It was sixty-one years ago yesterday – June 9, 1954 – that Joseph Welch became the most unlikely of American heroes. It was the thirtieth day of the Army–McCarthy hearings – Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was out to expose all the communists in our very own Army. Joseph Welch was the head counsel for the Army. He had to respond to all the bullshit, which he did, calmly and precisely. He was patient without being condescending, but he had his limits.
The problem was Fred Fisher, one of the junior attorneys at Welch’s law firm. That day McCarthy accused Fisher of associating, while in law school long ago, with the National Lawyers Guild. Who? J. Edgar Hoover had been trying to get the attorney general to designate those guys a Communist front organization, without much success. Still, there was no reason to have this cloud any issues. Welch had already discussed this with Fisher and the two agreed Fisher should sit this one out. Fisher was not part of the Army’s legal team at all. He was back in Boston. McCarthy knew that, but he attacked Welch anyway, as someone who employed communists himself. He had names, or a name – Fred Fisher.
Welch was blindsided. There was no prior warning and certainly no previous agreement to bring this up – and this Fisher guy was now going to be ruined, over nothing much at all, in a hearing about other things, where he wasn’t even a minor participant. Welch kind of exploded:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.
When McCarthy wouldn’t let it go Welch stopped him with this:
Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
The audience in the Senate chambers, and the newspaper and television reporters there, burst into applause. McCarthy still wouldn’t let it go, so there was this:
Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have seen fit to bring it out. And if there is a God in Heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further.
A week later those hearings came to a close. McCarthy was officially condemned by the Senate for contempt against his colleagues in December 1954, and then his heavy drinking really got out of hand. Still in office, he died in 1957 – his liver gave out. Welch went on to play the judge in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder – that 1959 courtroom drama with the cool Duke Ellington score in the background. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – and McCarthy was dead. And everyone agreed. McCarthy should have been ashamed of himself. Joseph Welsh was the hero. A sense of shame is what keeps us from turning into moral monsters.
People understand this. In his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Barry Goldwater said this – “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” And Lyndon Johnson won in a massive landslide. People knew. They remembered Joe McCarthy. Mitt Romney seemed to think it would be enough to remind everyone that he wasn’t Obama. His book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness laid it all out. American had nothing to be ashamed of, for we have never done anything wrong, really. That was the deal. Obama “apologizes for” America, and Romney won’t – and he lost too. We do goof now and then. We do piss people off. It happens. A mild bit of shame is appropriate now and then. We are a decent people, or try to be.
Then there was Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction. We should have been ashamed of ourselves. We tortured people, lots of them, and many of them died, and we got nothing even vaguely useful from any of it. We should have been ashamed of ourselves. We lost nearly five thousand troops, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, and we spent two or three trillion dollars on it all, and Iraq and the whole region is a bigger mess, and far more dangerous, than when we started. We should have been ashamed of ourselves. At long last, have we left no sense of decency? Have we no shame?
For the dead, there’s a standard answer to that – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. If your Latin is rusty, that’s from Horace’s Odes – “It is sweet and right (or honorable) to die for your country” – but Wilfred Owen wrote that famous poem about that bullshit. Nothing was sweet in the trenches in 1917 in France. The architects of our Iraq war may say such things. Others know that shame of war. There’s nothing decent about it.
Have we no shame? It seems we don’t. We’re uncomfortable with the whole concept, and some people don’t even understand the concept – the Kardashians and the Duggar family and that girl in high school, who really was a lot of fun – and the social conservatives.
That may be overstating it. Social conservatives are all about shame. Others should be ashamed, not them. Like Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater and Mitt Romney, they’re out to shame others, and that just took a strange twist with this:
Public shaming would be an effective way to regulate the “irresponsible behavior” of unwed mothers, misbehaving teenagers and welfare recipients, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) argued in his 1995 book Profiles in Character.
In a chapter called “The Restoration of Shame,” the likely 2016 presidential candidate made the case that restoring the art of public humiliation could help prevent pregnancies “out of wedlock.”
The relevant passage is this:
“One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.”
And then it gets really strange:
Bush points to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character is forced to wear a large red “A” for “adulterer” on her clothes to punish her for having an extramarital affair that produced a child, as an early model for his worldview. “Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots,” Bush wrote.
Yes, he went there:
As governor of Florida in 2001, Bush had the opportunity to test his theory on public shaming. He declined to veto a very controversial bill that required single mothers who did not know the identity of the father to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper before they could legally put their babies up for adoption. He later signed a repeal of the so-called “Scarlet Letter” law in 2003 after it was successfully challenged in court.
