A Broken Shame-Machine: the Shameful State of Political Shamelessness

Source: Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia CommonsSource: Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia Commons

I can remember, years ago, possibly inspired by an early incantation of the long-running Steve Bell cartoon which depicted David Cameron as a condom, rather naively asking my father why politicians were not embarrassed, as most of us might be, to be so universally hated. He reminded me that the politicians who filled Westminster generally had something different about them to the rest of us: that they were bred for power, and incredibly thick-skinned in their utter assurance of their right to this power. Even those without Cameron’s hothousing at Eton and then Oxford were weathered by long exposure to the public eye in the course of their duties; a bit of public shaming was not going to topple parliament, not unless it picked up the momentum of a full-blown scandal.

It is worth bearing this in mind when considering the claim of Stephen Bush that ‘British politics is being destroyed by a total lack of shame’. A certain shamelessness, the blithe ability to shake off ridicule and accusation, is as synonymous with the sleek, consciously blind arrogance of Cameron’s political era, and before him certainly Blair’s, as sharp suits and faux-sincerity; we cannot uncomplicatedly refer to it as new political phenomenon. If anything, this arrogance itself has played no small part in precipitating the political crisis of mismanagement we have borne witness to since the 2016 Brexit vote, a referendum which Cameron himself called, smugly confident of the Remain campaign’s victory, and from which he emerged unsuccessful and yet with the audacity to claim that he had no regrets.

But we no longer live in the era of Cameron. Stephen Bush is correct to call attention to a new shamelessness, or perhaps more precisely, a new kind of shamelessness, governing western politics, the consequences of which are only too clear in the USA. With enough examples of President Donald Trump’s profiting from situations others would consider shameful to fill multiple lawsuits, we need not linger on every calculatedly provocative tweet. Suffice it to remind ourselves of Trump’s behaviour when accused of having used campaign money through his lawyer Michael Cohen, to stop pornstar Stormy Daniels from going to the press, weeks before the general election. He has barefacedly changed his story multiple times over the last few months, from denying all knowledge of the deal to admitting, and attempting to downplay, a ‘private payment’ that occurred. To say nothing of Trump’s barefaced denial of Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election.

In a different era, the countless revelations that Trump’s political success is built on lies and cover-ups, be they promises to the electorate which he cannot keep or the uncovering of more serious corruption, would surely be enough to dull his gleam of novelty and tarnish him in the public imagination. Has American politics not, after all, long been haunted by the Watergate Scandal? Yet Trump has called the shame-game’s bluff and by loudly denying, against all evidence anything which would besmirch his name, has kept doubt in the mind of the ordinary voter. In a soundbite culture, his word is as good as his deniers. A particularly mind-boggling bold recent tweet reads ‘The Democrats are trying to belittle the concept of a Wall, calling it old fashioned. The fact is there is nothing else’s that will work, and that has been true for thousands of years. It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better. I know tech better than anyone, & technology…..’. Moreover, Trump achieves this feat of overweening pride, coupled with a cheerful disregard for the truth, whilst constantly drawing attention to those who supposedly deserve to be shamed. These range from ‘Crooked Hilary’, to ‘The Fake News Media’ who would dare print a word against him. Shameful accusations are void in a society where they may simply be reflected back, in an endless hall of mirrors, on their utterer.

And if Trump is the idiot wizard of shame-manipulation, then on this side of the pond we are also witness to a political culture in which shame is simultaneously ubiquitous and meaningless; in which accusations of ‘shameful’ behaviour fly and yet the effect of shame seems blunted by their very ubiquity. Theresa May careens from one political embarrassment to another in the dim haze produced by Brexit negotiations, from having to survive two votes of no confidence in her leadership within a matter of months, to battling to no avail to push through her Brexit deal a mere two months before the deadline of 29th March, two and a half long years of debate after the vote. Just as in America, where Trump seems depressingly invulnerable to shame despite the vast hatred felt by so many around the world and in his own country, in Britain, moving in a miasma of shame is increasingly becoming the norm for politicians emmeshed in the Brexit debate, to the extent that we cycle back round to the Trump-like effect of their indifference. We must merely watch, helplessly, as individuals in whom we have lost all faith conduct our national affairs, so shamed that they have become shameless.

