Shame on Us

February 19, 1994|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

Temple University basketball coach John Chaney did a remarkable thing the other day. He owned up to a shameful act.

At a news conference last Wednesday, he tearfully apologized to pretty much the entire planet for verbally and nearly physically attacking the opposing team's coach after a tough Temple loss a few days earlier.

I call this remarkable because I'm hard-pressed to think of another public figure who recently has expressed some honest, old-fashioned, let-me-crawl-under-the-nearest-rock shame and embarrassment. On the contrary, we seem to be up to our eyebrows in candidates for a national Hall of Fecklessness. Consider some obvious nominees:

* Tonya Harding. Though not (yet) criminally implicated in the knee-whacking of rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, Ms. Harding has confessed to helping cover up the deed. That, plus her ties to the goons who "masterminded" the plot, would be enough to make most people slink away from the spotlight. Not our gal Tonya. She's going to milk this "current affair" for as long as the notepads and cameras point her way.

* Oliver North. It's bad enough that Ollie the Shredder parlayed his notoriety from the Iran-contra scandal into a lucrative lecture tour; now he aims to join the very Congress he lied to during the Iran-contra investigation. Certainly his record as a world-class fibber sets him up nicely for a political career, but the only thing the Colonel of Truth should be running for is cover.

* The midshipmen involved in a Naval Academy cheating scandal who petitioned a federal judge to block disciplinary action by the school. Take note, grade-schoolers: If your teacher tries to punish you for talking in class, haul her into court.

* The daily parade of emotional wrecks on TV talk shows. Maybe it's just me, but if I ever get caught, say, taking out a contract on my wife while I'm dating my neighbor's Shih Tzu, I doubt I'd want to publicize the fact on ''Sally Jessy'' with a panel of similarly twisted souls.

I could go on. John Bobbitt, who took his legal-fund campaign onto the air with Howard Stern. Joey Buttafuoco, who did a music video with an Amy Fisher look-alike. Richard Nixon, who puts out a new volume of insights from suburban New Jersey every few months.

Oddly enough, Mr. Nixon's ex-veep, Spiro Agnew, is one figure who has set a fairly proper example of laying low after a shameful episode. The former Maryland governor and Baltimore County executive has mercifully spared us the shots on "Larry King Live," the whining memoirs and -- heaven help us -- the attempt at a political comeback.

It's almost un-American how Mr. Agnew has dealt with his disgrace. His shrinking from the public eye seems more typical of a fallen foreign eminence than a scandalized American. In Japan, of course, when one "loses face," one punctures oneself with a sharp knife. Contrast that with the way well-known Americans handle their embarrassments -- that is, turning the knife on their supposed tormentors and then buying new calculators to keep count of the book offers that pour in.

Key to this strategy is the notion, peculiar to our society at this time, that being confronted with the consequences of your misdeeds makes you a victim (which only cheapens the experiences of truly innocent victims of real tragedies). And as a ''guilty victim,'' you're entitled to certain rights. Foremost among these are 1) the right to deny any responsibility for what you did wrong, and 2) the right to feel not at all embarrassed about invoking point No. 1. Thus Tonya, Ollie and others of their stripe can still pursue their dreams, despite having committed acts that would have caused less deluded types to pack it in and pipe down a long time ago.

But then these undaunted wrong-doers understand, some more consciously than others, that they can get away with their brazenness because there will always be an audience eager to lap up whatever they're selling. Indeed, in the Oprah Epoch, when the line between reality and the virtual reality of our media-ocracy has just about vanished, it's hard to distinguish the bad-girl skater from the villainess on your favorite soap, or the mendacious Senate hopeful from the darkly appealing Hollywood heavy. What's real and what isn't become blurred into a realm of entertainment where questions of right and wrong, honor and shame, are merely devices to push the plot along.

The fact is, the embarrassment belongs to all of us.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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