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Sunday, June 4, 2017


This is a personal confession.  It is not a political argument, and I do not want to be lectured by those who insist on telling me that I ought to have felt this way long ago.  I really do not.

Let me say it as simply as I can.  Today, I am ashamed to be an American.  I have not before felt shame at being an American.  I have felt anger at what the American government has done, outrage at what the American government has done.  I have felt a sickening sadness at what happens every day in this country.  I have felt all of those emotions, repeatedly, over the past six decades and more.  But I have never before been ashamed to be an American.  To feel this shame, manifestly, I must identify myself emotionally as an American, not as a citizen of the world who happens to reside in America.  And I do so identify, for better or for worse. 

I did not feel shame for America’s war crimes during the Viet Nam War.  Instead, I opposed the war from the outset.  It was a war ostensibly fought in my name, for I am an American citizen, but it was fought over my vocal opposition.  I stood in front of the centennial gathering of the Bar Association of New York and declared that no young man had a moral obligation to obey a draft notice to fight in that war.  I chaired a public meeting at Harvard University and condemned John Kennedy’s decision to invade Cuba.  I marched to protest Jim Crow, I stood against the overthrow of Latin American governments.  I did all these things, and yet I did not feel shame at being an American.

Some of you who read this blog perhaps did feel shame at being Americans long before I did.  As I say, this is not a political argument, it is a personal confession. 

Shame is an emotion, not a judgment.  I think it has about it elements of the aesthetic and the psychodynamic, not the political and ideological.  I find myself now feeling unclean for being an American.  I feel that I owe my French friends a personal apology for being an American.  They are very kind, of course, and do not reproach me.  Instead, they commiserate, as though there had been a death in the family.  But death is a natural part of the human condition.  Perhaps God should feel ashamed for having invented death.

What will I do?  Oh, you know.  I will protest, I will march, I will write, I will vote.  When this move is over and our finances have stabilized, I will go back to donating to the Jon Ossofs of the world.  [I accidentally checked the wrong box when giving $25 to John Lewis a while back and now it seems I am donating every month, but John Lewis deserves my little gift.  Consider it my Grushenka’s onion.]

What can be done to cleanse me of this shame?  I honestly do not know, but I think impeachment would help.


howie berman said...

Dear Professor:

The emotion I feel more I'd label fear, of what's next and whether our struggle will suffice. I feel angry at those Americans who brought us to this day. Shame implies responsibility. Perhaps you feel shame because you felt you could have steered our course, by your books or activism or teaching. Freud thought psychoanalysis would help save the world. I doubt he felt shame. Shame implies responsibility. Your emotion is there for a reason. Your emotion is communicating something to you- though we are all in this together, you're not responsible for America anymore than Thoreau was responsible for the Civil War. We have to be ready to fight and realize that perhaps the sun is setting on the dawn we fancied ourselves. Shame does not win struggles. Dr. Martin Luther King did not wage his battle with shame, and history is rarely in control of one man or woman, even the better angels among us.


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Howard, Thank you. I am touched by your response, which is entirely appropriate and in tune with my thoughts.

s. wallerstein said...

Let's see if I can be helpful...

Shame, as you know, unlike guilt, always involves a witness, a gaze. In my experience, shame and guilt often come together, get mixed, but other people may have different experiences.

Anyway, if I feel shame, there is a witness before whom I feel that shame. That witness may imaginary, may be my creation (the eyes of the third world) or it may be real
(the poor kids who stare at me each time I get out of my Lexus).

First, I'd identify before whom I feel shame, and examine critically if I consider that point of view to be correct. Maybe it's not, maybe it is. If it's not, I may still feel shame, but it will weigh less heavily upon my soul. For example, I may still feel a little ashamed of going to an elite university before the gaze of people who cannot pay for an elite education, but since I use my education to increase political awareness, I pay little attention to my shame, although it persists.

However, let's say that in this case I decide that the shaming point of view is correct. I need to sell my Lexus and give the money to the poor or to a leftwing radical party or to a global NGO. I begin to take the bus along with the working class, and my shame disappears.

