Politics and the Garden of Eden

The only religious joke I tell is one I made up: the human race has Fallen and can't get up. Okay, so it's not very good, even for one of my always-bad puns. But as bad as it is, I think it is a true statement. Even a bad joke often has truth in it.

The idea that the human race is "fallen," that is, imperfect, exists in all religions. In the Western world, it's because we were, whether figuratively or literally, kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

The story of the Garden of Eden is one of my favorite myths. When I say "myth," I don't mean it's untrue. Instead I mean that it is universally applicable to all people, in all places, at all times. A myth doesn't last for thousands of years unless it is true.

I've run across various interpretations of the myth. The one that always struck a chord with me is that evil came into the world through scapegoating: Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent, a symbol of envy. As the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck has pointed out, "Scapegoating is the genesis of human evil."

Being a symbol of envy, the serpent is also a symbol of hate. Envy and hate are two sides of the same coin. The myth tells us that people often blame their problems on other people because of envy and hate. If there is one sentence that describes the biggest problem with humanity, that is it.

Refusal to take responsibility for one's actions, projecting one's problems onto others, refusing to forgive people when they're innocent (did Adam forgive Eve?), hate and envy: those traits are responsible for more evil in the world than anything else. And all of it in one short-short story.

Still, I think, there's more to the story than the above. What has been puzzling me recently is the part about Adam and Eve being naked but not ashamed. Then, when they realize they are naked, Adam becomes afraid and hides. The implication is they become ashamed because of their nudity. Not guilty, but ashamed. Fear and shame.

What does it mean? Some have claimed it's about young children, who have a tendency to run around naked until the day they realize they're not supposed to. There's truth in that view, but I think there's more. That "more" is the fact they feel shame, but not guilt.

Shame is based on what you believe people think of you. That's why Adam is afraid; he's concerned about what God will think. Guilt, on the other hand, is about the violation of an internal standard. Adam and Eve have no guilt; instead they feel shame.

There is not one word in the story of the Garden of Eden about guilt, only ones about shame.

When you have a person who has no guilt, but instead only shame, that person is known as a psychopath. A psychopath is in many ways a two-year-old in an adult body. They have no internal standards--no guilt--to guide them. They have no conscience. They are instead excruciatingly sensitive to others' opinions of them, even if they deny it. They are instead ruled by shame, embarrassment and humiliation, all of which are related to each other. Not surprisingly, they blame their problems on other people.

What the story of the Garden of Eden is saying is that there are relationships among shame, fear, hate, envy and scapegoating. People who are ruled by shame are always afraid of what others think. They think others are responsible for how they feel. As such, they project their problems on others and scapegoat them.

Those relationships can lead to violence towards others, sometimes mass violence, as in the case of the Nazis and Communists. Guilt tends toward self-punishment, as Dimmesdale did in The Scarlet Letter when he branded himself. Shame tends toward punishment of others, even if they're innocent. Not that any scapegoater thinks they're ever innocent.

How does all of the aforementioned apply to politics? Most--all?--politicians are not ruled by guilt. They're ruled by what others think of them--by shame, embarrassment, humiliation. Isn't one of the main reasons they go into politics is because they're desperate for attention--to convince others to think well of them?

I have not seen George Bush show one iota of guilt about what's he done in starting a war under false pretenses. Since he's not ruled by guilt, then he must be ruled by shame, which he hides under arrogance and conceit--hubris. Pride on top, shame underneath. I've heard that saying many times.

Has Bush ever been ashamed about being an alcoholic, ne'er-do-well son who failed at every job handed to him on a golden platter? I think he has. I think he's now covering it up with his belief that God not only chose him to be President, but also talks to him.

Is he touchy and prone to feeling humiliated? If he isn't, then why did he explode at a reporter when the reporter spoke French in front of him?

What about the (late?) Osama bin Laden? He, too, has shown no guilt over what he has done. He, too, comes across as arrogant. Does he use that arrogance to cover his shame and envy? His shame that the Islamic world is a thousand years behind the West? His envy of that world, so far ahead of his?

