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Loss of a sense of shame

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Early in my column-writing career I took note of comments by the singer Madonna. A skin magazine had published nude photos of her, taken when she was a teenager. An interviewer asked if she was ashamed about having posed for them. She threw the question back, saying something like, "What have I got to be ashamed of?"

Today, shame seems to be something experienced after an action, if it is felt at all. Shame now follows what used to be considered shameful behavior before everything became relative and tolerable in a society that judges nothing, except those who judge certain behavior to be wrong.

Some commentators claim that Tiger Woods' multiple extramarital affairs might be a "teachable moment." If Mr. Woods, along with some celebrities and philandering politicians, ignore the ancient prophets and proverbs that warn of the consequences of infidelity, who among us moderns has the moral standing to teach them, and average men, how not to cause serious harm to themselves and their families?

There are standards for swinging a golf club. Violate them and the ball goes awry. There are standards for living an ordered life. Violate them and your life can land in a "bunker."

It would be difficult to improve on this sage advice: "For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave. She gives no thought to the way of life; her paths are crooked, but she knows it not." (Proverbs 5:3-6)

Everything in modern culture seems to deplore the straight and promote the crooked. People who wish to promote the tawdry, and the commerce that makes many of them a fine living, brand those who seek to remind others of eternal truths as "fanatics" and "fundamentalists." But there are casualties to such behavior, much as there is collateral damage to an out-of-control Congress that spends money as if we had it in the bank while mortgaging our country to foreigners, many of whom wish for its destruction.

What is wrong with such people? Why won't they see the consequences of errant behavior? It isn't that they can't. They can. But they have chosen not to, which is worse than not seeing. Having an unavoidable accident is different from driving drunk and having a head-on collision that leads to the death of the other driver. Is there too little information about the consequences of drunk driving?

Like the inmates who thought they could commit the perfect crime and avoid arrest, there are those who have become prisoners of their lower nature, believing they could get away with bad behavior. Their enablers, flunkies, political advisers and interest groups, tell them to keep doing what they are doing because it provides them with employment or political power.

At the heart of every "sin" (if I may use a word that has been replaced by the less judgmental word "dysfunctional") is pride. The Satan character in the film "The Devil's Advocate" says "pride is my favorite sin." That's because it leads to all the others, including sexual infidelity and the infidelity of politicians who abuse the power given to them by the people, becoming poor stewards of other people's money.

Let's not have any more of this business about someone being able to be one person in private and another in public. Anyone who breaks a pledge to his wife to remain faithful is more likely than not to engage in public behavior that is shameful, suspect and in some cases illegal.

Dictionary.com defines shame: "the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper."

The definition presumes a standard by which "honorable" and "proper" might be measured. We have abandoned that standard in favor of doing whatever makes us feel good. And then we feign surprise when growing numbers among us surrender to the "music of the night."

That's a shame.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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