Pastor Walter Mitty was paging through his copy of the Poplar Park Times last Wednesday when he spotted a piece by the editor Dan Baily with the headline, “Tucker Carlson, you made your bed, now ‘LIE’ in it.”
The tone of the piece was one of vindication, as in “I’ve been saying this about Fox News for years. Our small community paper marches to a far different drummer.”
When Mitty first heard that Dominion had settled their suit against Fox News for $787.5 million, he rejoiced, but for some reason he didn’t gloat over Carlson and Murdoch parting ways. Instead he felt himself alternating between anger and depression.
“Have they no shame?” was all Mitty could say to Michael when his friend answered the phone the next morning. As soon as said it, Mitty realized he was using the word “shame” a lot lately.
Michael waited a moment to hear if his neighbor had more to say, then replied, “No, Walt. I don’t think they are ashamed of themselves at all. Carlson knew the election was not stolen but he cynically pandered; he spread the lie anyway.”
Mitty took a drink of his still hot coffee giving himself time to quell his anger at the guy’s duplicity. “I’ve been thinking about shame lately,” he said, taking a new tack in the conversation, “and I can’t figure out how to think about it. I mean, is shame good or bad?”
“Maybe you’re too young to remember this,” Michael said, “but back in the ’50s shame was a stronger enforcer of conformity than it is today. Back then we wouldn’t be caught dead with long hair. And getting a girl pregnant? God forbid!”
“Your parents were part of what they call the Greatest Generation, weren’t they?” Mitty asked his neighbor.
“They were. And I read somewhere that up to one out of every four adult men was in uniform at some point during the war. Uniform was the word, Walt. American individualism took a back seat and that way of leaning into life leaked over into the ’50s when I was a kid.”
“And then the ’60s happened.” Mitty was getting into the conversation.
“There was kind of a culture war back then too,” said Michael. “It was like my parents were shaming those long-haired hippy freaks for being nonconformist, while millions of young people were shaming the Greatest Generation for being conformist.”
“Do you remember that time when we were in Bernie’s book store, Michael? We were talking about shame then, too, and he pulled a book off the shelf titled Shame: A Brief History. He read a passage to us about how in colonial times, people who violated community standards were publicly shamed by being put in stocks in the town square.”
And then he added, “But that required a kind of public consensus or agreement on what was right and what was wrong, right?”
“Right, and the book goes on to say shame has gotten a bad reputation over the last three centuries, and that psychology has replaced religion and ethics to a large extent.”
“That’s what I observe,” Mitty agreed. “People nowadays say, ‘I’m not comfortable with that’ instead of ‘that’s wrong.’ Come to think of it, when one person in Florida was asked why she wanted to ban books about slavery in the school library, she said she didn’t want her white child to feel guilty or shamed.”
Michael recalled what Rabbi Levine had said in a Bible class at his temple, that shame is a big deal in the Hebrew scriptures, that 10 different words are used over 300 times to express the concept, and the prophets used it all the time. But like any good thing, shame can be weaponized to oppress the innocent.
“But for shame to change people,” Mitty added, “they had to share the prophets’ values, right?”
After he and Michael hung up, Mitty couldn’t let go of his fixation on shame. Folks on the right, he decided, often try to shame liberals for focusing on the rights of women, but avoiding any discussion of the rights of the unborn or, for that matter, the rights of the men who co-created the fetus.
And his friends on the left tried to shame MAGA folks for deflecting appeals for gun control by focusing on mental illness and/or the constitutional right to defend themselves against criminals. “Hypocrites,” they say, “you have to be mentally ill to buy an assault rifle. They are not designed to defend their owners but to kill as many people as quickly as possible.”
Both sides of the polarized cultural chasm made some sense to the conflicted clergyman, especially when they ratcheted down their rhetoric and stopped framing the divide as a war.
He shook his head in frustration and thought, “It’s hard to address humanitarian needs in Sudan when both sides break ceasefires by shooting at each other.”