Saturday, June 03, 2006

Is honor an obsolete concept?

James Bowman is interviewed by Christina Hoff Summers on his new book "Honor: A History":

Christina Hoff Sommers: You show that the Western concept of honor has lost much force and is becoming obsolete. Can you tell us what you think is the most serious consequence of this ongoing diminishment?

James Bowman: The most serious? That would have to be in the corresponding diminishment of our will to live as a society and a culture. Honor is among other things an assertion of collective identity. We are this and we are not that. We are American and not Islamicist. When we are attacked, it is a counter-assertion by someone else that he is that and not this. He is Islamicist and not American. Honor is the name that used to be given to the will to assert the one identity over the other. If you attack me because I am American, honor dictates that I must counterattack and defeat you because you are Islamicist—since you have shown me that being an Islamicist means being an enemy of America. But nowadays we find something disreputable about this kind of assertion and counter-assertion of identity. It is fundamentally at odds with the multiculturalist orthodoxy of the last 30 years. What we ought to have learned from the terror attacks of September 11th and subsequent events is that multiculturalism has sapped our will to fight back and thus to survive. If American patriotism has to be expressed at the expense of non-Americans, even non-Americans who want to kill us simply for being Americans, we are ashamed to express it.

I think that Bowman exaggerates the extent to which Americans have given into multiculturalism. The response of Americans to 9/11 and the re-election of George W Bush in the face of a problematic war in Iraq should disabuse us of the notion that we have given up the will to fight for our distinctive identity as Americans. We certainly do not defend our identity in the simplistic manner that Bowman describes, of painting all Muslims as our enemies because our enemies are Muslim. The American sense of honor is not bound up in blood and soil nationalism, and so traditional ideas of national honor cannot be applied to us in a wholesale manner.

Sommers: In your book, you mention an unusual recent addition to London’s Trafalgar Square. The Square, designed in 1844 as a tribute to Admiral Horatio Nelson for his victory at Trafalgar against Napoleon, includes a number of statues commemorating British war heroes. But last September, the commission in charge arranged for a large marble sculpture of a naked, armless, pregnant woman to be placed in the square. It is entitled “Alison Lapper Pregnant.” Alison Lapper is a British single mother who was born without arms and with underdeveloped legs. Ms. Lapper hailed the sculpture as a tribute to “femininity, disability and motherhood.” The Mayor of London said that Lapper had to struggle to overcome “much greater difficulties” than the men celebrated in the square. What does this addition to Trafalgar Square tell us about the fate of the Western honor culture?

Bowman: When an honor culture breaks down, honor itself doesn’t simply cease to exist. Rather it is transmuted into other forms, though forms which are mostly useless in terms of their survival value. One such alternative to traditional honor culture is to be found in the exaltation of victimhood. The statue of “Alison Lapper Pregnant” placed among British war heroes is a good illustration of how the cult of the victim consciously seeks to supplant more traditional ideas of honor. Several people pointed out at the time that Admiral Nelson lost an arm, and an eye, and was eventually killed in the service of his country, but he was honored not because of what he had suffered but because of what he had achieved, which was the defeat of the Napoleonic navy and the establishment of British maritime supremacy for a century afterwards. The enshrinement of an image of Lapper in the same precincts is a deliberate statement of the contrary principle that it is victimhood alone which is worthy of honor. Lapper herself made the point when she compared herself favorably to Nelson by saying, “At least I didn’t get here by slaying people.” No, indeed! But national greatness and autonomy, which are invariably the products of slaying people, are correspondingly devalued and denigrated. Once again, the decline of traditional honor proceeds pari passu with the loss of national identity and finally even the will to survive as an identifiable people distinct from those who would destroy that identity.

