Over the weekend a great debate raged: Is it okay to punch a nazi? The answer is yes! Some people, however, were mad that Richard Spencer, a professional nazi and Macklemore lookalike, got socked in front of cameras in Washington, DC, after the inaugural ceremony. That’s understandable, I suppose; it’s not exactly advisable to align yourself with the idea that violence is cool, unless you’re a warlord or a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. But this isn’t really about violence; it’s about a much more muscular instrument that is enraging nazis and our new presidential administration alike: shame.
Shame is a very powerful tool. It’s the reason so many people are Catholics (and why the Young Pope is so good — Lenny manipulates the shame of his followers for his gain). It’s why I never listen to music in public because I don’t want to risk anyone seeing that I am listening to the Miss Saigon soundtrack. Some things, like sex and listening to musicals, are best for doing in private.
It’s important to note that the feeling of shame is directly connected to the genitals. Although women can certainly be shamed, it’s easier to shame a man — there is no one weaker than a naked, flaccid male. As J. David Velleman, an NYU philosophy professor, wrote in his paper “The Genesis of Shame”: “The naked man is unable to choose which of his impulses are to be public; and so he is only partly an embodied will and partly also the embodiment of untrammeled instincts. In such a condition, sustaining the role of a social agent becomes especially difficult.”
The loss of privacy is a main driver of shame. Peter Thiel destroyed Gawker because the site removed the fig leaf from his sexuality; Hulk Hogan joined in on the fun because the blog showed him boning another man’s wife. Both argued that their constitutional right to privacy had been violated, despite being public figures. The urge to be private comes with the instinct to protect oneself from being shamed.
It matters now more than ever that Trump is not just a public figure but THE public figure; not only is his every move liable to be criticized, it is the press’s public duty to criticize him. In the four days since he has assumed the highest office in the land, it’s become apparent that our rancid ham hock of a president is extremely easy to shame, unlike, say, Obama, a paragon of cool who liked to cut off the press at every turn.
This is an excellent development. We feared Kremlinesque secrecy and tyranny from our new leader, but what we have been presented with is a dog trying to ride a bicycle. Velleman’s description of a dog, in fact, is also quite apt in describing Trump: “To a creature who does whatever its instincts demand, there is no space between impulse and action, and there is accordingly less space between inner and outer selves,” he wrote. One could argue that, like a dog, Trump has no private, inner self: “Because a dog has relatively little control over its impulses, its impulses are legible in its behavior. Whatever itches, it scratches (or licks or nips or drags along the ground), and so its itches are always overt, always public.”
We’ve seen Trump’s itches very clearly in his scant time as president. Crowd sizes. His inability to sway celebs to perform at his ball. Even the rain insults him. On a similar note, the nazi Richard Spencer wasn’t so much bothered by the physical violence waged against him last Friday as he was the prospect of becoming a meme for thousands of liberals to laugh at. “I’m afraid this is going to become the meme to end all memes,” he told The New York Times. “That I’m going to hate watching this.”
What does this mean for America? Well, it could be very good. The men and women now in charge of our country are small people. They are easily angered and cannot stand being owned, even though they are owned so easily that they have to make up “alternative facts” in order to feel better about themselves and placate their bosses. The highest priority of Trump’s administration appears to be responding to Twitter eggs. A very big job that is never done — take it from someone who knows. (One would think that the incoming press secretary, let alone even an improbable presidential candidate, might audit his Twitter feed for potential spots of embarrassment before assuming office, but alas — here we have officials who are naked in front of us and then get mad when we point out that they are naked.)
The media has a prime opportunity here to own Trump on every level. It’s just a question of if it has the balls to do it. Shaming the president erodes his power. (Of course, as the demise of Gawker taught us, shaming can come with great risk. But I have to believe that the will of the American people is a greater force than Nick Denton's shapeshifting mores.) So far, the media’s reckoning with itself, and its tendency to value politesse and tradition over disruption and truth-gathering, has not yielded great results. Can its members get their heads out of their asses and ask Trump the important questions, like if a prostitute peed on him? I’ll be watching without a lick of shame.
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