For Shame!

Peter Wood

When students and other protesters turned out to protest former Congressman Tom Tancredo’s scheduled speech on April 14 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they chanted, “Shame on you! Shame on you!” Tancredo is an outspoken advocate of enforcing laws against illegal immigration. If it is not immediately clear why his view should be a cause for shame, you haven’t been listening. At least not to the Indigo Girls. Their paean to illegal immigrants, “Shame on You,” featuring lines such as “La, la, la, shame on you,” indicts Caucasians for their insufficient enthusiasm for the undocumented among us:

Though white folks like to pretend it’s not, their music’s in the air.

The girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, make their way to “Chicano city to wash the blues away.” Their political interests don’t stop with illegal immigrants, but extend to recycling, gay rights, and the rights of Native Americans. 

Nor are the Indigo Girls the only ones singing about the politics of shame. Andrea Corr, an Irish chanteuse, also sings “Shame on You” as a complaint about lovers, spouses, and domestic partners who enlist in the armed forces. It is more or less an updating of Dylan’s “Masters of War,” with precious lyrics:

Happy faces go to war and dance upon the mines.

Corr’s sarcasm does not exactly leave deep wounds:

                “You’d be a man. Come join us.” Shame on you to keep my love from me.

But we get the idea. Foreign wars are shameful too. 

Shame is quickly becoming one of the left’s favorite forms of accusation. When President Obama gave a speech on May 21 criticizing President Bush’s “ad hoc legal strategy” for dealing with the detainees at Guantanamo but putting forward his own plan for “prolonged detention” without trial, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow offered a segment titled, “Indefinite detention? Shame on you... President Obama.” Maddow framed her criticism in the fiercest trope known to the American left: a comparison to George W. Bush. Obama, she said, had made a

…radical new claim of presidential power that is not afforded by the Constitution and that has never been attempted in American history even by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Maddow, a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford Ph.D., radio personality, and former substitute host for Keith Olbermann, has the clout to get away with putting some tarnish on the icon. After all, The Nation calls her "a liberal in the purest, radical and almost mineral sense of the word." Mineral? To be shamed by a liberal in the mineral sense must be particularly hard.

So when the anti-Tancredo-ians called down shame on their quarry, they knew what they were talking about, even if they mystified a lot of other folks.

At the root of this is a transformation of the idea of “shame” itself. Shame was once—and not so long ago—a feeling that arose spontaneously in people who felt they had dishonored themselves. It had to do with their sense of propriety. In failing to live up to standards they expected of themselves, they hung their heads. Shame also welled up in those whose privacy had dissolved into unwanted disclosure. Our private lives, especially in matters related to sex, were off-limits to the public gaze.

Shame in these senses hasn’t disappeared from America, but the college campus isn’t especially a good place to go looking for it. Students in large numbers now cheerfully admit to cheating on tests. According to, “Back in 1940, only 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number has increased to 75 to 98 percent.” The numbers probably reflect a vast increase in cheating, but they most clearly speak to the absence of shame by those who do cheat. Why not admit it? Shame befalls those who overlook the important contributions of our undocumented Chicano neighbors, not those who have a little extra documentation for the answers on the physics exam.

This is the age in which old-fashioned term paper mills have gone the way of typewriter erasers. We now have zero-shame instant plagiarism on demand. I have sat on disciplinary boards listening to students who were indignant that the college was making such a big deal out of an innocent transaction. Many students now come to their exams equipped with their cell phones to Google answers to any unforeseen questions. A substantial number of students seem to see this as efficiency. It touches no part of their conscience or their understanding of why they are in college in the first place. The basis for shame simply isn’t there.

Last year, in Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun, Ashley Thorne wrote about a project at the University of Virginia in which students were invited to reveal secrets about themselves on cards which were then posted anonymously on the walls on a gallery. The UVa program is one instance of a nationwide movement called Post Secret. It seems to play on the residual sense that some actions really are shameful, or at least shameful enough that you wouldn’t want people to know it was you who wrote:

“I cheated on my SAT and I got a SCHOLARSHIP.”


