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Forum: Modern shame

It sells, entertains and derails public policy. It does just about everything but serve its intended purpose of edifying and improving its subject because it is amplified into humiliation, writes DENNIS RODDY
11-12-2006 National:

Clergymen are subject to the same passions as other men; and, as far as I can see, give way to them, in one line or in another, almost as frequently. -- Anthony Trollope, "Framley Parsonage"

Trollope alludes to the Rev. Mark Robarts, whose secret shame was a desire to move up in the world, playing one rich sponsor against another. Today, Rev. Robarts would be lauded for allowing the marketplace to work its magic. The thought of the Rev. Robarts disporting abed with a he-partner would have been beyond discussion. This is not to say it would never have occurred in Victorian England; our generation did not invent nor much improve sexuality. But we seem to have invented the uses of its shame for political and commercial advancement.

Last week, in separate instances, shame and sex were put to their respective uses, all by agents less concerned with advancing public morals than in promoting themselves, their ideologies and their market shares.

In Delaware, a judge has sentenced Russell Teeter, 69, a gardener, to wear a T-shirt emblazoned, "I am a registered sex offender." He was convicted of repeatedly displaying himself to young girls.

"This is a unique way to let his customers know that he is a registered sex offender," explains Donald Roberts, the prosecutor in the case. Putting Mr. Teeter in jail, where he would be restrained from displaying himself, might also solve the problem. The T-shirt seems more an exercise in public shaming than public protection. It is likely people will now come to Mr. Teeter's shop just to have a look at the newest monkey in the zoo. Possibly, they will bring their children. Chalk one up for a sentence that seems less to solve something than to satisfy someone.

On the other side of the Great Plains, the Rev. Ted Haggard finds himself unemployed, disgraced, groveling and altogether shown up by revelations that, notwithstanding his foursquare conviction that homosexuality is a veritable finger in God's eye, he ingested both methamphetamine and the man who sold it to him, one Mike Jones, a male prostitute.

After the ritual denials, the Rev. Haggard issued a letter to his congregation about the years he struggled with a dark corner of himself only to "find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach." Presumably we are to deduce from this that he is gay, and struggled not to be. I share his torment. I have struggled for years not to be bald. Genetics has failed us both.

Until he was caught, Rev. Haggard's most controversial act was to declare an obligation for evangelical Christians to fight climate change. He viewed it as a stewardship issue, a duty to not destroy the Earth.

Had he been caught pouring used crank case oil into the storm sewers of Colorado Springs, it is hard to imagine he would have been forced to exit his ministry in shame. Hypocrisy of that sort would have little entertainment value because, at its core, our fascination with Rev. Haggard's demise has less to do with his being a hypocrite than the pure fun of watching a public man dissolve in the most humiliating of circumstances. Long ago, we had to slow down to crane our necks at the mangled wreckage encasing our neighbors. Now it is provided to us via cable.

In the public arena, shame sells. It entertains. It derails public policy. It does just about everything but serve its natural purpose of edifying and improving its subject because now it is amplified into humiliation. The only defense is the adoption of shamelessness.

Paris Hilton, the wealthy stick figure, became famous because her boyfriend videotaped a tryst and the encounter was put on the Internet. Rather than retreat somewhere in private to heal, Miss Hilton opted to reject feelings of humiliation and has merely folded this horror into her public resume. She now appears frequently without underwear or embarrassment, as if fame and notoriety were indistinguishable. It is not entirely clear whether she did something wrong in her rendezvous with the cad who released the videotape, but it seems clearer that she hasn't even considered the ethical implications of transforming what should be shame into market share. Reducing a shameful act to mere bad manners or worse, luck, simply pretends that anything can be made right by embracing it.

The deletion of shame in certain matters simply to survive has its role. In my childhood, my mother would not say the word "divorce," in proximity to her children, because the estate was so fraught with the aroma of immorality. Permanence in marriage was a religious ideal, if not a practical one. Society made the requisite changes so people could live their lives.

