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Thursday 21 March 2019

The shameless age

  • Being exposed as a liar used to cost politicians their job when instant resignation was expected
  • Today, from Trump to Brexit, there is a brash new tendency to brazen out exposed lies and simply ignore them
  • A new factor is the super rich, who can buy their way out of scandal. For them, shame is for ordinary people

By Catherine Nixey

Let’s start with a story. Like all good stories, this one has a villain. Like even better stories, it also has sex, a beautiful woman, and the hint of dastardly Russian interference.

On the evening of 8 July 1961, a party gathered beside a pool in Buckinghamshire. The pool was in the grounds of Cliveden House, Nancy Astor’s former home and one of England’s smarter piles. Nancy, as it happened, had never wanted a pool at all. “No, no, it’s disgustin’,” she had said years before when the topic of building one came up. “I don’t trust people in pools.” It was almost prophetic.

The pool, despite her objections, was built, and on that hot July evening, her son Bill Astor and some of his dinner guests wandered down, brandy and cigars in hand, to look at it. The guest list at Bill’s do that weekend was, as always, impressive: it included Lord Mountbatten, President Ayub Khan of Pakistan and the UK’s secretary of state for war, John Profumo. Still, though it was grand, the party was far from stuffy. It was, as a judge would later describe it, a “light-hearted, frolicsome bathing party”.

It was also the start of one of the most infamous British political scandals of the 20th century. Among those “frolicking” in the pool was Christine Keeler. As Profumo stepped out into the garden to get some air, Keeler, who was 19, naked and beautiful, rushed out of the pool in search of her towel. She found one but it wasn’t quite big enough. Profumo watched as she struggled to cover herself with it.

Their affair began soon after – then ended not long after that. Descriptions of how long the affair lasted vary, but by nobody’s reckoning was this a coup de foudre – least of all Keeler’s. She would later describe it as “a very, very well-mannered screw of convenience”. Although for Profumo, and for Keeler herself, it would turn out to be quite inconvenient. Really quite inconvenient indeed.

Because Keeler was also seeing someone else at the time. His name was Captain Yevgeny Mikhailovich Ivanov and he was a Soviet naval attaché. You do not have to be in intelligence – though as it happened Ivanov was – to see that this coincidence might have caused trouble.

Sure enough, a year and a half later, it began. First there were whispers among the gossips, then hints in the gossip columns. Then the whispers grew and gathered and became louder, until they reached the ears of Westminster. In March 1963, Profumo made an official statement to Parliament, reassuring his fellow MPs that “there was no impropriety whatever in my acquaintance with Miss Keeler”.

Three months later, he was gone. Because, like all good stories, this one also has a satisfying denouement. On 5 June Profumo resigned. Not, to be clear, for the affair – but for the lie.


Now let’s leave that story, and go to another. It’s 50 years later, it takes place on a different continent, but there are striking similarities. Here, too, there is a villain. Here, too, there is sex – or the rumour of it. There is, once again, the hint of Russian interference. The whole thing is also overlaid by the thrilling sense of scandal, as this story stars a man who is today an important politician. The most important politician: Donald J Trump.

It is another July evening (evidently the time when political fancy turns to action), this time in 2006. Trump and Stormy Daniels are in a hotel room near a golf course in Nevada. Once again, it is the woman who will later discuss what happened. Just as before, her account will not challenge the works of Jane Austen for romantic nuance. There took place in that hotel room, Daniels later recalls, “two to three minutes” of sex. She added a little detail on her inner feelings: “As he was on top of me I replayed the previous three hours to figure out how I could have avoided this.”

As with Profumo, the real scandal here was less the sex but what happened next. A payment of $130,000 – possibly, mutter some, from a Russian source – ensured Daniels’s nondisclosure. Then, as with Profumo, it all unravelled. Daniels talked, the story broke, the world was riveted. And the consequences of this? Of a political scandal that would lead one not only to question this president’s morality, his political suitability and (if you didn’t already) his honesty?

The consequences have been: not very much. A flurry of news stories. A lot of satirical sketches. And then… nothing. The accusations may yet come to something big. But so far they haven’t. No downfall, no shaming out of office and certainly no change of government. Why?


To understand what has changed, it is necessary to go back again, this time to 2016. This is the year when Trump is standing for election against Hillary Clinton. The world’s media looks on first in derision, then horror as it seems that the election of Trump is not merely laughable, but possible. On 8 November, it becomes fact. Donald J Trump is to be the 45th president of the United States.

