“Monica Lewinsky quoted you. Did you hear?” a friend called to say. My first reaction was: I’m being pranked. But there in Monica Lewinsky’s recent Vanity Fair essay, “Shame and Survival”—her account of what happened to her after her affair with President Clinton took over the headlines—was the quote.
“We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a ‘culture of humiliation’ that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip bloggers, the late-night comedians, and the web ‘entrepreneurs’ who profit from clandestine videos,” Lewinsky writes.
I had used the phrase “culture of humiliation” in a Dissent essay I wrote in 2004, “Television and the Politics of Humiliation.” My target was TV programs—Fear Factor was the leading one at the time—that pitted contestants against each other in competitions that involved who could eat the most spiders or sit the longest in a vat of snakes.
The premise of these programs, as far as I could see, was that people will give up their dignity if paid enough money. “What gets little attention these days,” I wrote, “are the political implications behind the television programming that under the guise of being reality based has made a culture of humiliation the key to prime time audience ratings.”
Six years after my Dissent essay, the late Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow quoted me in an essay he titled “Surviving the Age of Humiliation.” “The urge to humiliate is also obvious in today’s divisive politics, where adversaries often seem intent on ruining each other,” I told him for the article.
My guess is that Zaslow’s widely circulated article is where Lewinsky came across my use of “culture of humiliation.” No matter! Zaslow used my idea in exactly the spirit I intended and so did Lewinsky. In her personal essay, she complains of how both the right and the left bullied her. She cites Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report as an adversary, but she also names as antagonists writers such as Erica Jong and Katie Roiphe, who present themselves as feminists, as well as Hillary Clinton, who labeled Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony toon.”
The friend who called to give me the news about the Vanity Fair quote assumed that I would be amused at being cited by Lewinsky—that I would take it in ironic spirit. My friend was wrong. As far as I am concerned, Monica Lewinsky’s fling with the president was never the public’s business. Her attackers were the vicious ones. She behaved better than all of them put together.
I’m glad to have been of use to Lewinsky in her war of words with her critics, past and present. At twenty-four, her age during her affair with President Clinton, I would not have had the courage to defy the FBI and as many people as she did. She can quote me any time.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of The Triumph of Meanness: America’s War Against Its Better Self.