But there’s more:
Bush’s ideas about public shaming extended beyond unwed parents. He said American schools and the welfare system could use a healthy dose of shame as well. “For many, it is more shameful to work than to take public assistance – that is how backward shame has become!” he wrote, adding that the juvenile criminal justice system also “seems to be lacking in humiliation.”
And he was serious about that too:
“In the context of present-day society we need to make kids feel shame before their friends rather than their family. The Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinback has a good idea. He suggests dressing these juveniles in frilly pink jumpsuits and making them sweep the streets of their own neighborhoods! Would these kids be so cavalier then?”
He does make it clear that “society needs to relearn the art of public and private disapproval and how to make those to engage in some undesirable behavior feel some sense of shame.”
Maybe he should start with his brother, and move on to Dick Cheney. That’s unlikely, and Salon’s Joan Walsh adds this:
Jeb Bush was supposed to be the smart Bush brother, the one who would become Florida governor in 1994 and follow his father to the White House, hopefully by 2000. As we all know, it didn’t happen that way; Jeb lost his 1994 race in a squeaker, while his brother George won over in Texas, and by all accounts the lesser Bush became president six years later.
What did Jeb do while waiting for another shot at the Florida governorship? Well, this week we’ve all remembered that he wrote a forgettable, terrible book, “Profiles in Character.” It starts with a cliché title obviously cadged from John F. Kennedy’s famous “Profiles in Courage,” and it pays off with a culture-war broadside perfect for 1996. Except the fire and brimstone is smothered by a wet blanket of horrific writing.
It’s just more evidence that pundits who’ve long claimed that the wrong Bush became president – that Jeb was smarter and abler than brother George – have been wrong all along. He and co-writer Brian Zablonski delivered a book that reads like Bill Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues,” published the same year, was plagiarized by a middle-schooler whose first language wasn’t English.
Bush has to hope the book stays out of print.
There’s a reason for that:
In another chapter Salon obtained, “Our Little Platoons” (from Edmund Burke’s venerated “little platoons” of family and civic society), he tells us that women who shack-up without marriage are more likely to cheat than married women (sadly, he can’t find statistics for shacked-up men). And girls growing up without fathers? They turn out, well, kind of fast. “For young girls, there is a correlate effect of fatherlessness that can be measured by sexual activity and the rate of out of wedlock childbearing.” He goes on to cite one study of white families by a University of Wisconsin sociologist as his evidence.
Of course, Bush says fatherlessness is bad for everyone, not just girls. “The effect fatherlessness has on both boys and girls, not to mention the rest of society, is daunting,” he tells us, with more of that sharp writing. “Fatherlessness is a good indicator of which persons are likely to contribute to… social ills.”
Walsh is not impressed:
The writing is distinguished not just by its awfulness, but by a pervasive faux-bravado, as Bush shares brave truths that do not actually require bravery to share. “It has come time for us to face the fact that the two-parent family is good for children” – as though that was a controversial claim in 1996, or anytime. “Historically, fathers have always had a unique role in society” is another typical example of his big, brave, ground-breaking thinking.
There’s so much wrong with “Profiles in Character,” but many have noted perhaps the worst hypocrisy of all: While Bush talks in the book about wanting to encourage adoption, as an alternative to abortion, as governor he backed one of the cruelest laws ever: Florida’s 2001 “Scarlet Letter” law that required unmarried women putting a child up for adoption to publish their names, ages and details of their sexual histories (including the names of their partners) in a newspaper.
The legislation was designed to promote fathers’ rights – remember “historically, fathers have always had a unique role in society” – but it had the very intended consequence of publicly shaming unwed mothers. For patriarchal culture warriors, that’s a win-win. The law was challenged by lawyers for a 14-year-old rape victim and struck down as unconstitutional.
Oops. Catherine Rampell also piles on:
Judge a little more, blush a little more, and all of society’s ills will be cured.
That may be accurate:
The book argues that the diminishment of dishonor has contributed to all sorts of depravity. If only we as a populace were a bit more judgmental, the poor would stop being so poor, the promiscuous would learn restraint, deadbeats would pay their bills, criminals would keep to the straight and narrow, school shooters would lay down their arms and bastard children would finally start getting “legitimize[d]” (their term, not mine) through marriage.
His priceless Andover education notwithstanding, Bush may be a little confused about one of the great American literary classics. Hawthorne’s unforgiving, shame-wielding Puritan Salemites were not exactly portrayed as worthy of imitation.
But no matter; scarlet A’s for all sluts, please.
She also notes this:
Bush also pines for the days of “pillories and public dunkings,” and regrets that “much of today’s criminal justice system seems to be lacking in humiliation.” … Perhaps most astonishingly, Bush advocates using corporal punishment in public schools, because he says the humiliation involved (rather than the physical pain) is so effective.
