Very few people have had much to say about the photos of a nude Melania Trump that appeared on the cover of the New York Post. Among those who have, Judith Miller and Ann Marlowe have seized the more salient point: namely that we seem to have lost our sense of shame. I posted on their column on Monday.
Perhaps it was in response, but, whatever provoked it, Adam Gopnik has offered a disappointing meditation on the silence that greeted pictures of the naked Mrs. Trump. Writing on the New Yorker site, Gopnik suggested that the non-reaction, the great shrug, showed a new American maturity. We are comfortable seeing naked pictures of politician’s wives. Of course, it might also mean that we know better than to express our discomfort.
One feels obliged to recall that when an Australian artist painted a mural of Hillary Clinton in a sexy get-up, authorities insisted that he take it down. In response he covered Hillary up with a painted-over burqa.
As for Gopnik, he first suggested that Trump himself leaked the photos to the Post in order to distract from other embarrassing campaign events.
In his words:
Since Murdoch’s Post is the only paper in New York to be resolutely pro-Trump, there seems to be a decent chance that the pictures were published with Trump’s acquiescence, if not his aid. This may seem odd, but in truth Trump has a long history of actively feeding information to the press that more normally constituted citizens might find embarrassing. And it did serve as a distraction from all the other, still more embarrassing things that were going on around the candidate.
This represents one or two speculations too many.
Since, as Gopnik’s notes, the Post has always been a money-losing proposition, why would it not run the photos in order to juice up the circulation?
If Trump leaked them, he would surely have had to explain it to his wife, who might not have been very happy about it. To say nothing of his children.
Surely, other people possess copies of the photos. Would they not have an interest in selling them to the tabloids? Since the owner of the National Enquirer is a friend of Trump, one might guess that it would not have wanted to publish the photos. And besides, the Post and other Murdoch papers, like the Wall Street Journal, have not been full-throated Trump supporters.
On this point, Gopnik’s argument does not withstand scrutiny.
And yet, Gopnik’s surmise makes for a better narrative. It need not report the truth in a fair and balanced way. Gopnik has sacrificed the truth for dramatic tension
After suggesting that Trump leaked the pictures himself, Gopnik imagines that Trump was disappointed to discover that no one cared. There is truth to this assertion. If the world espies a photo of your wife naked and does not care… it is not good news.
If Trump has no shame, as seems clearly to be the case, and if Melania behaved in the past as if she had precious little, the public’s failure to react might very well mean, that we have, as Gopnik suggests, overcome our sense of shame.
And yet, we should hesitate before embracing this politically correct interpretation. It might also mean that the public was doing what you would normally do when you come across someone whose modesty has been exposed: you cover her up. Or better, you turn away and cover your eyes.
Gopnik might have offered that reading, but he has opted for political correctness:
What was so strange and oddly cheering was that, on the whole, nobody took the bait. Did Trump expect his wife to be subjected to a storm of mockery, so that he could spring to her defense? Apart from some scattershot sneering, it didn’t happen. Was he expecting his political rivals to publicly question him so that he could defend her, while simultaneously pointing out how much hotter she was than every other candidate’s wife? Didn’t happen. Did the Post and Trump both expect hooting from feminist Hillary supporters, or even from one Clinton or the other, thus revealing their hypocritical readiness to turn on a woman with the wrong politics? That didn’t happen, either. Nothing happened. The photographs were received almost entirely without scandal, because, well, because education does happen, and change does take place, and even the most benighted among us, Trump quite possibly aside, now understand that a woman’s body is hers to pose and have photographed more or less as she chooses, and that it is for the rest of us to respect her choices and to look or not at the photographs as we choose. The wrongness of “slut shaming” women, as we call it now, for appearing in pictures, either artful or erotic, is apparent to all.
What Gopnik calls America’s maturity might be America’s numbness to shame, but it also might mean that some Americans still have a sense of shame that is far more developed than Gopnik’s.
Gopnik argued that a woman’s body is hers to do with as she pleases. Which is evidently nonsense. No woman is an island, entirely detached from other human beings. She might do as she pleases, but she has a family, friends and neighbors and should consider the effect her actions will have on them. Isn't this the most elementary form of moral sense.
In truth: do as you please because it effects no one else but you is about as bad a moral principle as anyone could have concocted.
Gopnik believes that if a woman has no sense of shame we have no right to judge her. Here we run into a small problem. Gopnik is saying that we, as outsiders, have no right to form our own opinions of the woman. And what made him the reigning authority on what you and I think?
Acting as a culture warrior, Gopnik is arguing that cultural brainwashing has changed the American mind and that we no longer have the right to have a disparaging opinion. We are forced to accept whatever other people do. This is obviously an instance of mind control. Culture warriors want to allow people to behave as they will and not be judged for it. If your opinion is not politically correct you will be taxed, by Gopnik, with immaturity… or worse.
Gopnik has ignored the fact that most people have an inborn moral sense. When they act badly they know that they have acted badly and feel ashamed of it. And they know this even if no one else has noticed.
If America, by Gopnik’s lights, has overcome shame, should all women do as Melania Trump did? Would he recommend that the women in his family send out text messages of their nakedness… because in a new America no one will judge them.
We are, Gopnik suggests, more comfortable with naked bodies. That might be a sign of maturity but it might also be a sign of decadence. If Donald Trump, in his off-hand pronouncements, seems to have overcome his sense of shame-- what others are calling his filter, the one that stops you from saying everything that crosses your mind—does Gopnik agree that no one should judge him ill for as much. Is Gopnik going to vote for Trump?
One suspects that Gopnik feels a need to show that he is not shocked by naked female bodies. Because being shocked would make him seem uncool. And yet, the truth of the matter is that women do take offense at such displays and think less of those women who do not know how to keep their pants on. Witness Judith Miller and Ann Marlowe. Does Gopnik believe that women who find such behavior offensive ought to shut up? Does Gopnik’s need to show how cool he is trump the considerations that women might have?
When it comes to shame, you cannot pick and choose. If you want people to overcome their sense of shame and to stop judging others for behaving indecorously, you will have to accept that bad manners are the norm, and that impropriety and immodesty can and should be practiced by everyone. You will also have to cease judging anyone by the content of his character.
Shame is a universal emotion. All human beings at all times and in all places have had an innate sense of shame. They have always covered up their external genitalia. The gesture defies them as social beings. Better to be a social being than an amoral lout. From this it follows that people who keep their private parts private are more trustworthy. They are less interested in their own aggrandizement and more cognizant of the effect their behavior will have on others.
Besides, as Confucius said, and as I have often quoted, when people lack a sense of shame they will, if they want to have an orderly society, try to control behavior with prohibitions, taboos, and regulations. They will fall back on guilt and threats of punishment. This produces a guilt culture where deviations from the politically correct norm-- thinking the wrong thought or using the wrong pronoun-- become criminal behavior. Perhaps we are there now.