Over the same period, a new word starts to make itself known: “post-truth”. Though to say it makes itself known is to understate the matter. Post-truth is a superstar of a word. It might be young but it has already had a dazzling international career which most new coinages can only envy. Post-truth has achieved international press coverage, been the subject of several biographies, won awards (2016’s Word of the Year) and made it into words’ most elite hall of fame, the Oxford English Dictionary.

There is, however, just one problem with “post-truth”. And that is: it isn’t all that true. Ask any serious philosopher of truth whether we are living in a post-truth world and they will respond by getting quite worked up about the term. Borderline unphilosophical. Do you believe that you have ten fingers and ten toes? If a thermometer tells you that the temperature outside is eight degrees, do you believe it? If a police officer tells you a road has been closed, do you believe them? If the answer to these is “yes” then you are demonstrably not living in a post-truth world.

Simon Blackburn, author of the book On Truth, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and retired professor of philosophy at the same university, puts it rather more mildly than some of his profession, but even he says the term is “unhelpful… I don’t think our concept of truth has changed at all. I think our concept of what to expect from politicians has changed.”

Which is not to say that there are no lies. On the contrary. These are proliferating at a heroic rate. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker keeps a tally of the misleading or downright false claims made by Trump. It reached 8,158 during the first two years of his presidency – and that, of course, is only the ones we know about. Fact Checker also offers analysis of some of Trump’s more significant fibs, and adds a “Pinocchio” rating beneath.

Everywhere, there are lies and untruths. In Britain, one of the most well-known of the past few years is the claim that leaving the EU would save £350 million a week that could go back into the NHS. Then there is the unwelcome revival of the claims that MMR causes autism. Or Liam Fox saying that a free-trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”.

Nonetheless, these do not, Blackburn says, mean that we are in a post-truth world. On the contrary: if we see them as lies, the concept of truth is alive and well; albeit neglected by some.

There is another reason that the term post-truth is a touch meretricious. Because if we are now, as it implies, post-truth, then by extension there must also have been some blissful period of “truth”, too. We must have enjoyed a period of time in which only the entirely accurate statement fell from politicians’ lips.

And that is manifestly bunk. Few would have accused Stalin or Mao of being sticklers for honesty. “There is nothing new under the sun,” says Blackburn. “The idea of us being in a post-truth era is not new.”

As he pointed out in his recent book: “In the 19th century, the politician Joseph Chamberlain said of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli that he never told the truth except by accident.” Wherever you choose to put a pin in the fabric of history, you see the same thing. Napoleon was so extravagantly untruthful in his military dispatches that during his reign the phrase “to lie like a bulletin” entered popular French speech.

When, in 2017, Kellyanne Conway bequeathed us the phrase “alternative facts”, there was an enormous bump in sales of George Orwell’s 1984. Not because Conway is without precedent – but because the precedent is so obvious. Tens of thousands of copies of Orwell’s book were reprinted. Truth – and lies – were Orwell’s leitmotif. In his essay Literature and Totalitarianism, Orwell attacked the totalitarian state that “declares itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth”.

However, the main problem with post-truth is something else.

The lie is the start of it – but it is not all of it. For what has also changed is what happens after those lies are told – and are found out. Or rather, what doesn’t now happen. What has changed is less our concept of truth, which remains solid, than our concept of another old-fashioned term. Indeed a term that is so old-fashioned it feels almost slightly embarrassing to use it without irony. Not truth, but shame.


Today, the scandal happens but the downfall doesn’t necessarily follow. There is no satisfying denouement. The world simply sighs, shrugs, moves on. Profumo knew that when his number was up he had to go. When Monica Lewinsky was grilled about her affair with Bill Clinton she started shaking and sobbing and cried out loud that her life was ruined. Scandals used to sear the lives of those they touched. One scandal even left its traces in the American language. Watergate was so infamous that it became a lexical formation,”-gate”: a scandal that blows up and becomes someone’s downfall.

Now, even when misdemeanours become public, the politician, if they are powerful – or shameless – enough, still stands. They are satirised, but a joke is just a joke. Where once there would have been genuine shame, now there is insouciance, irony and publishing contracts. Stormy Daniels’s Full Disclosure is already on the shelves. Dominic Raab and David Davis grinned as they accepted “Resignation of the year (Cabinet)” in The Spectator’s parliamentarian awards last year. In The Guardian, beneath a headline that ended “UK politics is a joke”, Anne Perkins observed that, “like the captain of the Costa Concordia, they abandoned ship moments before it hits the rocks of unbending reality, and now they have an award for it. Captain Francesco Schettino is into the third year of a 16-year prison term for manslaughter.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker is a serious enterprise but it, too, is also a joke.

