Broadly speaking, America has never been great on shame. Pride has always been a strong suit, and fucking things up in shameful and improbable ways was the national pastime long before a more racist version of Slimer from Ghostbusters got elected president, but shame just sort of never caught on here in the way that it should have. It’s out there, everywhere in the broader culture, but always running backwards and in all the wrong directions.
In 1995, when then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich held forth on the need for more shame in society, he was openly cheating on his second wife with the woman who would eventually become his third. Gingrich’s proposed use for all that shame, which he picked up from reading an excerpt from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues To Modern Values in USA Today, unsurprisingly involved other people and their failings. “‘You should be ashamed when you get drunk in public; you ought to be ashamed if you’re a drug addict,’” he told an organization called the National League of Cities. Later, Gingrich told Katharine Seelye of the New York Times, “I think moral force matters. I think in a free society it matters at least as much as the law does. And I think it’s amazing how people will respond to leadership when it is clear and has self-confidence.” Gingrich clarified that he was not talking about anything done under color of the law or through the power of the state; he was talking about shame, a broader and more compelling force that, when suitably brought to bear, would keep people from behaving in ways they ought not. “The signals matter,” he said.
You can see the problem, here, and it is not that shame isn’t a powerful thing. It absolutely is. The problem is how it’s used, and by whom, and against whom; across society people who are sick are shamed for and ashamed of being sick and people who are poor are shamed for and ashamed of being poor and people who need help are shamed for and ashamed of that. That in itself is disgraceful and cruel, and very much something about which those doing the shaming should themselves be ashamed. But it doesn’t really work like that. The problem with shame is that Newt Gingrich, in his whole shameful life, has never felt a moment of shame about anything he’s done, let alone felt it in an urgent enough way that he considers not going ahead and continuing to do those things. Today, his job is appearing on television to testily defend Donald Trump, perhaps the most shame-resistant man ever to live in these United States. Gingrich is kept busy in that role, but if he feels any shame about that job—the ex-professor and onetime philosopher-legislator sneering “it’s called strong leadership” into a TV camera every time our fudge-brained president Trump gets his dick stuck in the fax machine—it’s tough to see it.
But to extend the maximum amount of charity to this odious and uncharitable man, let’s say this: Newt Gingrich was right to point out that shame has been and can be a powerful cultural force, and that it could even benefit society if used in beneficial ways. It is almost certainly too much to ask or expect the bad people that currently hold almost all the power in this country to suddenly become good, or even better. They have been so bad, so selfish and self-serving and blandly merciless for so long that they’ve forgotten any other way to be, if they ever knew it. The idea that this permanent class of ulcerous imbeciles might somehow realize that other people are just as real as they are does not seem like it should be too much to ask but also if you follow current events or read history or have worked retail you already know that it is definitely too much to ask. But if they can’t be good and won’t ever really be sorry, our least responsible and most powerful people might at least be made afraid.
Here is one way that it might work that somehow allows me to bring the Tampa Bay Rays into this somehow. Last week, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan wrote a barnburner of a column about the exceptionally sluggish and cheap Major League Baseball offseason. Passan identifies roughly a third of MLB teams as effectively either passively opting not to improve their rosters via trade or free agency or actively rowing backwards. That list does not include teams like the New York Mets, who are governed according to the whims of a junta of vain Long Island weirdos and as such seem to be not to improve but to conform to some obscure ideal in the minds of those particular Long Island weirdos. There are real and even reasonable baseball reasons that Major League teams might opt not to throw money at Lorenzo Cain or Jake Arrieta, but none of those reasons quite explain why so many players remain unsigned roughly a month before pitchers and catchers report.
We know is that these teams can afford to pay for players; again, this includes even the Wilpons, who will receive the same $50 million check from the sale of MLBAM that every other team will receive. What Passan found, when he asked people in positions to know, was that teams now just don’t really feel compelled to try—to try to build a winning team, or even to try to pretend to build a winning team. Revenue sharing and the maybe-bubble in regional sports networks guarantee every team a sizable profit either way; putting together a winning team that brings paying fans to the stadium is better than the alternative, but also more expensive and more difficult. “There’s less interest in winning than I’ve ever witnessed before,” an MLBPA official told Passan. “MLB has done a fantastic job of convincing the public that’s OK. I think fan bases are accepting of losing now. Sometimes they even want their team to lose.”
