On Our Honor: An NRO Q&A

In Honor: A History James Bowman, resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former American editor of the Times Literary Supplement, traces the changing fortunes of the concept of honor. He contrasts primitive honor cultures—those of criminals, jihadists, and backward societies—with the high honor culture of the West—best exemplified by the Victorian gentleman. We live, he says, in a “post-honor” society that is deeply uncomfortable with the notion of honor — in any of its forms. For almost a century, idealists, pacifists, feminists and sundry others have warred against it. They view it as a relic of the Middle Ages — elitist, undemocratic, irrational, and dangerous. Bowman concedes that it can be all these things. But he also shows the honor ideal, in its higher post-Enlightenment expressions, is indispensable to our personal and social well-being—perhaps even our national survival. The case he makes here is compelling and rousing. Bowman’s is a necessary book. He talks about Honor in an interview American Enterprise Institute resident scholar (and author of Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys) Christina Hoff Sommers.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sommers: It occurred to me as I was reading your book that we have deprived a generation of children—especially boys—of stories about male valor and honor. You mention, for example, Major H. F. Fane-Hervey, a World War Two British tank commander whose rescue of some of his men from a burning tank was so heroic, enemy soldiers who were watching broke out in applause. Today, in the post-honor classroom, students are far more likely to read stories about men learning to cry. Do you have any ideas on how we can educate young people about honor?

Bowman: Do you know what I think is the chief culprit in depriving us of honor models? It’s another thing that the romantics tried to teach us about, namely fantasy. What kids read in the classroom is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s what they want to read, or to watch, when they’re free to do as they like that matters much more. And they don’t like to read or watch stories of real heroism anymore. 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. Heroes are okay only so long as they are acknowledged fakes, like Michael Jackson prancing around in a field marshal’s uniform.

Let me give you another example. The story of Major Fane-Hervey was culled from the obituary pages of the London papers, especially the Daily Telegraph and the Times, which are almost the only places you can read stories of real heroism now without digging around in libraries and archives. American papers rarely run obituaries of soldiers, except for medal-of-honor winners, solely on account of things they did 60-plus years ago, but the British ones still do. One I particularly liked recently was of Captain Kingsmill Bates, who was electrical officer on the battleship Duke of York as it pursued the German battle cruiser, Scharnhorst, in the icy waters of the North Sea in December, 1943. When a near miss by a shell from the Scharnhorst knocked out the ship’s radar — which in the dark and low-visibility of a force 8 gale was the only means by which the Duke of York could aim her guns — Bates climbed a mast to right the radar antenna and re-start the gyro-stabilizer and so helped to enable the British to sink the Scharnhorst a few hours later.

For this he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and was widely portrayed as a hero in the popular media — then much more strongly interested in heroes than they are now, needless to say. But, as the Telegraph tells it, because the workings of radar were still a mystery to most people, “Bates was exasperated after the war by the way he was regularly depicted as ‘Barehands Bates,’ holding live electrical wires together, in comics and on the backs of cereal packets.” What do you suppose happened to those comics and cereal packets a few years later? They were colonized by Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the rest, whose greatest super-feat was to drive reality quite out of the childish imagination. Obviously, the super-heroes made the exploits of the likes of “Barehands Bates” look pretty unimpressive by comparison — though that will continue to be true only so long as we allow the popular culture to go on teaching kids and, now, grown- ups as well that reality itself is unimpressive and indeed unnecessary.

Sommers: Is it a case of cherchez la feministe if we want to know who has done the most damage to the reputation of honor?