One curiosity of the time was the word "cancer." Dying of it carried some manner of stigma and in my days of writing obituaries I have more than once encountered a funeral director reluctant to part with a cause of death only to finally sigh and whisper "cancer," as if this were somehow a reflection on its victim. A half-generation later, men were sitting atop floats at the Gay Pride parade in American cities next to signs that read "AIDS Sufferer," and others displayed T-shirts printed "HIV+". These men were convinced in the correctness of their choices in terms of sexual conduct but were also baring themselves to scrutiny in an act of courage to make a spitefully reluctant America acknowledge a plague. They also were revealing the intimate aspects of themselves in ways unthinkable to most people. They were risking a public shaming to point out the larger shame in which the public was complicit. They had a choice.

The Rev. Brent Dugan did not. By all accounts a quietly enthusiastic pastor at a suburban Pittsburgh congregation, the Rev. Dugan appeared to have no political pronouncements to make, preached a Gospel of non-aggression, and nobody in his flock seemed concerned about how he spent his bachelor hours. Schooled in theology and divinity, the Rev. Dugan had little understanding of the phenomenon called "sweeps week," when viewership at television stations is measured and, based on those numbers, sets advertising rates.

Stations do much to attract maximum viewership at this time of year, and news teams often unveil their catchiest stuff. KDKA television spent a week promoting what it promised would be revelations about an area minister. What they had in the can was a report that, by all accounts, centered on the discovery that Rev. Dugan visited an adult bookstore in McKeesport. There are more troubling details and tape recordings, which could point either to illegal conduct or a lonely man's sad fantasies. In a less fevered time, Rev. Dugan's situation would have been a matter for police or psychiatry. Today they become the stuff of a sweeps-week promotion for a citizenry addicted to shock. But none of this made it on the air. The Rev. Dugan vanished from his home and, in a gesture of magnanimity worthy of a congressman handing back a bribe, KDKA announced it would not air its report on the "area clergyman" because of fears he might harm himself.

He did. No one is sure if the Rev. Dugan got word that KDKA had decided against broadcasting its revelations about his life. What is clear is that he left a suicide note explaining his shame and horror at what was about to be made public, checked into a motel in Mercer County and overdosed on liquor and aspirin. Marty Griffin, the go-for-broke reporter who worked the story was quoted saying that Rev. Dugan's behavior, if not illegal, might have violated the rules of his church.

While it is gratifying to know that KDKA has taken on the job of enforcing rules for the Presbyterian Church, it might have been nicer to know just what of public interest lay in the decision to pursue a story that turned out to be fatal to a subject who must have surprised everyone by feeling ashamed. KDKA, which presumably thought it necessary for the public to know about Rev. Dugan's sex life, has gone rather mute.

In short, KDKA had a sweeps-week story. I'm sure I would have watched, much the way I cannot resist slowing down at school bus crashes or watching couples fistfight in shopping malls. But when I do so, I feel a sense of shame in myself for the enjoyment I disguise behind a loud tut-tutting. The salacious not only stirs our desires, it elevates our illusions of moral superiority. It is the junk food that has made us a nation of fatheads.

The Monday after Rev. Dugan's suicide, I tuned in to Mr. Griffin's morning radio talk show to see how he would explain this matter. In a language of restraint foreign to him, Mr. Griffin expressed the station's condolences. He offered his own condolences. He told everyone that this was not the time to discuss the matter, although I couldn't have thought of a better moment and wonder what future time KDKA has set aside for the discussion of how an unaired report turned fatal.

Meanwhile, on television the truth was being extracted from Ted Haggard bit-by-bit, and his resignation letter was being read aloud by correspondents eager to parse vague wording into unambiguous confession. On the other side of Pennsylvania, a congressman was facing ejection from office because his mistress had accused him of choking her. She dropped the matter in exchange for $500,000. Public debate in that district had not been turning much on the Iraq War or the economy, and Democrats salivated at the prospect of gaining political strength from opponents humiliated by illicit sex in ways they had not been humiliated by revelations of illicit war.

At the end of Framley Parsonage, the Rev. Robarts suffers shame because of a matter of money, something he had used to connect himself with power. The two are interchangeable, both in literature and the corporeal world. Where the Rev. Robarts makes himself a lesser man one way, we do it in another, trading not money but shame, as a commodity to advance everything from a prosecutorial career to a life on television.

Trollope is fond of aphorisms. One he cites was a favorite of John Wesley, who asked, "Who can touch pitch and not be defiled?" Of late we have rolled in pitch, but it is the eyes of the Rev. Brent Dugan that now are stuck shut, and this time the shame is ours. ..more.. by Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette staff writer (, 412-263-1965).

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