Kids These Days “do not care if the teacher yells at them or if their test results are less than stellar,” Bush writes. In most districts, teachers have few available tools to adequately humiliate delinquents – but in some lucky districts, such as Florida’s Walton County, educators were still able to practice corporal punishment. (This was true when the book was copyrighted, in 1995, but last year, the county school board voted to ban paddling.) “Profiles in Character” quotes an anonymous student who declares, “We feel ashamed when it happens to us, but when you’re in that classroom and you want to learn and somebody else won’t let you learn, well, they are dealt with.”
Bush then implies that spankings are the key to preventing more egregious forms of school violence: “To date, Walton County has never experienced a shooting at any of its schools.”
Yes, and I have an amulet that keeps away tigers.
She is also not going to let Bush off the hook for what he said twenty years ago:
Even if Bush no longer directly embraces, say, corporal punishment, his underlying philosophy is clear, and it’s consistent with attitudes we’ve seen among conservatives now in power in places such as Kansas and Wisconsin: that the main reason people are broke, unmarried, in prison or unemployed is because it’s all just too much gosh-darn fun.
Adam Weinstein is even more direct:
Bush’s decades-old ruminations are refreshing: Conservatives who want to dismantle government once conceded honestly that their ideal “free” society had just as many constraints in individual freedom as a communist state’s; it’s just that the limits came from good ol’-fashioned moral busybodies and their powers of ostracism instead of any formal legal code.
Who helped Bush write this dreck, anyway?
Those are fighting words:
In a statement to Business Insider, Bush spokesperson Allie Brandenburger described criticism of the writings as “cheap shots.”…
“Anyone can take cheap shots, but Governor Bush has dedicated himself to helping low-income kids in broken homes, single moms, and victims of domestic abuse so that they can achieve their dreams. That’s what he is all about,” she explained.
Brandenburger also pointed to Bush’s record in Florida including efforts to fight domestic violence, child support enforcement, and education programs for low income children.
“Here is Governor Bush’s record: He took action against irresponsible fathers by increasing child support enforcement by 90%. He fought for school choice programs so single mothers could provide better education options to their children, driving strong gains in African American and Hispanic student achievement. He made fighting domestic violence a top priority of his Administration, reducing the rate of these crimes by 27%,” Brandenburger said.
Fine, but there was this:
Likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s “heart was in the right place” when he argued that single mothers should experience “public condemnation,” GOP strategist Cheri Jacobus told CNN on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Jacobus said that the likely candidate was making an effort to save taxpayer money.
“His heart was in the right place,” she insisted. “He’s talking about solving the problem of unwed motherhood, children being born into these families. Our latest census data shows us that of the bottom fifth of earners in this country, 83 percent are comprised of single-parent households, unwed mothers. You have children being born and raised into poverty.”
Jacobus asserted that what Bush “should have done probably is focused on the fathers walking away, and there should be a stigma, there should be shame attached, letting these children grow up in poverty, having the mother’s family having to support them and in many cases, of course, taxpayers supporting them.”
That didn’t fly:
CNN host Carol Costello pointed out that, as governor of Florida, Bush had not vetoed a law that forced single mothers who were putting their babies up for adoption to post their full names, physical descriptions and the names of their sexual partners in the newspaper.
“I don’t think you should be calling it public shaming,” Jacobus declared.
“To write about who you had sex with? And make it public?” Costello replied, shaking her head.
“You’ve got to support the effort,” Jacobus replied. “Was it an inelegant way to do it? Yes, but the effort and the feeling and the impetus behind it are correct. Did they get it right? Absolutely not. But it was not meant to shame the parent, the mother.”
“They were putting their child up for adoption,” Costello noted, still trying to understand Jacobus’s logic.
“They’re trying to at least let the father’s family have some say in that,” Jacobus continued. “That was the effort. It was not designed to shame the mother. If that was the result, then that’s why it didn’t work.”
“The intent behind it was definitely to help the child, putting the child first. And I think it’s hard to not support that.”
It may be impossible to untangle that logic, but it’s also impossible to shake the feeling that this was all planned. This was not an embarrassment from the past. Sixty-one years ago, Joseph Welch said someone should be ashamed of themselves – specifically Senator Joseph McCarthy – and Welch became a national hero. Perhaps that could be done again. This time, someone else should be ashamed – single mothers, and the poor, or those only just getting by, and gays, and blacks, and Hispanics and whatnot. Shame on you! The nation will get it. Republicans will win in a landslide – as long as single mothers and the poor, or those only just getting by, and gays and blacks and Hispanics and whatnot, don’t vote. But they’ll be too ashamed to vote, won’t they? It’s a plan.
The only question is who should be ashamed here. This is George’s brother.