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For Shame : Are pride and honor still American values? : SAVING FACE: The Politics of Shame and Guilt, By Stuart Schneiderman (Alfred A. Knopf: $25, 336 pp.)

February 25, 1996|Jackson Lears | Jackson Lears is the author, most recently, of "Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America," which won the 1995 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history

America is awash in guilt. On the talk show circuit, among the celebrated and the obscure, pseudo self-awareness is the order of the day. Best-selling authors reveal unspeakable crimes ranging from drug abuse to sex addiction. The pop-folk singer Loudun Wainwright has recently promoted a new CD full of songs that recount his many failures as a husband and father andwinning applause for his "painfully honest" lyrics--without a hint that he plans to alter his behavior. The pretense of baring one's soul, it appears, can relieve the guilty party of any further obligations.

According to Stuart Schneiderman, these cheap rituals of expiation are evidence of American cultural decline. A New York psychoanalyst, Schneiderman believes that our current immersion in a "guilt culture" has left us sinking in a bog of decadence. "Instead of fearing being caught with their pants down," he writes, "people take their pants off voluntarily and demand to be respected for their candor."

Schneiderman's critique is understandable and sometimes even profound: He recognizes a "quality of sadness" behind the vision of a society of autonomous selves; he sees the anxiety animating the cult of free-floating personhood. And he sees an alternative model for our culture: It is--are you ready for this?--shame.

The most economically powerful peoples in modern history, Schneiderman argues, have been "transnational tribal cultures--the Jews, the Chinese in the 18th century, the Anglo-Americans in the 19th century, the Japanese in the 20th. All these groups have been "shame cultures"--hierarchical, meritocratic, pragmatic. Maintaining boundaries between public and private, "they do not tolerate failure; they do not expose loss: They see no dignity in poverty."

Choosing civility over confrontation, "they seek pride and honor, not innocence and soulfulness." The United States used to be a shame culture, Schneiderman claims, but we have slid into being the sort of culture that elevates the individual over the group, honesty over tact, the nobility of failure over the compromises required for success--the sort of culture, according to Schneiderman, that characterizes primitive or decadent societies.

Schneiderman offers some viable solutions, both clinical and cultural. He makes a good case, at least in some instances, for the value of cognitive therapy rather than psychoanalysis in enabling a patient to overcome phobias and reconnect with everyday life. Cognitive therapy treats phobias as bad habits that can be overcome by changing behavior; psychoanalysis requires a (sometimes endless) quest for the buried trauma that allegedly lies behind the neurotic behavior.

In general, Schneiderman wants to reassert what he sees as the lessons of shame culture: that roles, rules, and conventions are not tyrannical constraints on the individual but essential social lubricants; that boundaries between public and private are not instruments of repression but a key foundation of personal dignity.

The problem is that these timely and useful reminders of the lessons of a shame culture are lost in a maze of Schneiderman's own making. Part of the difficulty is conceptual confusion. His fundamental mode of argument obscures human agency; the book is full of statements like: "People function best when they are working to achieve what society requires of them." Who actually is requiring what of whom here? The refusal to ask this kind of question has always been a strategy of social scientists seeking to avert their eyes from inequalities of class and power--indeed to avoid the muddle of historical circumstance altogether.

But Schneiderman is not interested in complex transformations. His historical explanation of American guilt culture begins about 1968, and he tells a wearisomely familiar story. The villain of the piece is (surprise!) the baby boomer, the hippie turned yuppie.

The rise of a rampant guilt culture, according to Schneiderman, can be traced directly to our failure as a nation to face the shameful trauma of Vietnam--not only to our leaders' refusal to take responsibility for a mistaken policy ( which is a plausible enough argument), but to our young men's inability to face "the shame of having ducked a fight, of appearing to have chickened out."

The most egregious example of Schneiderman's approach to recent history is the parallel he draws between the American anti-war counterculture and the Chinese Cultural Revolution--an absurd and offensive idea that sprang originally from the fevered brain of the neoconservative mandarin Samuel Huntington in "American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony" (1981).

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