Homecoming is, for me, always an invitation to unnatural acts – specifically, reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page. (Hey. Dad’s a subscriber.) For example, this Bret Stephens piece (Dec. 12), “Honor Killing” [maybe a web link, but I’m not seeing it]:
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America morals count for a lot while honor counts for relatively little. Reading the lamentable report of the Iraq Study Group, it shows.
The operative word in the ISG report is “should,” which is what grammarians call a defective verb. The report easily contains more than a 100 shoulds, varying tonally from hectoring to plaintive to nitpicking …
By contrast the word “honor” appears just once: “We also honour the many Iraqis who have sacrificed on behalf of their country,” writes ISG co-chairman James Baker and Lee Hamilton, who also put in a kind word for our Coalition allies.
But honor isn’t simply a sentimental verb. It is a decisive principle of action in all foreign policy, never more so than in the honor-obsessed Middle East. It is not about good intentions, wisdom or virtue, but about appearances and perception. “Honor acts solely for the public eye,” wrote Tocqueville. In practice, it means standing by one’s friends and defying one’s enemies, whatever the price. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War Richard Nixon ordered the military resupply of Israel in its hour of need not because he was sympathetic to Jews – he wasn’t – but because he understood that the U.S. could not be seen to let a client down. Nine months later, he was accorded a ticker-tape parade through the streets of Cairo.
Then Stephens accuses the authors of the report of failing ‘the test of honor’ by conceding, with their first sentence, that “the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” Then it actually gets worse. (And, obviously, we could back up and point out that there are problems with reducing honor to ‘help your friends, hurt your enemies’. This confusion, I’ll wager, has more than a little to do with the man’s bizarre allergy to ‘should’, in a document that is supposed to recommend a course of action.) But let’s go back to the Tocqueville quote. It’s actually interesting to read how the quoted passage continues:
… for honor acts solely for the public eye, differing in this respect from mere virtue, which lives upon itself, contented with its own approval.
If the reader has distinctly apprehended all that goes before, he will understand that there is a close and necessary relation between the inequality of social conditions and what has here been styled honor, a relation which, if I am not mistaken, had not before been clearly pointed out. I shall therefore make one more attempt to illustrate it satisfactorily.
Suppose a nation stands apart from the rest of mankind: independently of certain general wants inherent in the human race, it will also have wants and interests peculiar to itself. Certain opinions in respect to censure or approbation forthwith arise in the community which are peculiar to itself and which are styled honor by the members of that community. Now suppose that in this same nation a caste arises which, in its turn, stands apart from all the other classes, and contracts certain peculiar wants, which give rise in their turn to special opinions. The honor of this caste, composed of a medley of the peculiar notions of the nation and the still more peculiar notions of the caste, will be as remote as it is possible to conceive from the simple and general opinions of men.
I’m willing to bet that Bret Stephens, as reader, hasn’t apprehended all that went before. Tocqueville gives a long disquisition on the class dynamics of the feudal honor system – how fundamentally un-American it is, among other things. Stephens concludes his op-ed by perorating impressively on the threat the ISG poses to American Feudalism – that is, to the sorts of patron-client relationships that are the soul of political order. “If the U.S. faces a terror problem today, it is not because it is an obnoxious hyperpower or a rapacious globalizer, but because of the deep suspicion that it is not too ashamed to betray its friends or cut a deal with its enemies – in short, that it lacks a sense of honor.” Here is Tocqueville on the system Stephens is advocating:
To remain faithful to the lord, to sacrifice oneself for him if called upon, to share his good or evil fortunes, to stand by him in his undertakings, whatever they might be, such were the first injunctions of feudal honor in relation to the political institutions of those times. The treachery of a vassal was branded with extraordinary severity by public opinion, and a name of peculiar infamy was invented for the offense; it was called felony. On the contrary, few traces are to be found in the Middle Ages of the passion that constituted the life of the nations of antiquity; I mean patriotism.
One could go on. Or one might, for preference, turn to Harvey Mansfield’s Weekly Standard piece on “Democracy and Greatness”. It has that curious Great Chain of Being – yet postmodern – quality I have come to associate with the modern conservative punditariat: “A species can be good, and there can be grades of goodness so that species can be ranked, raccoons above ants – though modern biology is uncomfortable with any notion of hierarchy. We non scientific people dignify animals by making them pets, and giving them pet names. What does this show? It shows that we humans have dignity and also confer dignity. Our dignity is especially to confer dignity on ourselves, or better, to claim dignity.”
How very “Why? Because Mentok wills it so. Proceed.” of Mansfield.
This sort of thing doesn’t inspire me with hope that conservatives will use their time in the electoral wilderness to good effect – making the raccoons their clients in some war against the ants, I suppose. (And then when there are ants chewing up their raccoons, you can bet it won’t be too late to blame the biologists.)
Not to mention we’ve still got two years of Bush. Plus Iraq to deal with somehow.
And always with the Tocqueville tags for effect. Well, the beginning of the Tocqueville chapter on ‘honor’ is good, now that you mention it:
Honor at the periods of its greatest power sways the will more than the belief of men; and even while they yield without hesitation and without a murmur to its dictates, they feel notwithstanding, by a dim but mighty instinct, the existence of a more general, more ancient, and more holy law, which they sometimes disobey, although they do not cease to acknowledge it. Some actions have been held to be at the same time virtuous and dishonorable; a refusal to fight a duel is an instance.
I think these peculiarities may be otherwise explained than by the mere caprices of certain individuals and nations, as has hitherto been customary. Mankind is subject to general and permanent wants that have created moral laws, to the neglect of which men have ever and in all places attached the notion of censure and shame: to infringe them was to do ill; to do well was to conform to them.
Within this vast association of the human race lesser associations have been formed, which are called nations; and amid these nations further subdivisions have assumed the names of classes or castes. Each of these associations forms, as it were, a separate species of the human race; and though it has no essential difference from the mass of mankind, to a certain extent it stands apart and has certain wants peculiar to itself. To these special wants must be attributed the modifications which affect, in various degrees and in different countries, the mode of considering human actions and the estimate which is formed of them. It is the general and permanent interest of mankind that men should not kill each other; but it may happen to be the peculiar and temporary interest of a people or a class to justify, or even to honor, homicide.
One could go on. But I suppose there is nothing more to say except that amazon has Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, volume 1 marked down to $8.99. In fact, they’ve got a whole bunch of stuff marked down 50-70%. Adult Swim stuff. (You can have yourself a whole Braksploitation Festival.) Smallville. Veronica Mars. Ooooh, Wonder Woman, season 1, for only $11.99. Linda Carter really was Wonder Woman. I feel it is important to sublimate my cravings for honor, so these sorts of productions satisfy them.