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Cultural Exchange: Humiliation and the Scarlet G

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Message Lynne Glasner
Centuries ago our primitive American culture, rooted in a period of puritanical rigidity, included the concepts of shame and humiliation. Those emotions seem to have been lost in the public square that dunked the fictional Hester Prynn and now shamelessly "dunks" terror suspects. The fiction in the latter story is only in how it is spun. The hypocrisy of our moral depravity is a direct descendant of Hester Prynn's lover, who continued to vilify her while righteously maintaining his role as a minister and covering up his identity. Though Hawthorne wrote fiction, our current political environment is not fictitious, though it often seems surreal.

While Hester Prynn gracefully wore her scarlet A with dignity, neither Foley nor Haggard has been particularly graceful or dignified in baring their letter G. They each in their own way choose to hide behind the G, preferring it to the other letters that represent their actual crimes: D and P. We have reached the zenith of moral hypocrisy. But the moral failings here aren't about sexual orientation; the sins of the fallen are in the alternative letters and the shame that comes from words and deeds that don't match: from lying, from soliciting money from people under false pretenses, from pedophilia, from alcohol/drug use, from blame on you when the mantra should be shame on them.

As we try to understand the Muslim culture, we are told that it is a culture infused with shame and honor and it is these values that drive their people. We are told this as if those concepts don't exist in the Western world. During the Danish cartoon war, we learned more about how humiliated the cartoons made Muslims feel, how they thought it immoral to mock their God. But Americans had trouble understanding why Muslims would feel such rage at a mere cartoon. The emotions of shame and humiliation run deep through the Muslim bloodlines, transmitting them from generation to generation and permeating their core values. The concept of such deep humiliation and shame seems as foreign to us as an Arab headdress. But is it?

Americans harbor shame, too, and the concept of humiliation is as much a part of the American psyche as that of our Arab counterparts. But in our own shorter history, our cultural icons include apple pie, not humble pie. In truth, it has been more common for the U.S. to cause humiliation and shame than to be its recipient. While no country's history is pristine, Americans seem to have a collective memory loss when it comes to our past transgressions. We are full of pride and patriotism at the sight of the flag. Just mention Vietnam, however, and the neo-con, hawk, and conservative voices start whispering about how shameful it was to lose a war. In their eyes, the U.S. was humiliated in Vietnam, and they haven't forgotten it thirty years later. Why can't we leave Iraq? Because it would be another "cut and run" just like Vietnam, where we would have won if only the "anti-war liberals" hadn't lost it for us by insisting that we leave. So why is it so hard to understand the concept of shame and humiliation as a cultural thread? Is the battle being played out now just an attempt to ensure that we don't get fed another portion of humble pie?

While the threat of being humiliated in foreign lands is a theme that resonates with the "cut and run" rhetoric, in things domestic the shameless hypocrisy is of a different breed. A touch of humility is sorely needed in a Congress that hasn't the will or the time to pass a bill that would raise the minimum wage once in ten years but has managed to vote themselves an automatic annual cost of living increase in the same period. There's no need to rehash all the many scandals that have taken root under the Bush regime; we've heard them, but we yawn. It's political theatre at its best. The corporate honchos write the script, the politicos direct and act and paper the audience. But the real audience can't afford the tickets; they're still earning minimum wage.

Though scandal rocks us to the core, we have become immune; we shrug it off as business as usual. It is like the Lenny Bruce saw: if you keep repeating something enough it loses its impact and its meaning. Some regarded Bruce's words as obscene, but his only crime was his words, used on a stage. Political theatre of a different kind. The real obscenity is in the deeds that have been exposed (and others yet to come); unlike mere words, deeds have consequences that harm people. The government that once prosecuted Bruce for his words has yet to prosecute many of their colleagues for their deeds. The Muslims who felt humiliated by cartoons, mere words with pictures, were doubly humiliated by the deeds at Abu Ghraib and other prison sites. Yet as American news consumers, we gave about equal attention to both, as if the scale of the humiliation experienced by Iraqis at Abu Ghraib has the same import as the satiric words of a cartoon. By conflating the two events, both are seen as examples of Muslim 'extremist' reactions to being humiliated rather than a First Amendment issue that may be debated in an open society and a human rights/Bill of Rights violation. The latter brings humiliation to the victims and engenders shame on the perpetrators as well as those who stand by and give it a pass. The former shame is about words, the latter about deeds.

What is most missing from the guilty parties in all of the recent scandals is a sense of humiliation and shame at their behavior. Some of them eventually admit they were wrong, even admit that they lied and sometimes apologize. But in many instances they seem unabashedly resolute. Is this the good soldier façade or is it that they are really void of these emotions? It seems like a little humility would go a long way in toning down the moral depravity that has infested our leaders.

Perhaps we can learn something from our Muslim counterparts. Or are we ashamed to feel ashamed? Is that what separates 'us' from 'them'? Maybe some of the confessors feel some guilt at their actions, but guilt and shame are not exactly the same emotions: shame carries with it remorse and humiliation while guilt only carries feeling badly about culpability. The scandal ridden politicos feel guilty because they were caught, not because they are remorseful about their behavior. No, there's no humility here; they are angry that they got caught and that their colleagues are still unscathed. Fair is foul and foul is fair in their pity party.

While Muslims have no compunction about expressing their rage at being humiliated, where's the outrage from the American public toward those who would abuse their trust so shamelessly, from Abramoff payoffs that buy the laws that legalize theft to gay drug using pastors inveighing against gay marriage and drug use? Are we numb from the repeated violations of the public trust or are we just so self-involved that we don't notice or can't be bothered when the Constitution is eviscerated? Are we ashamed of feeling helpless as we watch greedy elected officials drain the treasury of our hard-earned money and shred the Constitution, making a mockery out of democracy? The cake walk that was sold as a victimless war humiliates both the Iraqis who have lost their dignity, their lives, their homes, and their hope, and the Americans who believe that to leave would be shameful because we have lost. The more shameful part is the public, Congress, and the media who stood by and allowed those in power to run Rambo in Iraq and Machiavelli at home. Like our Muslim counterparts, the American public is also a victim of the shame of this government.

But by far, the biggest shame will be on American citizens if we do not vote out the amoral members of this government who have led us down this path with such impunity as the world watches in horror at what was once the shining example of moral leadership and democratic values. A culture that tolerates such widespread and blatant corruption will disintegrate down the same rabbit hole that once held Saddam. We have become prisoners of our own apathy. VOTE. Make your voice heard. Be counted and make it count. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, "We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall hang separately."

2006 Lynne Glasner
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Lynne Glasner is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City. She has edited numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, many on political subjects. Her essays have appeared in Commondreams,, and Huffington Post as well as OpEd (more...)
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