There was a great cartoon during the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The United States had been caught red-handed selling arms to their archenemy, Iran, to supply weapons to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. As public outrage shook the White House, Ronald Reagan flatly denied the whole thing and tied himself into knots before finally coming clean. The cartoon shows a wooden-faced President saying, “I never sold bows and arrows to the Indians, and I’ll never do it again.”
My teenaged soul, which came from the era of pinafores and bonnets, had a hard time processing the fact that, after the exposé, nothing happened. I waited eagerly for them to announce that they were replacing the iniquitous creeps in power with immediate effect. The days trickled by. Reagan stuck around, everyone forgot about it, and elections were held on the regular schedule. A shocking realisation dawned on me: People in power can do terrible things and lie about them to the whole world; and when they are caught it is possible that they will, rather than die of shame, keep going as if nothing ever happened. Even more shockingly, so will their constituents.
No matter how much water has since passed under the bridge, no matter how many political scandals come and go, it still stuns me that people in public office behave so brazenly and so often; and that this has no consequences for them.
Recently another elder statesman put himself through some very impressive contortions. (Were the Iraq oil-for-food letters forged? Were they cut-and-pasted? Did he write them at all, or just sign blank AICC letterheads and leave them lying around for devious forgers and/or cut-and-pasters, as any responsible leader would do? Did the CIA write them for him? Haven’t you ever written a letter of recommendation that you never wrote?) The whole thing reinforced the idea that, for some people, disgrace is just a word.
Then there are others of us who spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid shame. This, too, can sometimes be taken to a quite ridiculous extreme.
Earlier this week I was in the very remote Zanskar valley, in Ladakh. For those of you who don’t know where that is, you fly to Leh and spend a couple of days there listening to your body shout at you for depriving it of oxygen, then point the nose of your car west and keep driving until your fingers begin to decompose on the steering wheel. You know you’re there when you fall into a really cold river.
Actually, I fell in because we were on a rafting expedition on the Zanskar river and a big wave flipped the raft. That’s all part of the sport and the trip itself was spectacular. Unfortunately, I ended up stuck under the raft, and whatever direction I thrashed in, there only seemed to be more raft. As the seconds ticked by I realised that this was it; I was drowning, I was going to die in these beautiful brown-grey waters slicing through the soaring canyon walls.
Near-death experiences concentrate the mind wonderfully. As I flailed, the image of my mother came floating into my head, berating the organisers of the trip in her best icy voice (or, worse, in her irrational screamy voice) for what was patently not their fault. The personal humiliation I experienced at the thought of my own parent being unfair to someone on my account created such a rush of adrenaline that I thrashed one last mighty thrash and emerged, gargling and hyperventilating, into blessed sunlight and air.
Whatever floats your boat, I guess.