I think one of the reasons the World Trade Center was attacked was because of envy, to "bring us down." I don't think it was the only reason: another was to draw the US into a bloody, expensive guerrilla war until we withdraw with the Middle East , the way we withdrew from Vietnam after ten years. But I think envy was one of the main reasons.

Do any politicians ever feel guilt? Robert McNamara, who was one of the architects of the Vietnam catastrophe, and who has the blood of millions on his hands, has never shown any guilt about what he's done. But I'll bet he can be humiliated. Maybe that's why he's never seen anymore in public. What politician can tolerate being mocked and ridiculed?

Rumsfeld is another one who comes across as arrogant and lacking in guilt, especially when he told a soldier who asked about the lack of armor for Humvees, "You go to war with the army you have." Truly, spoken like a man who was a flight instructor and never saw a second's combat in his life.

Perhaps that's the main problem with politicians: instead of feeling guilt, they are ruled only by the potential of being humiliated. When I saw Bill Clinton say to Peter Jennings, "Don't go there" when Jennings suggested Clinton was terribly concerned with what others thought of him, I saw a man without guilt, but painfully sensitive to being exposed and humiliated.

A theory I've read--several times--is that some cultures, generally Eastern ones such as Japan , are more shame-based that guilt-based. Western cultures tend to be more guilt-based, although shame and guilt exist in all cultures. Being shamed, embarrassed or humiliated is "losing face." Roughly speaking, it appears to be the difference between an "individualist" guilt-based culture and a "collectivist" shame-based one. Perhaps this explains the casual atrocities perpetrated by Japanese soldiers in World War II, far exceeding anything American soldiers did.

Doesn't nearly every tribe in the world--whether primitive "ones" or modern-day "ethnic groups"--teach its members not to feel guilt for what they do to those outside the tribe? That those outside the tribe are considered less than human? Yet, these people can often be mocked and humiliated. Perhaps shame comes before guilt in the developing conscience.

I am reminded of a story by Alexander Cockburn about Norman Podhoretz. ". . . back in the days of Camelot, [Podhoretz] conceived a passion for Jackie Kennedy and came to believe that somehow, against all the odds, she secretly reciprocated his yearning. Eventually, at some cocktail party he cornered her and pressed his suit. She gazed at him as though he was a centipede on her sleeve, and said icily, 'Why, Mr. Podhoretz, just who do you think you are?' Not long thereafter the jilted Poddy began his long trek to the right."

Podhoretz, like his son William, is a warmonger who believes in sacrificing any number of innocent Americans in wars they support. They have no guilt, but they can be shamed and humiliated, as Norman was humiliated by Jackie Kennedy. I believe the same applies to people like Rush Limbaugh, Max Boot, David Frum, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz: all lack guilt, all can be humiliated.

Some years ago I saw one of Hitler's uniforms. I remember two things: It was on sale for $20,000, and that Hitler was a short, thin, frail man. Rumor has it he had only one testicle. How did those things make him feel? Ashamed, fearful of being exposed--of being naked? Envious and hate-filled? Blaming his problems on others? Of wanting to remake society and make everyone equal, so he would never feel inferior and humiliated anymore? I think the answer is more than "perhaps."

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, in Leftism Revisited, perceptively wrote that Hitler was tortured by inferiority complexes and easily offended. Obviously he had a terror of being humiliated, of being shamed. But did that terror extend to feeling guilty? There is no evidence that it did.

Stalin had even more problems than Hitler. He, too, was short and frail, in addition to being badly pockmarked, with a withered arm and fused toes on one foot. When he gained political power, did he, like Hitler, use it to overcome his fear, his humiliation, his hate, and his envy? Pride on top, covering all those unbearable feelings underneath?

The story of the Garden of Eden is telling us we must always be on the lookout for someone who has little or no guilt, and is instead ruled by fear and shame, envy and hate. By someone who will not forgive, ever, who wants revenge, and who blames their problems on others. Those traits, covered by hubris, are characteristic of those who seek political power, to the detriment of the entire world.

Your rating: None
Bob Wallace's picture
Columns on STR: 89