Bowman: I don’t know. There are so many candidates for that honor! But I do believe that feminists present by far the biggest obstacle to any revival of honor. That’s not because they’re wrong but because they’re right. As a culture we have come to accept the injustice of treating women as less than fully human — for that was the implication of their being denied full political and legal equality with men — as even the most enlightened honor culture of the past used to do. It is no longer conceivable — short, that is, of our surrender to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban — that we could ever go back to regarding women as second-class citizens, confined to the private sphere of home and family, while men (officially anyway) run the world. But modern feminism, having helped to kill the honor culture, wants to keep hammering more nails into its coffin by all kinds of things that have nothing to do with equity and justice — particularly by its collaboration with the self-esteem movement, about which you and Sally Satel have written so well in One Nation Under Therapy. Not only would a revived culture of honor have to put a stop to all that, it would also have to persuade women that there is still a way for them to allow men to be men — honorable men — and to accept their own status as equal to but different from them. I can’t see feminism standing still for that! So far, it has remained adamant not for equality but for virtual identity of the sexes. Perhaps that, too, is fantasy’s doing!

Sommers: Your book brilliantly documents a relentless and ongoing campaign to disparage and discredit the Victorian honor tradition. Well-known novelists, poets, philosophers, and political radicals—starting after the First World War and continuing to this day — have been nearly united in their aversion for the nineteenth century British gentleman and all he stood for. Yet, even today, to call someone honorable or to tell a man he is a gentleman is a high compliment. Could it be that the honor ideal is so powerful and enduring that it will be weakened, but never fully vanquished, by those who try to disparage it? Can we be hopeful about a resurgence of an honor culture?

Bowman: In my book, I distinguish between what I call “reflexive” and cultural honor. Reflexive honor is the quasi-instinctual urge to stand up for ourselves when we are attacked or insulted. Every child still knows what it means to lose face, to become contemptible, in the eyes of his fellows, though he may never have heard of the word “honor.” The honor culture, when we had one, was able to work with this raw material by teaching that it was not only a willingness to assert oneself against others that was honorable but also such qualities as standing by one’s friends, telling the truth and being respectful towards women. All of those things we still value, sometimes in spite of ourselves, which is why it’s still a compliment to call a man a gentleman, but we have been taught by a dominant, liberalizing ideology of almost a century’s standing that the whole package, as it were, is obscurely scandalous. To claim gentlemanly status for oneself would be, if anyone dared to do it anymore, not only an insult to the ladies (which would be ungentlemanly) but an assertion of moral superiority to others of a kind which we now find intolerable.

How we untangle that cultural snarl, I can’t tell you. It may be too late for the gentleman except as a very remote ideal, as the Grail knights were to the gentlemen themselves back when there were gentlemen. Where honor may have its best chance of making a comeback is in international relations. Hobbes said that, in spite of civilization, princes remained in a state of nature with respect to each other, and that is still largely true. It means that the basic honor culture—though in the West it is as ashamed of itself as the personal one is—still obtains among nations. I think it’s why so many people continued to support the war in Iraq in spite of the failure to find any Weapons of Mass Destruction. They understood that the WMDs were never the main reason for going to war, only the most acceptable one rhetorically in a climate as hostile to honor as ours.

In fact, I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine honor coming out into the open and saying on national TV something like this. “This war has not been undertaken primarily to protect ourselves from attack by chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons nor to establish democracy in the Middle East. These things may be desirable and may even be accomplishable, but the main reason we go to war is because someone’s got to pay a price for insulting Uncle Sam. And who better to pay it than a tyrant and a murderer like Saddam Hussein? For if Uncle Sam does not exact that price, he will be continually and ever more grievously insulted from here on out, and many more Americans are sure to die than will die in the demonstration of American strength and resolve.” The media and the academic Left would of course become instantly hysterical at this, or anything approaching it, but ordinary people might just understand it in sufficient numbers to demand that they bring back the word “honor” to describe this strange but strangely compelling new idea.

Sommers: Jim, Thank you.

Readers in the Washington, D.C., area may wish to attend a talk by James Bowman (with response by Christina Hoff Sommers). Title: “Is Chivalry Dead? Who Killed It?” Date and Time: Wednesday, June 7, 2006 from 5:30 p.m.- 7:00 p.m. Place: Ethics and Public Policy Center 1015 15th Street NW Suite 900 Washington, DC 20005. For reservations and information info@iwf.org


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