March 22, 2005


How we can know when it’s too late for public reason, too late for the kind of thing I do. When has the clock reached midnight?

Let me drag in an argument I’ve made in a forthcoming article about Thabo Mbeki, the African Union, and the possibilities for change in postcolonial African states. Among other things, I argue that a key consideration in fighting an oppressive system or regime is whether that system can be shamed in any way, whether there is a ghostly, residual presence of some sense of obligation or inhibition, some hidden commitment inside the regime’s architecture that makes it vulnerable. The problem I’m grappling with is, “Under which historical circumstances do the rulers of a particular system, or the elites who support the rulers, concede to the inevitability of change and reform?” Because it does happen.

Two of the examples I give in the article are late colonial British officials in Africa and white rulers and citizens in the waning years of apartheid in South Africa. In both cases, I argue, it was possible to shame them, to force them to leave an opening for reform when the gap between the conceptual underpinnings of their rule and the reality of it was overwhelmingly hammered home. I don’t mean to undercut the brutality of either set of rulers, their inhumanity, but both groups had made certain kinds of rhetorical and conceptual commitments at the base of their authority that opened up a kind of hemophilia in their rule, a slow bleeding wound. Both systems left artifacts lying around within their architecture of authoirty that could be used against them. Gandhi’s challenge to the British in India is another such instance, and much of the civil rights movement in the United States another. Such tactics work only against a system which is still capable of feeling shame, which can be called out in terms of the gap between what it says it is and what it actually is.

The contrast I observe in the article is with certain postcolonial regimes in Africa. There’s no reservoir of shame left in certain kinds of autocracies: Idi Amin, Sani Abacha, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Omar Bongo: it doesn’t do any good to protest non-violently in the streets, or write polemics, or embarrass them at diplomatic functions. There is no restraint left, no sense of nagging chagrin or worry. Attempts to shame those regimes by their own citizens usually end in their gulags or in flight into exile, though sometimes the pot boils over into uprising, the kind of uprising where there are only two conclusions: the autocrat or the crowds dead, because there is no restraint in between. Attempts by outsiders to shame these rulers end in raucous laughter or in perhaps in ghastly pantomimes of official concern if sufficient pressure is brought to bear by other governments.

So where are we right now in the United States on the shame-o-meter? Let’s just say that I think the reservoirs of shame are draining awfully fast towards zero, and the case of Terry Schiavo is a pretty good dipstick for measuring that evaporation. Like a lot of commentators, I don’t especially have a fixed opinion about the case itself—not the kind of opinion that expresses itself as policy of any kind. There are reasons to have sympathy for any of the people caught at the center of the case, or little sympathy for any of them. Reasons to feel a connection to Terry Schiavo, reasons to feel that she’s got nothing to do with my own life. I could see why her parents might want to keep her alive, and wonder why her husband just doesn’t let them. I could see why her husband might try to honor what he understood as her wishes, and wonder why her parents are putting everyone in their family through hell about that honest desire. I see darker motives for all of them, but in any event, it’s just another human story in a world full of them, as interesting or uninteresting as any. As a pure kibitizer, my instinct would be to keep her alive: what does it hurt, if she's in a persistently vegetative state and her wishes on that subject were expressed in at least potentially ambiguous ways?

I don’t see any reason for a policymaker to take a position either way on what should happen, because the law the state policymakers created at the point before this happened was that spouses should get to make the decision. You might change that law, and cite this case as a reason for that. Maybe you should have to have a living will for your wishes to be legally binding. Fine. I’m not opposed to that. Keep someone alive unless they’ve written a legally meaningful statement about their wishes. Don’t leave it up to spouses or parents: you could make a case for that.

But that’s not what’s happening here either. The United States Congress is concerning itself with micromanaging the resolution of a single individual case. It’s the opposite of the problem I wrote about in “The Idiot God”. There I was complaining about the state’s lack of knowledge of the fine-grained texture of lived experience. Here I’m complaining that the state is intervening from the top in an intensely fine-grained and individual case. Why? Because the party in power is trying to suck up to a minority constituency of Americans who voted for the party, without any shame at all about it. They're not even pretending there's a general policy question here.

If they had shame, they’d be embarrassed, chagrined, mortified that the highest legislative body in the country and the President of the United States can find the time to have a special Sunday session and work out high-level compromises to save a single life, any single life. How about all the other people who died last week who could have been saved? What about the people who don’t have quality health care who died or were hurt? Why not have a Sunday session to help them pay their bills? Why not have a Sunday session to help a man who’s losing his house, help a woman who can’t buy her medications, help a child who can’t get enough food to eat? What makes Terry Schiavo Citizen Number 1, the sleeping princess whom the King has decreed shall receive every benevolence in his power to grant? It isn’t even a serendipity that the King’s eyes happened to alight on her as he passed by. Serendipity I could deal with: if the President happens to read a letter from some poor schmuck and it touches his heartstrings and he wants to quietly do something, he tells an aide to look into it, he puts a twenty in a White House envelope and sends it on, ok, it happens. Serendipity wouldn’t be shameful.

This is, and it’s being done so brazenly that I think it suggests that the point of ultimate shamelessness is fast approaching. When it does, if it already has, then there really will be very little for anyone to do besides mockery and silence, besides accept our second-class citizenship in a country owned and operated by plutocrats for the religious right.

The one hope here is that it appears a significant majority of Americans, based on a new poll, seem to recognize just how shameful Congressional involvement is in this case, just how much it is motivated by an indecent politics rather than a decent humanitarianism.

Of course, keep in mind that Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy complains that the poll makes "biased" statements which, uh, happen to be true in its questions, such as "doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible". Give me a break. Should the poll question read, "There's a few doctors here and there who have a theory that she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible. On the other hand, her parents think she smiles at them, and some religious people think that the Rapture could be tomorrow and Terry will awake and rise to Heaven. A truck-driver from Virginia who looked at her photo in the newspaper says that he thinks she looks aware. Some evolutionary psychologists say consciousness is an illusion anyway. A Buddhist in southern Asia who has never heard of the case observes in response to it that all life is suffering. A couple of comedians last night made jokes about her being a vegetable. So what do you think of this case?" I think, I hope, that a strong majority does see what the story here really is: the shamelessness of the Congress and the President. Because they're only going to find their sense of shame again if we force them to.