For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture


Just a generation ago, outrageous Americans like Joey Buttafucco and O.J. Simpson would have been scorned. Talk-show host would gave been viewed with suspicion. Self-help books, the recovery movement, and grade inflation didn't exist.

Today, celebrity is its own reward, and every American has the right to an A and high self-esteem. Much to the joy of Madison Avenue ad agencies and the tabloid press, there is no stigma attached to bad ...
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Just a generation ago, outrageous Americans like Joey Buttafucco and O.J. Simpson would have been scorned. Talk-show host would gave been viewed with suspicion. Self-help books, the recovery movement, and grade inflation didn't exist.

Today, celebrity is its own reward, and every American has the right to an A and high self-esteem. Much to the joy of Madison Avenue ad agencies and the tabloid press, there is no stigma attached to bad behavior--as long as the perpetrator truly repent, of course. As all Americans have asked themselves at one point or another: What's wrong with this picture?

Now, James B. Twitchell, critically acclaimed author of Adcult and Carnival Culture, offers a fascinating and original look at shame, and shamlessness in American culture, taking to task everyone from conservative hypocrites to bleeding-heart liberals. Whether or not your agree that shame is building block of a healthy society, you'll find this a provocative and addictive read--and you just may decide to reexamine "the social good of feeling bad."
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Editorial Reviews

David Futrelle

In one early episode of Seinfeld, Jerry wakes up on the subway, after a brief unscheduled nap, to find himself staring at a gargantuan naked man. "I'm not ashamed of my body," the man informs him. "That's your problem exactly," Jerry replies: "You should be ashamed." This, in a nutshell, is the argument of James B. Twitchell's For Shame, an occasionally stimulating but mostly irritating inquiry into "the loss of common decency in American culture." Americans, Twitchell argues, have been too quick to divest themselves of what our pop psychologists like to call "toxic shame." We need to remember, as Twitchell puts it, that "feeling bad is often the basis of a general good."

Twitchell, an English professor at the University of Florida and the author of several previous diatribes on the decline of American civilization (the most recent being AdCult USA, an antagonistic history of advertising), writes with energy and (occasionally) with some wit on this important and difficult topic. But in the end his book does more to obscure the debate than to illuminate it.

"We are living in shameless times," Twitchell argues, our moral fiber diluted by feel-good advertisements, feel-good psychology, feel-good religion. "Shame that was once thought natural is now considered something to be sloughed off, even to be made fun of," he complains. "The carnival culture of adolescents has become the dominant culture." This could have been an interesting book, but Twitchell is more interested in scoring political points than in offering a careful and nuanced historical analysis. For Shame isn't history; it's a rant -- another in a seemingly endless parade of dumb books lamenting the "dumbing of America." When Twitchell really gets his dander up, his reasoned arguments give way to free-associational bluster, careering wildly from topic to topic without so much as a "how do you do" to the logic or logistics of debate. It's like being stuck on the subway next to a raving crank. I'd almost prefer the company of Seinfeld's unclad traveling companion.

For Shame has a retro feel about it -- and not simply because of Twitchell's moral nostalgia. Virtually all of his "contemporary" examples seem a couple of years out of date: Tonya Harding, Joey Buttafuoco, John Wayne Bobbitt, Jessica Hahn. He even devotes a good chunk of one chapter to an unilluminating tirade against Madonna (the one "from upstate Michigan, not the one from Bethlehem").

But what is most troubling about the book is that its central premise is based upon a sort of rhetorical sleight of hand. The question is not, as Twitchell would have it, whether one is "for" or "against" shame. With the possible exception of certain guests on the Jerry Springer show, none of us is truly without shame -- nor would we want to be. Twitchell and his ideological opponents (among whom I'd have to count myself) simply have different ideas about what counts as shameful. Some think we should stigmatize homosexuality. Others see homophobia as the real shame.

Despite his frequently professed preference for plain speaking, Twitchell is coy about his own beliefs, speaking in gruff generalities. Though broadly supportive of more traditional forms of Christianity -- "Jesus was not a matinee idol, certain principles are better than others," he proclaims -- Twitchell won't say exactly what this means when it comes to delicate issues like homosexuality and abortion. It's funny: He almost seems ashamed to say what he really thinks. -- Salon

Kirkus Reviews
"I prefer polemic to precision," notes Twitchell (Adcult USA, 1996). This bigoted and shameless tirade proves him correct.

Twitchell's title cuts two ways: "for shame" implies "for the promotion of shaming," as well as his disapproval of the rise of "shameless" behavior since the 1960s, which he views as the crucial turning point in American attitudes toward shame. While he begins by cautioning that he is not a proponent of the life-ruining variety of shame, clearly he intends to cause just such shame, as his polemic quickly descends into uninformed sallies against everything he finds personally offensive. Unfortunately, his Christian chauvinism serves as the primary basis for his judgment, exiling him to a variety of untenable positions. For instance, Twitchell states that Roman Catholicism, with its strict codes governing sexuality, is "one of the longest-lasting and most stabilizing religions." But in fact, with the exception of Islam, Christianity is the youngest of the major world religions—and if the Crusades or present-day Northern Ireland are any indication, the faith is not particularly stabilizing. To claim, as Twitchell does, that sexual codes "separated Christianity from its earlier competitors" is just plain wrong; equally strong codes can be found in Judaism. Beyond such matters of history and orthodoxy, the author often displays a failure to grasp simple cause and effect. He attacks the rise in illegitimate births, arguing that the Church's previous dogmas had protected against such lapses, yet he fails to address the Church's present stance against birth control. Ultimately, Twitchell betrays himself as the academy elitist that he is, aligning himself with Allan Bloom and Charles Murray. He even has the nerve to attack the tenure system in universities as one of the causes of shamelessness. Will he surrender his own tenure to prove his point?

Shame on Twitchell for this diatribe disguised as cultural critique.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780788194955
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 11/28/2000
  • Pages: 244

Meet the Author

James B. Twitchell is alumni professor of English at the University of Florida and the author of seven nonfiction books. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.
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