I would agree with Bowman that victimhood is a poor foundation upon which to build a collective identity. There is something petty and ungrateful about the refusal of many people to honor those people of the past and present who are willing to fight and die to preserve a nation from defeat in war. Perhaps it is the disastrous legacy of the wars of the 20th century that makes people imagine that such notions of national honor are to blame for all that is bad with the world, and that only a worship of the opposite values, the "turning of the other cheek" and the "meek shall inherit the Earth" mentality can restore peace and justice to the world. But such thinking is merely sticking one's head in the stand. There can be no arguing with the fact that only cultures which are willing to defend themselves with force and violence, if necessary, will perservere.
Sommers: You describe a shocking case in a Pakistani village where, in 2002, a young woman was raped by members of a tribal council to “avenge their tribal honor.” In what respect does the Western post-Enlightenment concept of honor differ from the concept of honor we find in this village?

Bowman: Western ideas of honor underwent a process of evolution that, for some reason, never happened in Islamic—or, indeed, any other—honor cultures. I believe we owe the difference to Christianity. Christianity was anti-honor in a way that Islam never was. Radical ideas about loving your enemies and doing good to them that insult you could never easily co-exist with any honor culture hitherto known to man. As a result, the two things—the Christian religion and the honor culture—existed separately and side by side for centuries, but not without exerting some influence on each other. When the aristocratic honor culture finally died out in the 18th century, honor was reinvented partly by integrating it, for the first time, with Christian principles. One of the most striking things about the old Western honor culture, when we compare it to the ones to be found elsewhere in the world, was the status it gave to women. Nowhere else do we see the exaltation of women—sometimes described as putting them on a pedestal—that was characteristic of chivalry in the West.

All honor cultures make women’s honor—by which is meant their chastity or fidelity—the property of their male family members, for it is up to fathers, brothers or husbands to protect it, and to challenge other men who threaten it. The process is all bound up with status, of course, but we see this in a particularly virulent form in a primitive and tribal honor culture like the one in Pakistan. The woman “sentenced to be raped” had done nothing wrong, but apparently her younger brother had been molested by some men belonging to a higher caste family. When he refused to keep quiet about it, he was charged, almost certainly falsely, by the other family with having done something to compromise the honor of one of their women, so his sister had to be raped in revenge. It was their way of reasserting the family’s superior status and wiping out the stain on their honor of the boy’s accusation. It all makes a weird kind of sense in that culture in a way that it never would have done in the West, certainly not when chivalry towards women still had a good name among us.

The Pakistani rape incident is a perfect example of the "blood guilt" mentality that I excorciated in my post on Christ on the Cross. The idea that people collectively share in the guilt of one of their own that commits a crime, and that punishment can be exacted on a representative of that group regardless of their innocence of the crime, is barbarism, pure and simple. Also, the idea that the honor of families, fathers or husbands are to be judged by the sexual propriety of their female members is probably the biggest obstacle to rescucitating the concept of honor in the modern world. When a word becomes tainted with pracitices that are rejected by a society, it becomes difficult to find a new expression of that word that doesn't hearken back to the old meaning.

The one word that probably expresses the idea of honor in its most positive meaning, without the past baggage, is integrity. It's most literal meaning, that of something that remains intact and whole, expresses the idea that a person or a nation will not allow itself to be defiled or degraded. It is commonly used, or misused, by politicians and companies to describe themselves, and it is taken to mean someone whose word is of value, who honors his commitments and stands up for himself, his values and his friends, family and community.

Sommers: You recognize that the Western honor culture is inherently unstable. Not only is it subject to constant attack from within, but it requires an uneasy accommodation between Enlightenment ideals of equality and democracy with medieval ideals of chivalry and elitism. Can this marriage be saved?

Bowman: I’m rather pessimistic about this. The various anti-honor orthodoxies of our time are too powerful. But we have to take some encouragement from the fact that the trick, or something like it, was done once before. When Edmund Burke responded to the French revolution—even before its worst excesses—by announcing that “the age of chivalry is dead,” he didn’t know that, even as he wrote, the age of chivalry was being re-imagined in a form that seemed and for a while actually was compatible with ideals of freedom, democracy and equality. The heroes of this re-imagining were the European romantics inspired, first, by the American Founding Fathers and then by Sir Walter Scott, and it produced what I call the Victorian accommodation between traditional honor and those new ideas of human progress. The reasons for the breakdown of this wonderful synthesis are many and complex, but it is not entirely clear that the breakdown was inevitable. The problem is, can honor be re-re-imagined without simply turning back the clock, which is always a fool’s errand? It’s possible, but I don’t see a great imaginer, in the mold of Scott, on the horizon.

