misusing their elected office to act with cruelty and incite violence. George Santos…well, I don’t even know how he gets out of bed and shows his face in public. And Tucker Carlson and his colleagues: They have shown no sign that they are going to be shamed into changing their lying ways.
As long as Republicans continue to vote into office people who either are not able to experience shame or who have learned the power of denying feelings of shame, the years ahead will continue to be fraught with danger. If this civilizing tool no longer can moderate the worst among us, then it puts that much more pressure on the justice system to do its job and hold the guilty accountable.
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