The Politics of Shame
By: Matthew Barad, 4/2/20
On May 19th, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner stood in front of the United States Senate and condemned two senators for their ownership and mistreatment of slaves. To quote the Senate website:
Sumner characterized [Stephen] Douglas to his face as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.” Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator’s stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”
Sumner was an abolitionist. To him, and to any decent human being, slavery was an affront to both God and man. It was an abomination to be stamped out and never to be tolerated. As harsh and personal as his speech may sound, it could never approach the offensiveness of a single human in chains.
Three days later, Senator Sumner was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor by a pro-slavery Democrat, who was dearly and deeply offended that Sumner would dare insult his slave-owning (and very likely slave-raping) colleagues.
Sumner survived with permanent bodily injuries and brain damage from which he would never fully recover. His attacker, Representative Brooks, was “punished” by receiving thousands of free canes from ferverent supporters of slavery and an overwhelming re-election to his house seat even after he resigned and refused to run.
In America it is a greater crime to offend long-lived institutions and confront respected politicians than it is to own slaves, rape women, or even beat a man close to death on the Senate floor.
American political life has always been defined by shame. Shame is the weapon used against all manner of advocates for justice.
In October, Ivanka Trump quoted Thomas Jefferson in defense of her father:
This passage comes from a letter Jefferson wrote to his own daughter in 1797. He decried his peers for spreading rumors that he was raping his underage slave, Sally Hemings — all the while he continued to rape her. Ivanka, like Donald, and like Thomas before them, intends to shame the opponents of injustice rather than hold its practitioners responsible. After all, what is the rape of one slave, or the deaths of a few thousand Americans when compared to the dignity of America’s most powerful pedophiles?
This paradigm, woven into the very fabric of American politics, dominates our discourse. Accusers, advocates, or even the most bashful reformers are shamed while the immoralities they oppose are defended or ignored.
No place is this more painful or apparent today than in the Democratic primary. For months, Bernie’s supporters have been shamed for their tone — be it in politely suggesting that Warren is worse on some policy position than Bernie or, more recently, Briahna Gray Joy tweeting that all people deserve free cancer treatment. In spite of statistical proof that Bernie’s supporters are no more toxic than anyone else’s, our tone has been scrutinized and our moral character has been attacked for months.
While we are shamed for not bending our knees to the Democratic establishment, the failings and crimes of Democrats are ignored. Andrew Cuomo is enjoying droves of positive coverage and admiration for his handling of Covid while he is actively cutting funding to coronavirus patients. People will die because of his actions, but only his detractors are being shamed.
As nearly 6 million Americans file for unemployment while their family members sicken and die, Nancy Pelosi pronounced that Democrats should oppose giving cash payments to normal Americans. Rather than shaming her for this deeply irresponsible and inhumane stance, Bernie is shamed for “risking” the stimulus bill to ensure worker protections and benefits were maintained — a fight which he won to the benefit of Americans everywhere.
And most egregiously, after Joe Biden was credibly accused of rape in a heart breaking interview by Tara Reade, those of us who believe and support her are being shamed for doing so. At best, Democrats are ignoring the accusations out of a misguided belief that only Biden can beat Trump. At worst, Tara is being accused of being a Russian agent while Biden’s surrogates delete past statements in support of Dr. Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh so that they don’t appear hypocritical for protecting Biden.
I have publicly stated that I will not vote for Joe Biden. In my mind, no matter the circumstance, it is inexcusable to vote to give a rapist access to nuclear weapons. Incredibly, this is now a controversial opinion to hold.
I have been shamed for that position. Shamed, like Jefferson’s detractors or Sumner himself, for refusing to support rapists. The American political system has so effectively insulated itself from change that it is somehow seen as immoral to refuse to vote for rapists — even after the opposition to Trump was framed for three years as women uprising against abusive men.
These are the politics of shame. They are politics of convincing Americans that our moral standards are too high and that reality dictates that we must vote for our own torturous deaths.
Like the abolitionists, civil rights activists, suffragettes, socialist, union organizers, and all manner of other heroes before me, I will not be shamed into complicity. I would rather give my last breath trying to kill this corrupt system than I would be lured another inch into its gaping maw by the promise of a more polite demise.