At the risk of irritating Skipper, I'd have to say that the LOTR trilogy is as good or better than Ivanhoe in displaying those traits of courage and self sacrifice that we associate with honor. Bowman seems to be stuck on the 19th century Victorian image of the honorable gentleman and thus blinded to those expressions of the honor concept in the modern media. Honorable characters still capture the imagination of moviegoers, and even such characters as Jack Dawson in "Titanic", played by Leonardo DiCaprio, evince those qualities that we once termed chivalrous. I think that Bowman has found a worthy topic to reintroduce to society with his book, but it would be a shame if he is successful in convincing us that we are no longer an honorable people.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Nelson was brave and competent and honored, but I'm not sure how honorable he was. Not in the sexual sense, anyhow.

The honor that used to be accorded to war heroes sits uneasily today because most of them fought for loot or bigotry. Nelson's interest in the principles enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence was small.

The problem with maintaining a concept of national honor in an age of ideological warfare is that the would-be honorable nation is helpless against charges that it does not honor its own ideals, unless, of course, it does.

But they never do. If George Bush, to take an example at random, understood and reverenced American honor, he would be supporting an independent Kurdistan.

The Arabs who heap scorn on our pratings ('Is this your democracy?') have no idea what democracy is, and if they did they would despise it; but they understand well enough that we don't practice what we preach.

June 04, 2006 10:24 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Through the miracle of Internet randomness, Instapundit led me to a fisking by Don Surber of today's lead editorial in the NYT, which otherwise I would not have seen.

And the Times wrung its hands about the 'honor of the American military.'

Surely, if the Times editorialist can worry about the honor of the American military with a straight face, the concept of honor has lost all meaning.

June 04, 2006 10:49 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

In agreement with Harry, Nelson is celebrated for his courage, personal charisma, heroism, ability and above all for his achievements. I’d associate the word ‘honour’ more with a refusal to compromise one’s moral principles. I’m not sure how much that applies to Nelson, since apart from patriotic fervour, he wasn’t known for being motivated by moral principles.

Ms Lapper’s stupid comments about ‘slaying’ notwithstanding, I have no problem with the “Alison Lapper Pregnant” statue in Trafalgar Square (temporary, by the way – they’re rotating new sculptures on the empty plinth). It is symptomatic of the feminisation of modern culture. I don’t think it’s a celebration of ‘victimhood’ as such however, but more of ‘personal triumph over adversity’.

Feminine ideas of heroism tend to be on a smaller scale – the individual battle rather than the literal battle. There’s room for some of that on one of the plinths, and anyway it’s a very good sculpture.

Other contributory trends away from the celebration of military heroes are the relative anonymity of modern warfare, and the tendency of the media towards iconoclasm.

One trend I dislike intensely in today’s media is the presentation of soldiers killed in action as victims (of Government policy), rather than as national heroes.

June 06, 2006 1:51 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

I might be being unfair but this seems like a load of out-of-touch old fogeyism, lamenting a golden age that wasn't nearly as pristine as Bowman makes out.

"It is fundamentally at odds with the multiculturalist orthodoxy of the last 30 years. What we ought to have learned from the terror attacks of September 11th and subsequent events is that multiculturalism has sapped our will to fight back and thus to survive."

What? I remember Yanks of all races, classes and genders being really pissed off with the 9/11 attacks. The Afghanistan war was probably the most popular in American history.

"But national greatness and autonomy, which are invariably the products of slaying people, are correspondingly devalued and denigrated"

Is that much of a surprise given that Western nations face no serious military threats to their wellbeing?

