Bring Back Shame

January 23, 1994|By JAMES P. PINKERTON

In 1922, Sinclair Lewis wrote "Babbitt," in which he satirized the life and times of one George F. Babbitt. Lewis so brilliantly captured the smug narrow-mindedness of pre-Depression America that "babbittry" entered the lexicon as a noun to describe bourgeois conformity. This eponym is still used, but not often, because narrow conformity isn't a big problem anymore.

Much more common today is "bobbittry," the phenomenon in which people, such as John and Lorena Bobbitt, are accused of crimes but plead their case to the media before they even see a jury. In shamelessly seeking sympathy for their sins, they often strike it rich.

John Bobbitt was acquitted of raping his wife, but subsequent revelations do not show him in a flattering light. But no sense of abashedness kept him from appearing on Howard Stern's New Year's Eve show to hawk T-shirts. Lorena Bobbitt's future is less clear. She was found not guilty Friday by reason of temporary insanity. Her star turn in the pages of Vanity Fair suggests that she realizes that her story also has salability.

Americans will undoubtedly second-guess both Bobbitt juries for years to come. But more important than the legal questions is the larger question: What we do about bobbittry? That is, how do we satisfy our natural fascination with the lurid and the bizarre without letting that interest spill over into the encouragement, even the subsidization, of destructive behavior?

It's doubtful that the celebrity treatment afforded the "Long Island Lolita," Amy Fisher, and her Lothario, Joey Buttafuoco, did anything to inspire either of the Bobbitts. However, after getting way more than her 15 minutes of fame, the mild sentence meted out to Fisher for shooting another woman in the head is not exactly the maximum deterrent imaginable. And Mr. Buttafuoco, who surely was an accessory to something, has done well since his wife was shot: He, too, has been lionized by Howard Stern.

We live in a country where Oliver L. North is running for the U.S. Senate, where G. Gordon Liddy has a highly rated radio talk show, where the Mayflower Madam has been transformed into a maven of manners and where even the satanic Charles Manson gets royalties from his own line of apparel.

One can only speculate about the future career prospects for Heidi Fleiss and the Menendez brothers. One wonders: What would happen if Martin Bormann, the fugitive Nazi, were to emerge from the hinterlands of Argentina? Would his first stop be Nuremberg or "Nightline"?

Nobody wants to be a killjoy and say flatly: No more adulation for criminals and crackpots. And it wouldn't work anyway, just as the highway patrol never succeeds in dissuading anyone from slowing down to rubberneck as we pass by a traffic accident.

So what do we do? Let's bring back shunning. People have long known that not every problem has a legislative or judicial solution. So they developed the idea of excluding miscreants from their company. Way back when, this was very effective: Socrates chose death over separation from his beloved Athens. We don't need to force adulterers to wear a scarlet letter, but it wouldn't hurt to send a stronger signal that unacceptable behavior is . . . unacceptable.

The Bobbitts will test our resolve. But if we want to deter harmful conduct, we'll have to shun the paperback and the made-for-TV movie. And when John Bobbitt starts selling armor-plated jock straps, we'll have to just say no. When Lorena Bobbitt pitches her new line of cutlery on the Home Shopping Network, we must change the channel. It's a small price to pay for restoring a much needed sense of shame.

James Pinkerton, based in Washington, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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