“I do fear a kind of shamelessness,” says Blackburn. “It could be just a kind of resignation. It’s like in the Soviet Union, when everybody knew that the Communist governments were lying, you just got a kind of resignation. People often resort to humour; they just tell jokes about it. I think that is a shift in the mood which I would say has come over us. You don’t expect any better of them – ‘they’re all politicians’… that sort of attitude. And I think we used to expect better of them.”

Even the word “shame” feels out of place in the modern world. Along with its relatives “shameless” and “shamelessness”, it’s an archaic sort of a word; a linguistic relic of a bygone age of stuffiness and morality. It belongs with other such fuddy-duddies as “duty” and “morality” that feel to us Victorian – and not Victorian in a good, sash window and ironic taxidermy sort of way.

This change, says Peter Stearns, professor of history at George Mason University and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of emotions, isn’t surprising. The West has, he says, spent the best part of 300 years taking the teeth out of shame. “Western society is very ambivalent about shame… We don’t accept it. We are much more cautious about shame than East Asian societies are.” And yet, he says, we still need it and “are sometimes astonished when… certain individuals seem immune.”

This Western discomfort towards shame goes back to the Enlightenment. The rights of man were declared, and vindicated. Society’s weapons for keeping the individual in their place were weakened. “Classically, shame was supposed to be publicly represented, so that other people would see its impact and take due warning. The classic representation of shame was displaying an offender in the public stocks.”

So from the Enlightenment on, shaming punishments started to be deplored, then banned. “The most vivid example is societies began abolishing the public stocks. Britain abolished the public stocks in 1839. Massachusetts abolished them as early as 1804. We would find the use of public stocks today appalling.”

It makes sense to be wary of shame. As Ray Crozier, honorary professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, says, it is a powerful thing. It “is a very unpleasant emotion, and so we try to avoid experiencing shame”. It acts, he says, “like an internalised police officer. It regulates our behaviour without it having to be official or external… We withhold from doing lots of things because of the fear of shame.”

At its least powerful, shame can be merely unpleasant. At its worst, says Stearns, “it can drive people to suicide… The intense feeling of disapproval, from a real or imagined community, can be devastating.” Unpleasant though it is, that is its point. “The most important function of shame”, says Stearns, “is to provide warnings so that people don’t misbehave in the first place.”

But shame is simply less powerful than it used to be. “Standards have clearly changed [when] information about sexual misbehaviour is revealed,” he says. “That used to prompt resignations both in the UK and here… And now it’s more unpredictable. Trump here is an obvious example of a candidate who 30 years ago would have been shamed out of politics – and he hasn’t been.” Simon Blackburn agrees but would increase the scope of the shameless to untruths as well as sex. “I think a difference that has happened in my lifetime,” he says, “is that politicians are more shameless about any kind of lie.”

Although, Stearns says, it’s complicated. He points to some of the nastier forms of internet shaming, such as fat shaming or slut shaming, that are alive and well. In a more positive form, movements such as MeToo, or I Paid A Bribe, are all about using shame for public good. They take an action that is private, and hidden from view, expose it to the oxygen of publicity, and wait for the corrosive effects of shame to get going. The situation, says Stearns, is therefore “complicated… The MeToo [movement] is trying to reintroduce the power of shame to punish people, politicians, business leaders, media people – and that use of shaming has been fairly effective. So it’s a mixed picture.”

Except, in many ways, MeToo hasn’t been very effective. If you are famous enough, or can hire good enough lawyers, or are – to brave the word – shameless enough, a MeToo Twitter storm can be ridden out. Or even harnessed: the storm can become the story. In these cases, instead of hiding from public view, the accused man steps fully into centre stage. The narrative changes focus. Those women say they’ve suffered, says the man? Well, MeToo! The accused becomes the victim and their narrative – of suffering, being pilloried and experiencing a journey – becomes the focus of the attention.

Harvey Weinstein provided a virtuoso example of the “journey” approach to allegations in a statement he sent to The New York Times in October 2017. The letter began with a short exculpatory paragraph in which Weinstein briskly observed that he “came of age in the Sixties and Seventies, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” Without pausing to note that there were men who had come of age in the Sixties yet resisted the urge to become serial abusers of women, Weinstein then went on to explain that he was “trying to do better” and that he was – as in all the best film trailers – now on a journey “to learn about myself and conquer my demons”.

In 2017, the American comedian Louis CK was accused by five women of sexual misconduct. He admitted the accusations “were true”, then under a year later was back on stage. His new set made no reference to what had happened.

Contrast this to Britain in the Sixties. When Profumo fell, he just fell. He wasn’t wrestled from centre stage. He didn’t write long first-person pieces on how hard it was to be him. He didn’t pop back up a few years later, as if from a cleansing holiday. He simply went. And stayed gone.