"I believe this is because their imaginations have been corrupted by fantasy, which assumed its present state of cultural dominance concurrently, but not coincidentally, with the decline of the honor culture. Compared with a nutritious diet of real heroism, the artificial excitement generated by the comic-book super-hero is like a sugary snack and kills off the appetite for the genuine article. Super-heroes are our culture’s apology for not having real heroes anymore."

Oh dear. Speaking as someone who enjoys both military history and comic books, this is quite wrong. Superheroes are popular because they offer both vastly more exciting stories than battlefield heroics along with the moral lessons - with great power comes great responsibility etc - that offer ballast to the fluff.

Plus you know that Superman is always going to do the right thing, and not act like a vain, wife-dumping, jealous guy like Nelson.

June 06, 2006 4:48 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

But what could be less interesting than someone who always does the right thing?

Superman is an alien and Nelson is a human being. Only human beings can be heroic.

June 06, 2006 6:06 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

What? Not even Dr Who?

June 06, 2006 6:39 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Hate to be the one to break this to you, M, but Dr Who isn't actually real.

(Tom Baker is though. He's certainly heroic.)

June 06, 2006 6:49 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Society has always looked the other way at the personal sexual improprieties of its military heroes - mainly because men act this way even if they aren't military heroes, and if they are going to be rogues, lets at least encourage them to do something useful for society with their manly energies. Tom Wolfe captured this attitude perfectly in "The Right Stuff", where he referred to "that Victorian gentlemen", the press, that overlooked the dirty little secrets of our astronaut heroes.

With Women's Lib that had to change, although after the Lewinsky affair you have to wonder under what context women will put up with this stuff. The "Tailhook" scandal is an example of how the old boy military establishment was left totally clueless to the change in attitude among the public as to how much leeway they would get for their extracurricular shenanigans. Personally, growing up as a good Catholic boy, I was shocked by the prevalence of this sort of thing among the Marines that I served with in the 3d MAW. Not that I imagined Marine officers to be choir boys, but the level to which extracurricular sex was openly practiced during off hours unit functions. This was pre-Tailhook, so that has probably changed.

June 06, 2006 7:30 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Heroes, being alpha males, are not only more likely to be sexually promiscuous, they are celebrated for it.

June 06, 2006 8:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Well, as Bowman pointed out, Christianity has modified that admiration, at least on the surface, and the Women's equality movement has taken up where Christianity has left off. I don't think that there is much problem with heroes as single men who are priomiscuous with willing, consenting adult women in private settings. But group sex parties with prostitutes aren't much admired anymore.

Much of the sex that takes place in overseas ports, such as the formerly infamous Subic Bay Naval Station in the Phillipines, which I had heard so much of by veteran Marines, involves underage girls who have been coerced or sold into sexual slavery by their parents. There is no honor in that.

June 06, 2006 9:35 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Modern war is certainly anonymous. I read a blog post recently that asked for the name of any hero of the Iraq war.

Except for Randy Cunningham, I couldn't have named one from Vietnam, either.

It might be interesting -- or then again, maybe not -- to confront Armstrong with James's hero in 'The American,' a Civil War general (back when generals charged entrenchments and got killed over and over) and triumphant predator in the business wars of the Gilded Age who nevertheless acted like is whipped puppy in the face of an 18-year-old girl.

I would never put forward James as a worthy spokesman on the subject of honor (or any other subject except tea parties), but still . . .

June 06, 2006 8:53 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

What Mr. Bowman says about religious belief in contrast to multi-culti orthodoxy echoes what Duck said recently about Americanism (or Canadianism, Britishism).

So long as one has an outwardly projected belief system, honor, and hence backbone, remain intact. That system can either be belief in a revealed religion, or its material counterpart, civil religion.

So, as far as honor goes, there is probably little to tell between a Christian and an areligious Americanist.

However, the absence of both results in horrible posture due to the complete atrophy of the spine.

For an infinitude of examples, the the MAL.

June 07, 2006 3:48 AM  

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