Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Shame of Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens opened his New York Times column yesterday with an illuminating reflection. We give credit where credit is due, especially since his thinking quickly goes off the rails. But, in an interesting way.

Anyway, Stephens opens with the case of one Charles Van Doren, champion competitor on a 1950s television show called Twenty-One. For those of us who are old enough to remember, Van Doren was brilliant beyond human imagination, in the league of Dr. Joyce Brothers.

But then, it turned out that the show was rigged and that Van Doren had seen the questions before the show. He confessed to his dereliction. He showed himself to be suitably contrite. And he withdrew from public view for decades. He died last week in perfect obscurity.

So, Stephens remarks that in those olden days, people had a sense of shame. On that point he is correct. In his words:

Van Doren, if you didn’t know, was the polished scion of a distinguished American literary family, who in the 1950s was a champion contestant on the NBC show “Twenty-One,” dazzling millions of viewers with what looked like preternatural erudition.

But the show had been rigged, the contestants coached, their fates determined by the need of the producers to manufacture drama and maintain ratings. When the truth came out, America was scandalized and Van Doren nearly ruined.

“I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years,” he told a congressional committee in 1959, after finally coming clean about what he had done (along with other contestants). He spent the remainder of his 93 years living a decidedly quiet and unblemished life.

How quaint.

Let us keep in mind that these were the big, bad 1950s. They were the Eisenhower era when America was too uniform, too conformist, too hard working, too successful and too prosperous. Considering the condemnations that have routinely been tossed at the Eisenhower years by our self-righteous moralizers, we have a right to point out that, when it came to moral probity, 1950s America had a sense of shame.

No more. That is what Stephens means when he says: “How quaint.”

And yet, Stephens then goes off the rails. He declares that America has lost its sense of shame because of… you guessed it… Donald Trump. But seriously, Bret, is your job in that much peril that you need to join the New York Times slander-Trump cabal?

Donald Trump did not come out of the woodwork. He came into a culture whose sense of shame had already been diminished, if not erased. A minimal sense of history would have told him that the Kennedy administration began the attack on shame. Didn’t your humble blogger once write a book explaining that the architects of the Vietnam War, of America’s greatest foreign policy disaster, never apologized, never accepted blame for their dereliction, and were never held accountable.

And let us not forget, that once JFK became a martyr for the liberal cause, it became strictly forbidden to speak ill of him. How many people really care about the fact that his father rigged the presidential election in Illinois in 1960 or that he abandoned the anti-Castro Cubans to die on the beach at the Bay of Pigs.

And let’s not ignore the fact that JFK was a borderline sexual predator, even when in the White House, and that once he because a saint, no one was allowed to criticize him for as much.

While we are at it, how many people were willing to condemn Bill Clinton for his rank shamelessness? To say nothing of his wife’s appalling misbehavior. None of this can be laid at the feet of Donald Trump. This is to say that Trump’s shameless behavior would have been easily ignored if he had supported the right leftist causes.

How does Stephens analyze the situation? Thusly:

Had Van Doren come along a few decades later, there would have been no big scandal in fabricating reality and no great shame in participating in it. The lines between fame and infamy would have blurred, and both could be monetized. Personal disgrace might have been explained away as a form of victimization by a greedy corporation, an unloving parent, systemic social forces — or with the claim, possibly true, that nearly everybody does it.

The contrast between then and now is worth pondering in the Age of Trump — an age whose signature feature isn’t populism or nationalism or any other –ism widely attached to the president. It’s the attempted annihilation of shame. Shame is neither sin nor folly. It’s what people are supposed to feel in the commission, recollection or exposure of sin and folly.

Then again, consider Trump’s predecessor. Who in the media and on the American left has ever let slip the least discouraging word about the great Obama? Who has held Obama to account for lying about Obamacare, for diminishing American national pride and for siding with Iran against America and its allies? One might say that Obama had an apology tour when he denounced the nation for torturing innocent terrorists, but did you ever consider that Obama was not really apologizing for America. He was apologizing for white America. And that means that he was really condemning white America. He was certainly not accepting personal or institutional responsibility for mistreating Muslims. Surely, he was not saying that blacks need to be held to account for Islamophobia.

People idolize Barack Obama, just as they idolized JFK. If you speak ill of Obama you will quickly be taxed with bigotry. The American war on bigotry has been instrumental in shielding certain groups of people from taking responsibility for their behavior. After all, if a member of a minority group shoots a member of a minority group tomorrow, the fault must lie with the white police.

Such is the Obama legacy.

Stephens continues to indict Trump:

In days bygone, the prescribed method for avoiding shame was behaving well. Or, if it couldn’t be avoided, feeling deep remorse and performing some sort of penance.

