I had by no means heard of Charles Van Doren till, in school, I noticed the film “Quiz Show,” and I in all probability by no means thought of him once more till I learn his obituary this week in The Times. Van Doren, if you happen to didn’t know, was the polished scion of a distinguished American literary household, who in the 1950s was a champion contestant on the NBC present “Twenty-One,” dazzling tens of millions of viewers with what appeared like preternatural erudition.
But the present had been rigged, the contestants coached, their fates decided by the want of the producers to fabricate drama and preserve scores. When the fact got here out, America was scandalized and Van Doren almost ruined.
“I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years,” he informed a congressional committee in 1959, after lastly coming clear about what he had carried out (together with different contestants). He spent the the rest of his 93 years residing a decidedly quiet and unblemished life.
Had Van Doren come alongside just a few a long time later, there would have been no huge scandal in fabricating actuality and no nice disgrace in collaborating in it. The traces between fame and infamy would have blurred, and each could possibly be monetized. Personal shame may need been defined away as a kind of victimization by a grasping company, an unloving father or mother, systemic social forces — or with the declare, presumably true, that just about all people does it.
The distinction between then and now’s price pondering in the Age of Trump — an age whose signature function isn’t populism or nationalism or every other –ism extensively connected to the president. It’s the tried annihilation of disgrace. Shame is neither sin nor folly. It’s what persons are imagined to really feel in the fee, recollection or publicity of sin and folly.
In days bygone, the prescribed methodology for avoiding disgrace was behaving nicely. Or, if it couldn’t be prevented, feeling deep regret and performing some kind of penance.
By distinction, the Trumpian methodology for avoiding disgrace just isn’t giving a rattling. Spurious bone-spur draft deferment? Shrug. Fraudulent enterprise and charitable practices? Snigger. Outrageous private invective? Sneer. Inhumane remedy of youngsters at the border? Snarl.
Hush-money payoffs to porn-star and centerfold mistresses? Stud!
The annihilation of disgrace requires two issues. First, nerve: Whatever else is likely to be mentioned about Trump, it takes immense brass to lie as ceaselessly and flagrantly as he does with out apparently triggering any variety of inside emotional disaster. Ordinary mortals are inclined to blush when caught out in some variety of mischief. Trump smirks.
But it additionally takes public acquiescence. Van Doren may need succeeded in rapidly burying his disgrace if the revelation of his dishonest hadn’t led to tidal waves of dismay and disdain. The United States of the 1950s wasn’t but the land of untimely exoneration. A half-century after the scandal, when Van Doren lastly wrote about his experiences in an essay for The New Yorker, he confessed, “It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on ‘Twenty-One’ is still part of me.”
Will the cheaters of today — think of Jussie Smollett or Felicity Huffman — feel the same kind of self-reproach in 10 or 20 years? Hard to say, though I doubt it. Smollett, who was accused of staging a hate crime against himself, expressed no contrition after all the charges against him were curiously dropped and his court file sealed. Huffman did better by pleading guilty in the college-admissions cheating scandal, and will surely have to lay low for a while. But a comeback story — polished, perhaps, by a teary TV confessional and a tastefully publicized journey of self-discovery — surely awaits her, and maybe Smollett, too.
It was once the useful role of conservatives to resist these sorts of trends — to stand athwart declining moral standards, yelling Stop. They lost whatever right they had to play that role when they got behind Trump, not only acquiescing in the culture of shamelessness but also savoring its fruits. Among them: Never being beholden to what they said or wrote yesterday. Never holding themselves to the standards they demand of others. Never having to say they are sorry.
Trump-supporting conservatives — the self-aware ones, at least — justify this bargain as a price worth paying in order to wage ideological combat against the hypostatized evil left. In fact it only makes them enablers in the degraded culture they once deplored. What Chicago prosecutor Kim Foxx is to Smollett, they are to Trump.
Not everyone has to succumb to this culture. In his New Yorker essay, Van Doren revealed that in the early 1990s he was offered $100,000 by the makers of “Quiz Show” to serve as a “guarantee of [the film’s] truthfulness.” Van Doren admits he was tempted, but at the urging of his wife he turned the money down. Even after more than 30 years of suffering and contrition, he chose not to profit from a dishonorable deed.
Van Doren died redeemed. Rest in peace.