So if you decide that your shame comes from a "true" (I know that word has a precise philosophical meaning) perception of the situation, you need to act in face of the shaming witness. Whether or not Congress impeaches Trump seems irrelevant since you need to right your situation in the face of the shaming witness.

Once you right your situation, I doubt that you're going to go back to being "proud to be an American" (if you ever were). You've crossed a line (that's my experience at least), but you are no longer either proud of or shamed to be an American. You've transcended that duality, so to speak.

I. M. Flaud said...

Color me embarrassed, humiliated and mortified. Today I met a German immigrant who said that she was no longer proud of this country.

Jerry Brown said...

I can't know what you feel, but what I feel is a sense of guilt through association, which I would describe as embarrassment rather than shame. Its like when someone you care about does something wrong or stupid, rather than when you realize you did something ethically wrong. When I do something wrong, I am ashamed. If my family or friends or nation does something wrong, or if I do something stupid, then its more a feeling of embarrassment. Degree of responsibility has a lot to do with this. And from what I know of you from your writings, you have little responsibility for President Trump's election.

Charles Pigden said...

Is it Trump generally or some special thing he has done recently that has set you off? Picking a twitter fight with the Mayor of London just after a terrorist attack is pretty low, though of course of no great consequence in the larger scheme of things.

David Auerbach said...

I think s. wallerstein has it about right. The rest of the world, among them people whose opinion is worth something, sees us not so much as the evil empire now but as a somewhat pathetic empire. And while we (you, I think) feel no part of the evil do somehow feel part of the patheticness, perhaps impotence. Of course, that's the feeling; you really *shouldn't* feel shame.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

In early 2002, I found myself spending a week and a half in Istanbul. When locals happened to ask where I was from, I replied Canada. I did this for a number of reasons, chief among which was the deep feeling of embarrassment (not so much shame) I felt as a citizen of a country that elected George W. Bush president (even if, like Trump, he did not receive the majority vote). Since I had lived in Montreal for two years, I felt confident that if someone had been to Canada and asked me a specific question that only a local would know, I could provide an answer with a fair degree of accuracy. Your post got me thinking: If I found myself abroad again, would I offer the same lie to the locals as I had done before? Reflecting on it now, I don't think so. I did not vote for Trump -- I voted against him. I am confident that I am not responsible for his election or the policies that he has subsequently enacted. I remain embarrassed of and by the US political leadership, as I have always been. However, whenever I encounter people from other countries or cultures, I always engage with them on an individual level -- not as a representative of their political leaders. I am sure that you do the same as well. We should expect others to do the same with us. If they are unable to engage on that level, then I consider that to be a failing on their part. Although I have never been "proud" to be an American (and probably never will be), I think I am done (for now) with hiding behind the Maple leaf.

-- Jim

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff, I've been reading for awhile now. I'm not an acolyte of yours, neither am I a Marxist, nor an academic. I am a woman, a housewife no less! I try to be proud.

I am an English woman living in Australia so I watch the news from the USA, and the UK with a degree of detachment. I loath Donald Trump. At the same time I'm not enamoured of Jeremy Corbyn, but what I think doesn't matter a damn.

That said, I greatly admire people who have principles and whose lives reflect that. You shouldn't be ashamed to be American because you are one, and there are many others like you. It's a long game.

Rob Harvey said...

By my scan of the world press and opinion presented on various social media, it is only the Marxists that feel "ashamed" and opine that the rest of the world thinks of USA as a Pathetic Empire. In fact it was only Marxists that previously thought of USA as an Evil Empire. The non-Marxist world considers Marxists to be envious, resentful, wreckless and if allowed to amass, dangerous. Those feeling ashamed, if Sinaporeans in the 1970s and 80s, would also feel ashamed of being part of anti-Marxist, anti-communist Singapore, aka The Modern Economic Miracle of Singapore. Those who can't stand the shame might be able to relocate to Venezuela and then feel proud everyday.