“My family is rich but I shoplift EVERY DAY!”

But in a culture in which shame is genuinely active, the quasi-confessors wouldn’t be taking libidinous pride in advertising their transgressions.   Jason would be mortified that he cheated on his SAT and stole a scholarship from a worthier student. Sarah would be in a moral panic over her compulsion. But on Post Secret their brush with shame becomes a feather in their cap. The card tacked to the wall bears the invisible subtext, “I am getting away with it.”

Sexual shame has likewise evaporated. There is hardly a student newspaper in the nation that does not now have a sex column, typically written by a young woman eager to show her un-hibition. She knows more about coitus than the courtesans of ancient Rome and is eager to share her findings. I commented on the Hamilton College version of this in Lubriciousness Watch. Earlier this year we posted Wendy Shalit’s review essay, Hookup Ink, from Academic Questions, commenting on the romance-free sexual relations between men and women on campus. Shalit’s books, A Return to Modesty (1999) and Girls Gone Mild (2007) are a valiant plea and perhaps a cry of hope from the midst of hell. After all, it is hard to win people back to modesty when they have no sense of shame. 

Well, not no sense of shame. Shame is alive and well in the Tancredo-bashing, Indigo-preaching, ex-Corr-iating, Maddow-mineralizing sense. Many colleges even offer experiences to enhance this new sense of shame. In Tunnel Vision, Ashley Thorne wrote about the rise of campus “tunnels of oppression,” which operate somewhat like flight simulators. They are shame simulators. The student who ventures in is bombarded with racial epithets and groups insults, meets up with tableaux vivant of people being oppressed because of all the usual reasons—and some unusual ones. Thorne writes, “Properly tunneled, visitors undergo a kind of catharsis, an ‘aha!’ moment, in which they realize they need to take action.” It works. Sometimes. A University of Maryland tunneler declared, “I feel sick, disturbed and slightly outraged…but I’m going to return and finish the exhibit.” Another achieved an epiphany about her “white privilege.” 

This is, in a deep sense, an inversion of shame. Shame once was experienced as shame. To have fallen in your own good graces was nothing to boast about. To experience shame meant to stand in a form of self-reproach that was an inner indictment that one fully expected would be seconded by strangers if they only knew. The best one could hope for was to set things right through both contrition and restitution. But sometimes shame went further. 

The “triumph of the therapeutic” as Philip Rieff called it, put a self-forgiving couch under these old worries. Not only do we no longer feel a need to be forgiven our transgressions, the transgressions themselves have been demoted to foibles. Shame in its new form has the odd quality of being worn as a badge of honor. Look at me. I am so attuned to the injustices of the age that I am ashamed of being white/in college/American/privileged/straight.  This is pride pretending to be shame. 

The politically-motivated shame is an ersatz emotion, something put on display in hopes of approval. In that sense it bears a marked resemblance to the flamboyant, narcissistic anger that I called “new anger” in my book, A Bee in the Mouth. The new shame, like the new anger, is a real feeling but it is a feeling confined to public performance. The new shame is no good unless people know about it.   Dixie Chick singer Natalie Maines got it just right when she famously declared to a London audience in 2003: "Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."  

“Just so you know… we’re ashamed.” 

Real shame, y’all, is precisely what I don’t want you to know. But declarative shame is something else. It is another sign of how political correctness is more than a superficial set of ideological convictions. It deforms character and erodes the capacity to feel honest emotion.   It offers a cheapened currency of self-esteem, but robs us of the pride we might earn the hard way. The old-fashioned codes of honor and shame had undeniable costs which were sometimes excessive. But I am not sure that the performance ethic of new anger and declarative shame are an improvement.   A certain sobriety has been lost. Instead we have, “La, la, la, shame on you.”

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