In such a climate, only the most brazen politicians can be convincing in their emperors-new-clothes show of shamelessness. There is a reason why arch-Brexiteer Boris Jonson continues to linger in our headlines like a bad smell, threatening future bids for leadership with his announcement that it was a mistake of him to step down in the 2016 leadership election, and crucially, rarely publicly admitting to regretting a thing other than this. In his article Khan pointed to Ester McVey’s failure to resign over her lies about universal credit as an example of such imperviousness to shame, though he does not pause to analyse quite where this new phenomenon stems from. Those who would claim that the influence of social media on all our day-to-day lives has a role in this new political attitude to shame (the ‘Facebook caused Trump and Brexit’ brigade) certainly have a point in this case. Gone are the days of poring over a single copy of Private Eye to get news on the latest political scandal; we are inundated with up-to-the-minute news, be it mundane or shameful, from play-by-play updates and commentary on events in parliament during days of particularly important debate, to the immediacy of politicians’ twitter-rants, where frustration which might be curbed in a slower-moving form of media gets its full expression.

Yet there is a more fundamental factor at play in this changed relation to shame; a shift, over time, perhaps amplified rather than created by the black and white binary culture of social media, in what is generally considered shameful. Enter a branch of any large chain of bookshops and you will find yourself confronted with a range of political joke-books, from which the faces of Trump and Jeremy Corbyn will stare up at you, in roughly equal numbers. Of course, May, as our prime minister, has received her fair share of caricature and criticism in the press, but the amount of ridicule heaped on Corbyn, only the leader of the opposition, is unprecedented. Whatever your personal view of Corbyn’s politics, it must surely be an extraordinary state of affairs which has led to Corbyn, a socialist reformist rather than revolutionary, being seen as equally deserving of public shame to a man who boasts about sexually assaulting women, who has thrown Washington into a weeks-long shutdown in a sulk, and whose government separates child-migrants from their parents and imprisons them in cages. In what other era of British politics has the leader of the opposition been seen as an equal threat to the US President, effectively the most powerful man in the world? Political centrists have compared the men by accusing both of populism; J.K Rowling recently tweeting a link to a comparative article with an accompanying image of Trump’s face merging into Corbyn’s, as if this simple piece of editing were itself a sinister proof of their similarity. ‘Populism’ in Trump’s case might refer to the kind of rally that happened in Charlottesville in 2017, where people marched, in support of Trump, under Nazi flags, a woman was killed and many more injured. In Corbyn’s case, it seems to refer to a bold campaign style, an enthusiasm for chants, and the fact that some of his voters might actually be quite keen on him.

In fact, Rowling, exercising her far from negligible influence over thousands of adoring fans, has become a typical voice of the social elite who have created the current crisis in confidence with those in power. She is one of the very wealthiest members of society, who have not been affected by the long years of economic hardship since the 2008 recession, and yet have the gall to attempt to shame those searching for even marginally more radical solutions to these problems than the ones we have been using. In her recent film-script, The Crimes of Grindelwald (which happens to be a sad departure in quality from the excellence of the original Potter series), Rowling has her protagonist use the phrase ‘middle-head’ as a compliment, explaining that on a certain three-headed magical beast, ‘the middle head’s the visionary’. Would that it were so in life: inundated by news of political events we should genuinely regard as shameful, the least visionary thing we could do is adopt the pious blindness of the centre, and pretend that anything which departs from the failing political norm is inherently ‘shameful’; to do so is to cheapen the meaning of shame. The rise of Trump, and the surge of dissatisfaction with authority in this country expressed by the Brexit vote, reveals a frustration which must not ignored. For if events like those in Charlottesville have taught us anything, it is that the discourse of the far-right which has arisen in the last few years does not restrict itself to prompting acts of public shaming, but is prepared to prompt violence.

Therefore, if we want to deal with this social frustration head-on, and not make the mistakes of our political predecessors by primly sitting on the fence and assuming, like Cameron in his instigation of the Brexit vote, that no substantial change will occur, we need to acknowledge that shame alone will not curb the actions of politicians or the general public in our current climate. In a world where the panopticon of collective self-censorship is broken, we need to stop relying on the flimsy barriers erected by shame and learn to follow an internal set of principles. Without a rejection of the self-serving attitudes of career politicians, who, like Trump, will call shame’s bluff and do whatever they can get away with, we will never learn to move past our censorious gasping at their shamelessness to provide our own model for political decency. We must wear our sense of responsibility on the inside, not in the name-calling forums of public media, and feel our wrongdoings as guilt, not shame, to become more than the mouth that decries others’ misdemeanours. Oh, and we can forget about having middle-head. It’s not doing us any favours.