Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Neoconservative’s Defense of Pseudo-Honor

The origin of the concept “honor,” along with its two historical meanings, can probably be traced to battle.

James Bowman in Honor: A History cites a line from the movie Black Hawk Down that suggests this. When the bullets start flying, paraphrasing a key character, politics and everything else go out the window. “It’s about the men next to you.”

The two meanings are the praise, respect, fame, and glory that derive from your peer group (the men next to you) or the value you place on human life—yours and the men’s next to you—such that your egoistic pride propels you to do whatever is required to accomplish the objective of battle, namely, to kill the enemy before he kills you.

In such a situation, it would be nice to have others at your side who share the same value. But your honor does not derive from the good opinion of your foxhole mates.

The former meaning is what in my previous post I called pseudo-honor, the latter genuine honor. Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth century Dictionary of the English Language recognized the two meanings, but Bowman and much of history have interpreted honor as a social concept.

More specifically, Bowman identifies the essence of honor as manliness in men, exemplified historically as bravery, and chastity or fidelity in women. It is the group—family, tribe, ethnic background, culture, etc.—that sets the rules of honor and provides the accolades when followed or shame when not.

Honor, Bowman says, has not changed for millennia in most of the world, including the Middle East. Islamic jihadists care more about maintaining the appearance of power and control—the manliness of honor—than strict adherence to their religion that condemns killing innocent people. It is the “insults” of the US and other western countries that motivated the jihadists to act, on 9/11 and at other times, to preserve their honor and to avoid shame.

In the West, however, honor underwent a transformation, beginning in the eighteenth century and culminating with what Bowman calls the “Victorian accommodation” of the nineteenth century. The change was brought about in part by the decline of aristocratic privilege through democratization, economic liberalism, and equality before the law for everyone.

But what Bowman means by Victorian accommodation is the Christian rejection of reflexive honor behavior that calls for an eye for an eye, along with the retention of respect for, and deference to, certain elites. This he admires and longs to return to.

In contrast, I would say that his history shows the concept of honor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries moving away from its socially dependent meaning to what Ayn Rand described as the more genuine, egoistic expression of self-esteem and individualism. Bowman does not buy this interpretation because he cites the self-esteem movement as a product of the political left and nearly synonymous with egalitarianism.

Even individualism is seen by him  in this light, as a form of egalitarianism, and he disparages the loner in literature and movies that has been prominent in the arts since the end of World War II.

To be sure, the current shallow self-esteem movement as practiced in the public schools is too focused on appearances and praise, but this is not what self-esteem means in serious psychological research.

The upshot of Bowman’s book is that honor in the West as an important social motivator collapsed in the twentieth century and has all but disappeared from personal and public  discourse in the twenty-first. The collapse began with the public’s recognition that the slaughter of World War I was fought on both sides over honor, with some leaders viewing the whole thing as a game. Honor came to be viewed as a pretentious and hypocritical obsession with image.

The left (Bowman’s foil throughout) picked up the harangue against honor by eliminating the military draft, allowing legal abortions, and promoting the radical feminist agenda that there are virtually no differences between men and women. All of this then means that we—the US and the West—are no longer willing to make the altruistic sacrifices necessary to defend Christian values.

“Without honor,” says Bowman, “we have no fight in us, and thus no more will to survive.”

To reclaim honor’s place in the world and to fight for our future against the ancient honor culture of the terrorists, Bowman argues, we must praise and respect (i.e., honor, in his sense of the word) our political and military elites, and they must demand respect and deference from us. We must debunk the celebrity worship that dominates today. (Bowman speaks nostalgically about the good old days when the profession of acting was viewed as less than honorable!) We must acknowledge inequality and the media must stop being the handmaiden of the left.

Bowman is not optimistic that his brand of honor will ever make a comeback, because no one today is willing to make those Christian sacrifices.

In short, he apparently sees us as weak and cowardly, possessing too little Victorian honor to go forth and become martyrs.

Genuine honor, however, does not require sacrifices. It requires genuine self-esteem to produce courage and integrity. This sometimes motivates ordinary people to perform extraordinary feats, which is the source of heroism, in war or anywhere else.

Bowman’s book is extremely erudite, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to follow key points, though the last hundred pages make it clear that he is a neoconservative and does not like the left.

What he does not acknowledge or hardly mention is the political and economic tradition of classical liberalism that eliminates the need for sacrifice of any kind by endorsing voluntary consent in all relationships, personal, as well as public.

Such ideas are expressed eloquently and persuasively in the works of Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises.

But conservatives, neo- or otherwise, have never been big fans of either writer.

1 comment :

Richard Epstein said...


You might find interesting this discussion of the various concepts of "honor" on display in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV.


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