By contrast, the Trumpian method for avoiding shame is not giving a damn. Spurious bone-spur draft deferment? Shrug. Fraudulent business and charitable practices? Snigger. Outrageous personal invective? Sneer. Inhumane treatment of children at the border? Snarl.

Hush-money payoffs to porn-star and centerfold mistresses? Stud!

Sure, but, we will say, what about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Didn’t they establish the predicate for shameless lying? How could Trump’s behavior become relevant to the presidential campaign when Wild Bill Clinton had done worse. And when his wife had happily lied about it, relieving her husband of responsibility by blaming it all on the “bimbos” who were accusing him… and, of course, on the vast right wing conspiracy.

Stephens concludes:

The annihilation of shame requires two things. First, nerve: Whatever else might be said about Trump, it takes immense brass to lie as frequently and flagrantly as he does without apparently triggering any kind of internal emotional crisis. Ordinary mortals tend to blush when caught out in some kind of mischief. Trump smirks.

But it also takes public acquiescence. Van Doren might have succeeded in quickly burying his shame if the revelation of his cheating hadn’t led to tidal waves of dismay and disdain. The United States of the 1950s wasn’t yet the land of premature exoneration. A half-century after the scandal, when Van Doren finally wrote about his experiences in an essay for The New Yorker, he confessed, “It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on ‘Twenty-One’ is still part of me.”

Public acquiescence… didn’t the public acquiesce to the flagrant sins of the Clintons? Surely, the mainstream media did. How did it happen that the first president to be credibly accused of rape left office with sky-high approval ratings?

As for Barack Obama, it is socially unacceptable to be anything but adoring of his august personage. Isn’t the media hatred of Trump predicated on an idolatrous worship of his predecessor? Why else does the media mercilessly attack Trump if not because he represents the rejection of their god.

And, while we are at it, has the New York Times or any of the other major media outlets held itself responsible for its rankly biased reporting on Donald Trump? Shouldn’t shame have shown the Times the way toward recovering its journalistic ethics and reporting the news fairly and dispassionately?


trigger warning said...

Such heartfelt hankie-twisting from a petulant pundit. I'm thinking Stephens and Brooks might benefit by registering for the Lehigh University Education professor's "Men's Therapeutic Cuddle Group".

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Excellent post. Bret Stephens’ creativity and stance since move to the NYT has been illuminating. And that’s not a compliment. His courage has vanished. How hard is it to attack Trump in the NYT?

What is striking — given the events of the past week — is that he didn’t couch shamelessness in the context of Attorney General Barr’s public comments about DOJ/FBI/CIA/NSA spying on the Trump campaign. This high-level bureaucratic conspiracy was/is an attempt to negate the outcome/impact of a fair presidential election. THAT is a story NYT readers need to be aware of and confronted with by a supposedly “conservative” columnist in their midst. Instead of talking about the Obama Administration’s shamelessness, Bret Stephens makes reference to Stormy Daniels (whose attorney was just indicted for extortion).

How quaint.

Jim Sweeney said...

Whatever has happened to Ms. Daniels and her legal actions? Are they all dismissed? And has she paid Trump's legal fees as ordered in one case? One wonders what she does all day every day as she seems to be out of print since her Trump threat time vanished. Stripping I suppose is her source of income plus, of course, her companionship has a value to some. Would a liberal feel shame to be publicly seen with her?

Sam L. said...

"Bret Stephens opened his New York Times column yesterday with an illuminating reflection. We give credit where credit is due, especially since his thinking quickly goes off the rails. But, in an interesting way." As far as I've seen the NYT always goes off the rails, regardless of the writer. Still, as we all know, it's ALWAYS due to TRUMP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111111!!!!!!!!!

"By contrast, the Trumpian method for avoiding shame is not giving a damn." Learned from the best NYT writers in the city! And the politicians. (Can't leave THEM out!)

Walt said...

In the realm of shamelessness and liberal forgiveness you forgot to mention Teddy who literally got away with murder as well as the blatant attempt at coverup (neck brace and all). For which, in a better world, one might think the forgiving liberals themselves might repent in shame

UbuMaccabee said...

Stephens prides himself on being well-read, but obviously he failed to take away any of the lessons from Thucydides, Machiavelli, or Hobbes. When I want to read the "Schoolmarm's Guide to Leadership and Survival," I'll consult Stephens.

Leftist shame is based on a set of false moral principles, like environmentalism, egalitarianism, and demands for tolerance for illiberal ideas. It is best to ignore demands for guilt entirely with a shrug, just as Trump does. It's all moral posturing, nothing but ethical dross. Like Marxism, it's wrong in theory and execution.