Wednesday, May 17, 2006

In Praise of Shame

When I was a boy, my mother used to say, "Never do anything you wouldn't want printed on the front page of the New York Times.

My how the times (not to mention the Times) have changed.

Think Paris Hilton. Think Monica Lewinsky. Think Ann Coulter. Two of these women are famous for little more than fellating powerful men. The other is a hotel heiress.

Am I just getting old, or have we really entered into an age where shame is an outmoded concept? I see it every day. I'm sure you see it too. Think Ken Lay. Think John Gibson. Think Rush Limbaugh. No shame at all.

One of my favorites is Paul Wolfowitz, the guy who went on TV and said the Iraq War would be free. Not cost us a dime. Zilch for the taxpayer. He was wrong by a few hundred billion and counting. Did he slink away in shame? Nah, don't be a chump. Now he's head of the World Bank. Think about that. The guy writes a rubber check for 300 BILLION dollars and he's put in charge of a bank. Shameless.

But the best example in this time of daily outrage came a few years ago when the Bush administration sent our men and women off to war and then suggested we cut their pay. Not just any pay. Combat pay. Or, that's what we called it when I was a young GI. Now they call it imminent danger pay, which doesn't make getting shot at any less startling. Trust me. Churchill said that getting shot at and missed has a particular way of focusing the mind. Indeed. For that you should get a raise.

Don't believe it? Don't believe anyone would be that shameless? Check out this editorial from the radical left Army Times. Here's the scoop: GIs thrown in harm's way (another interesting euphemism) got their combat pay raised from $150 a month to $225. Along with that, the family separation allowance, which goes to help military families pay rent, child care or other expenses while soldiers are away, was raised from $100 a month to $250.

The Bush administration complained that the extra $225 monthly for the two pay categories was costing about $25 million more a month, or $300 million a year. The administration wanted to return to the old, lower rates.

Now, to put that into perspective, the pay raise for all combat soldiers and their families would cost about $800K a day. And what's the Iraq War costing us? The war Wolfowitz, the head of the FUCKING WORLD BANK, said would cost nothing?

$177 million A DAY.

To look at it another way, Lee Raymond, the outgoing CEO of Exxon, earned $400,000 a day, the poor fat bastard. How did he manage to squeak by on 400K a day?

When news got out about the cut in combat pay, the Bushies immediately backpedaled on this proposal, but still, it was shameless when it happened.

But that's not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about Shame a truly great song by Randy Newman. I consider Randy a guy who can write a novel in a 4-minute song and this is a perfect example. Let's take a look at the lyrics:

Pretty little baby, how ‘come you never come around?
Pretty little baby, how come you never come around?
I send you all them pretty flowers,
Now you’re nowhere to be found.

He sets the story, in first person, of a man spurned and heart broken. Classic.

‘call you up at midnight sometimes,
I must admit, when I find you’re not at home.
My head heats up like a furnace,
My heart grows colder than a stone.
So what’s the good of all this money I got, girl?
If every night, I’m left here all alone?
It’s a gun that I need.

The threat of violence. The stakes are raised. The master at work.

Here's the chorus, sung by a trio of women.

Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame.

Randy answers:
I ain’t shamed of nothing. I don’t know what you talking about.

Denial. Now, our hero is ready to negotiate.

All right, let’s talk a little business.
You know what I’m saying?
A man of my experience of life,
don’t expect a beautiful young woman like yourself
to come on over here everyday.
Have some old dude bangin’ on her
like a gypsy on a tambourine.

That’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
That’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
That’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.

Ah, we discover he's an older man, perhaps much older, and sex enters the picture in one of the best damn lines I've ever heard anywhere.

But I will say this.
I’ve been all over the world.
I’ve seen some wonderful things.
I haven’t been well lately,
I have no one to share my plans,my dreams, my hopes, my schemes, my…

The women come back:

Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame.

The character plays on our sense of pity. He says:

‘could be right.
I’ve sunk pretty low this time.
These are truly desperate times.

