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 Virtually all of his "contemporary" examples seem a couple of years out of date: Tonya Harding, Joey Buttafuoco, John Wayne Bobbitt, Jessica Hahn.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.