Profumo, after his resignation, started to work at Toynbee Hall, a charity in the East End of London. He began by washing dishes, and worked there for the next four decades. Forty years of – to use another unfashionable word – repentance. Uncomplaining and silent repentance too, for one lie. That is unthinkable today.

Particularly among certain sections of society. We have, Stearns says, “a current breed of people, of whom Trump is an example, who are just personally very immune to shame. They don’t recognise it. They ignore it. A group of people who simply feel they are above it.” Crozier would agree. “The thought of being shamed seems to not figure as a constraint in general… There are some people in political life who would probably feel honour-bound to do the right thing. But they seem few and far between at the moment.”

Take the global financial crisis. Between 2007 and 2008 the world’s financial markets, broken by the recklessness and stupidity (or perhaps cleverness, or perhaps both) of bankers, collapsed. The entire nation of Iceland almost joined them. Trillions were lost. But while, lower down the social scale, people lost their homes and jobs, many bankers continued to take home large salaries and larger bonuses.

The behaviour of many financiers in the 2008 crisis, is, says Stearns, another example of this immunity to shame. You can see this in those “financiers who were not punished and who seemingly displayed no contrition about their actions… [there is] a group of people who think they are simply above normal standards and they really, personally don’t feel shame”. The label that used to be applied to these bankers was “the masters of the universe”. Or, as we call them today, the super rich.

Shame, says Stearns, like wealth, is not evenly distributed. For some, the emotion is so powerful that it can lead them to think that life simply isn’t worth living. For others, it never sticks. Tony Blair, famously, seemed resilient to it: “Teflon Tony” was his nickname.

The imperviousness of some people to shame is partly to do with personality. But it is also, Stearns suggests, to do with wealth. Or rather, to give it its cruder name, money. Masses and masses of money. “If you wanted to point to a trend,” says Stearns, “it has to do with the very familiar increase of inequality in contemporary society. [There is] a group of the very rich who think the normal social rules simply don’t apply to them.” Shame is less for sissies; shame is for the poor. There are people, he says, at least in the upper circles of the Western world, who feel they are exempt from such things as shame. We have, says Stearns, “bred a group of people who are so rich and powerful that they simply view themselves as separate from normal rules of behaviour”.

For the global elite, reckless and foolish choices seem to carry less shame. In 2016, having divided his country with a profoundly ill-judged referendum, David Cameron left the political stage with apparent insouciance. Whether real or feigned, the swiftness of his resignation felt like a clear message to the country: the problem is now yours, not mine.

As his resignation speech ended, there was the click of cameras behind him. Cameron had already turned and started walking back to Number 10, the eyes of the nation on his departing back. As he walked, the door of Number 10 was opened for him by someone unseen, one of the many people who have opened doors for Cameron before and who doubtless will again. Then came a final shouted question from one of the journalists. “Is this a sad day, prime minister?” The question came too late. It went unanswered.

Actually, it was not quite unanswered. Because as Cameron walked, having turned his back to the nation that he still ruled, he started to hum a cheery little tune. “Doo-dooo-do-doo…” The door was closed behind him. A sad day for Cameron? Not at all. The masters of the universe will be just fine.

This is an edited version of an article that appears in Tortoise Quarterly: A Short Book of Long Reads

Further reading:

  • Western literature starts with shame. Contrary to the old saying, it was not the beauty of Helen’s face that launched the thousand ships that sailed to war in The Iliad, it was the shame and disgrace of her abduction. It’s shame that kept the war going too, forcing the reluctant hero Hector into battle – and to his death – lest he lose face in front of his friends.
  • It’s not just Greek literature that knew about shame. Shame drives the action of Genesis too, and the moment when the first humans try the first apple – and with it its bitter tang of shame – is known as The Fall. Though as every reader knows, it’s really The Good Bit. For who would read a story of humanity with no evil in it?
  • Shame drove Adam and Eve out of Eden  and has driven many an author to many stranger things since then. George Orwell is better known for his writings about truth (see, for example, the recent Penguin collection Orwell on Truth) but almost his best essay of all is one about what shame – or the fear of being shamed – can make a person do. In Orwell’s case it drove him to shoot an elephant, an account retold magnificently in his essay of almost the same name, Shooting an Elephant. An event which (more proof if proof were needed that the era of truth was never here) may not have actually happened.
  • Shamelessness – that most modern phenomenon – is less well represented in literature. But if you want to sit back and enjoy the pleasure of a truly shameless hero, you could do worse than reading the books based on the baddie of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the Flashman Papers. Flashman ain’t moral, to be sure. But he is shameless. And very good fun.

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