Saw your little sandals, baby, out behind the wishing well.
Down here in the cool depths of the Quarter,
where the rich folk dwell.
They picture you in diamonds, satins and pearls.
Come on back to Daddy!Daddy miss his baby girl.

A sense of place, New Orleans, a telling detail, the sandals, and now Randy goes off about his father being an angry man, and how he's different, but comes back to more threats of violence making us glimpse just why this particular relationship fell apart.

Do you know what it feels like,
to have to beg a little bum like you for love?
Goddamn you, you little bitch!
I’d kill you, if I didn’t love you so much!

Shame, shame, shame, shame…


Then he tries to undo the damage.

Oh, forgive me.…my unfocused words.
I was flyin’ blind, I, I lost my mind.
If ya find it in your heart, if you got one,to forgive me.
Be ever so grateful...
You know, I have a Lexus now.
I don’t get out much.
You know what I’m saying.
Come on home.

Shame. That's today's word, Planeteers. If you want to play, name a few of the songs you admire for their stories, or give me an example of this world being know.



Stephen Blackmoore said...

I didn't go into the military. But I grew up with a lot of the thinking. My dad had been a drill sergeant in the early 60's and, well, you can take the boy out of the Army, but it's kind of tough to take the Army out of the boy. It made Boy Scouts awfully... interesting.

Shame doesn't begin to describe what's being done to the U.S military. This constant euphemising makes me ill. Iminent danger over combat, post traumatic stress disorder over shell shock. Call it what it is. Give people the reality. Maybe we won't be so ready to send our kids to war.

Songs with stories? I was always fond of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler in particular. "The Man's Too Strong" from the Brothers In Arms album.

"Well the sun rose on the courtyard
And they all did hear him say
you always were a judas
But I got you anyway
You may have got your silver
But I swear upon my life
Your sister gave me diamonds
And I gave them to your wife"

and "Postcards From Paraguay", about a man running from a bank heist.

one thing was leading to the next
i bit off more than i could chew
i had the power to sign the cheques
it wasn’t difficult to do
i couldn’t stay and face the music
so many reasons why
i won’t be sending postcards
from paraguay

i robbed a bank full of dinero
a great big mountain of dough
so it was goodbye companero
and cheerio
i couldn’t stay and face the music
so many reasons why
i won’t be sending postcards
from paraguay

i never meant to be a cheater
but there was blood on the wall
i had to steal from peter
to pay what i owed to paul
i couldn’t stay and face the music
so many reasons why
i won’t be sending postcards
from paraguay

Sandra Ruttan said...

An example of the world being without shame?

See my blog.

James Lincoln Warren said...

Think Paris Hilton. Think Monica Lewinsky. Think Ann Coulter. Two of these women are famous for little more than fellating powerful men. The other is a hotel heiress.


It's worse than you think with regard to the military. Not only has there been the problems you note, but psychiatrically-diagnosed soldiers with severe PTSD have been regularly sent back to Iraq (in 2005 almost one fifth of all soldiers' deaths in Iraq was due to suicide, according to the Hartford Courant), support for veterans has significantly eroded, and as David Brin has been pointing out on his blog for months, the officer corps, once the pride of the nation for their disinterested ethical dedication to the Republic and the Constituion, has been increasingly politicized by the Rumsfeld Pentagon.

For those of you who think that Yiddish adds a little spice--you know who you are, the ones who say "chutzpah" instead of "gall" and "tchotchky" instead of "bauble"--here's David's word o' the day translated:


David Terrenoire said...


Yesterday I was on the phone with a producer who's nagging me about this treatment I owe him and I explained that my computer troubles, combined with the tight deadline were making me schpilkes.

Then I added he was giving me major tsoris.

Then I explained the difference.

So thank you for adding Shandeh to the conversation.

David Terrenoire said...

As a post script to your post, James, for my Yiddish riff, look in my archives over there for February 19th, I think it was. The one headlined, We Need A New Word For Neologism.