This is probably going several steps too far, but... a work of fiction of all things really jolted me. Then I look around at all of the topics, Main Feed and Member Feed, on Ricochet, whether they be about fornication, about men-women relationships, about the fiscal cliff, about the debt, about immigration, about Libya, foreign policy, what-have-you... and realize they all share a common core of discontent: lack of honor.
What is so bothersome about where we are as a nation and as a society is that we have, all of us, lost our notion or sense of honor. At a minimum, even if we haven't lost our own sense of honor, we recognize that so many of our fellow citizens and the taste makers in Hollywood and New York do not recognize our old-fashioned notions . In fact, there is even a philosophy on the Left (for the most part) that loss of honor is a real positive, since it is so tied up with the bad old ways of war, subjugation of women, and violence.
It is, of course, impossible to define honor precisely for each and every individual. The dictionary definition is:
- honesty, fairness, or integrity in one's beliefs and actions: a man of honor.
- a source of credit or distinction: to be an honor to one's family.
- high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank: to be held in honor.
- such respect manifested: a memorial in honor of the dead.
- high public esteem; fame; glory: He has earned his position of honor.
What that definition misses, of course, is the ancient ideas about honor as being tied to courage and capacity for violence. This idea of honor is, to be sure, a male concept, but while chivalry was still very much alive, there was a female equivalent: her chastity. In both cases, honor -- and its opposite, shame -- was a part of everyday life, whether an upper-class patrician or a working-class plebe.
Consider this language:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The gentlemen who signed that document, the Declaration of Independence, meant something by "sacred Honor". It was set at the same level of importance (if not more, given the order) as life and property.
We conservatives often speak of the civic virtues, such as industry, honesty, family, and morality. But what underlies all of these virtues is the ancient concept of honor.
The work of fiction I read that jolted me so was Herman Wouk's The Winds of War. The story, told through members of the Henry clan, an upper-class Navy officer's family who hobnob with the elite of society throughout Europe and America, brought to life -- in a way that no history book could -- that men and women in the 1930s and 1940s still held very firm notions of honor, both personal and national.
The American public, so opposed to intervention in "another European war" -- enough so that FDR would have been impeached had he gone too far ahead of public opinion (although he did everything possible under the table to drag America into World War II) -- completely turned after Pearl Harbor. From my reading, it doesn't seem that it was simply because we were attacked. It was because we were attacked in a dishonorable way, via a sneak attack, on Sunday morning. Hence, it is a day not just of tragedy, but of infamy.
But thinking about American society and American character back in those pre-war days ... do we not have the sense that, as imperfect as the country was, there was a shared sense of honor among all Americans?
The captains of industry and CEOs of major companies were seen as leaders, not merely leeches who happened to get ahead ... because the workers and the people felt or believed that these men would behave with honor in their business dealings. The rage against Wall Street that the Occupy and Tea Party movements share did not exist in those days, because the people on Wall Street behaved within an informal code of honor.One did not refuse to manipulate the market simply because it was against SEC regulations; one did not do it because to do so would be dishonorable.
We believed our elected leaders, even though they didn't always tell the truth (see: FDR) and weren't always the most morally upright human beings, because they at least had to pay homage to honor. Using every parliamentary trick in the book, and "we'll know it once we pass it" type of nonsense was never against the law; it were merely against our collective sense of honor.
We see sign after sign that we no longer hold our leaders to such standards. Presidents, governors, senators, congressmen ... we expect and assume that they will lie through their teeth, that they have backroom deals going on that will benefit them personally, and that they're violating their stated principles and screwing over their constituents.
We no longer believe that our public figures strive to uphold notions of honor; instead, we believe that they live sybaritic lifestyles while preaching all sorts of morality to us. See how we all think of environmentalists with their private jets and mansions.
Personal morality appears to have gone from something driven by one's own sense of honor and shame, to one driven by obeying the letter of the law or regulation. Politicians, industrialists, financiers, even sports figures no longer argue that they didn't behave dishonorably, but that they didn't break the law.
Even something as trivial as steroid usage in baseball ... we now have former MVPs arguing that the league can't prove they doped themselves because of chain of custody or some other technicality ... instead of appearing as if they are ashamed of their dishonorable actions. It might not be against the rules, but there was once such a thing as honor and fair play.
On the other end of the extreme, we have our foreign policy. Americans watch a mummer's show of the President, the Director of the CIA, the UN Ambassador, "respected" news people, and others play blame games and whodunit shows ... while our own Ambassador and three other Americans lie dead at the hands of a Libyan mob.
Would Americans of the thirties and forties have stood by while our national honor was so trod underfoot? Would they not have immediately started shelling Tripoli, at the very least in revenge?
Everywhere we turn, we see one pipsqueak dictator after another thumbing their noses at us, the so-called hyperpower, who is nonetheless helpless and can only watch as our people are murdered, our soldiers killed by people they've trained in "blue-on-green" attacks, our citizens kidnapped and assaulted ... The ancient notions of sacred honor would have dictated that Americans level cities abroad in great wrath.
Sadly, we are too modernized for all that raw, warlike honor nonsense.
But are we happy as a result? Is any American, Left or Right, truly happy to call himself an American knowing that no one fears us anymore?
Would we really be having this raging debate about the proper size and scope of the welfare state, if the people who are on welfare truly saw it as a stain on their honor, instead of an entitlement they are due?
Would the nation truly be riven by shrill argument about abortion, if having one were legal but deeply shameful? Would we really be fighting over marriage if divorce were perfectly legal, but carried with it the same taint on one's honor as it once did?
I don't know whether the restoration of all the things that were once considered honorable and dishonorable is a good thing or a bad thing.
But I do know that at the root of all our discontent as a people, as a society, and as a nation, is the sense that honor and shame no longer play a major role in our private and public lives.
So as we think about policy fights, as we think about the culture wars we must engage in, it seems to me that the central question facing all of us is whether honor is still sacred or merely a mote on the dustbin of history.
Your thoughts would be welcome. As I wrote this really more to organize my own thoughts, rather than proclaim them.