This unconcealed contempt and weirdly defiant listlessness on the part of ownership is not limited to baseball, or sports. The NBA and NFL are both lousy with teams that are, if not quite trying to fail, obviously not really trying to succeed. There is a real and legible strategy behind tanking a team’s on-field fortunes in the service of a broader Process, but that strategy is not just about on-field goals. A team that chooses to lose is, at the most basic level, making that choice because it believes it can afford to take that risk—that the team will survive the corrosive effect of all that losing and eventually benefit from it, but more to the point that paying fans will come anyway, or come back later, or maybe build their own idiosyncratic church around the shared experience of that losing. For all its aesthetic or ethical squickiness, this is an approach that can succeed in building a winning team if done intelligently. It’s just that, from one moment to the next, an intelligent and forward-looking approach and an actively insulting one look more or less the same.
More practically, strategic failure is an approach that, like all arbitrage, gets progressively more difficult to pull off the more crowded the field becomes. From a fan’s perspective, believing in this approach or even accepting its validity means trusting that the people doing it are in earnest and acting in good faith. Yes, it looks like they are stripping the team’s assets and stubbornly refusing to cut into their own profits to improve the team that they own; it looks very much like they are taking a team that could be seen as a public good held in a public trust and treating it as if it were a Wal-Mart—cutting every possible corner as much as possible in hopes of arriving at something that is just shitty enough to be acceptable. An owner who does this, or a league that allows it, is in some sense asking for your trust. But, in a more urgent sense, it is betting that it doesn’t really matter very much to you, or that you’ll take the insult with good cheer. When Major League Baseball allows the Miami Marlins to be sold to an ownership group without the money to effectively operate the franchise, it is betting that it can get away with doing that. When those owners oafishly strip the team down to the studs, they are betting that they can get away with it.
There are no rules against any of this, really, or anyway no rules that are likely to be enforced. It is illegal for teams to collude to, say, keep payrolls at a level that will cause the luxury tax to reset, which is clearly a thing that is happening this MLB offseason, but it is also very difficult to prove and no one seems terribly keen to try proving it. The gamble, in that sense, is paying off. What prevents teams from doing things like this, at bottom, is a sense of obligation to the fans and the broader community and maybe a certain modicum of self-respect. When we see that in action it looks like proof of decency or responsibility, but it could also be the work of shame. At some level, all those things work the same way and to the same end—they all prevent someone from doing what is easiest and nudge in the direction of doing what’s right. Responsibility, or shame, does the work that laws cannot, in places the law does not and cannot touch. It keeps us honest. It helps us to be better. It reminds us to be good.
Or it doesn’t. Privilege is a corrosive thing, it makes people stupid and keeps them stupid, but what it does most and does best is cause a certain essential atrophy in those with too much of it. Peer pressure can also work to steer people towards better and broader-minded behavior, but it can also do the opposite. In the case of sports owners in the winter of 2018, a few dozen ultra-wealthy peers seem somehow to have decided that they no longer feel compelled even to keep up appearances. Whether this is due to active and collective collusion or passive individuated shamelessness, the results are the results.
All the distance and abstraction that privilege brings to those that have it makes them weird, and either casually cruel or just terribly forgetful when it comes to the responsibilities each of us has to the other. What they ignore or forget doesn’t just make them stupid and uncaring and self-centered, although it does that. It also makes them weak, soggy, soft, irresponsible.
Some thinkers believe that there is in people an inherent thirst for what’s good and right; others believe that perspective assumes facts not in evidence. It’s an interesting debate. But day to day, the work of living is about finding a way to make things work; whatever is or is not latent in us, each day presents a set of problems that need working out. It would be nice if the people with the most power and privilege understood the responsibility that comes with it in a deeper and more generous or at least less curdled and selfish way. But it might work just as well if that failure to understand was treated as the shameful thing it is—if that lack of care was made, for the careless, so unpleasant and inconvenient and embarrassing that they had to go ahead and pretend to care. It may be that shame is the last lever we’ve got left. That’s not great, but it’s not nothing.