25 March 2005

Shame and politics

I've been resisting the flood of commentary out here in blogistan about the Terry Schiavo story. But Timothy Burke got the better of me with a very disconcerting post that draws on his professional-grade expertise in modern Africa.
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.

What does shame have to do with Africa? Go see what Burke has to say, or let me spoil the key bit ...
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?

Not a comforting question.

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