A Few Words from David Frum about James Bowman’s Honor: A History

Suppose your best friend tells you about a new idea he has: maybe it’s a scheme to make money, maybe it’s a plan to advance his career, maybe it’s a way to woo a girl, maybe it’s a gimmick to place his kid in a school the kid might not otherwise qualify for. Suppose you replied, “But are you sure that is quite honorable?” What would happen next?

My guess: Your friends’ eyes would crinkle wonderingly at you — as he wondered what planet you had just zoomed in from. “Honorable” and “honor” are words from a half-forgotten, disrespected, ridiculed past. To ask about them is to ask whether your friend has cocked his hat properly or adequately laundered the lace under his cuffs. Absurd!

But now another suppose. Suppose your friend tells you the exact same idea and you answer, “But that’s dishonorable!” Not so funny, not so absurd. For though we cannot take honor seriously, we still know exactly what it means to be dishonored — and despite all our postmodern irony, we are more than capable of outrage when dishonor comes our way.

This gap between mockery and dead seriousness, between forgetting and vivid recollection is the gap that James Bowman set out to fill in his thoughtful, original, and learned study. I interviewed Jim by email over the hottest days of a Washington July.


Jim, I gave your book a few days ago to a very eminent German journalist. He looked at the cover and said, ‘In Germany, the word honor has a Nazi sound.’ That’s obviously an extreme reaction — but I do notice that the word makes even English-speakers uncomfortable. Has honor become obsolete. Or worse: sexist, racist, elitist, and war-mongering?

There are a lot of people in the rest of Europe and America who think the same way. The reductio ad absurdum of this attitude is the teenage girl who calls her parents “fascists” for making her wear less revealing clothes. Honor existed long before there were Nazis and shouldn’t be discredited just because they found it convenient to hijack it for their own purposes. But the utopian and pacifist tendency that has been dominant on the left since Vietnam is necessarily anti-honor and so has its own reasons for wishing to see it equated, wherever possible, with Naziism or racism. There is nothing inherent in the idea of honor which requires this connection. There is with the other things you mention, though we might label them less tendentiously. Certainly honor takes it for granted that wars will happen and must, sometimes, be fought, though I wouldn’t call that war-mongering. Likewise, to “elitism” and “sexism,” honor must plead guilty, I think, though both words are leftist inventions — like “capitalism” or “imperialism” — to describe things that have always existed and will always exist, but that the utopians want us to believe can be abolished in favor of some more benign “-ism.” Half their battle is won when we adopt their terminology.

Let me push back on that a little. As we learn from Honor: A History, the honor system originates as a set of rules to regulate male violence and female chastity. If a society aspires to reject violence and professes to believe in sexual equality (as most modern western societies do aspire and profess) — isn’t such a society likely to find the honor code at least uncomfortable and at worst actively dangerous?

Yes. That’s just how we do find it — or at least how the most thoughtful and articulate segments of society in Western Europe and America find it. But that is because they have grown so used to utopian thinking that they don’t even realize they are engaging in it anymore. Just look at how you phrase your question: “if a society aspires to reject violence and professes to believe in sexual equality.” When honor held sway in our thinking about such matters these aspirations and beliefs would have seemed nonsensical. How do you “reject” violence? By refusing to be attacked? Even if you don’t hit back, you can’t “reject” the aggression of others. And how do you profess to believe in sexual equality when the evidence of sexual inequality — in, say, the crime statistics, or on the fields of sport or of battle — continue to stare you in the face? Honor is a continuing rebuke to our most cherished utopian beliefs, which is why so many people so furiously oppose it.

I begin in this way, Jim, because, one of the most fascinating themes of your book — one of its great themes — is the tension between honor and other crucial beliefs: Christianity 100 years ago, and — what shall we call it? liberalism? — now. You admire the Victorians for synthesizing their Christianity and their honor code — but you drop a lot of hints that their synthesis was not really very logically powerful. My question is: Is it your message that we have to choose between honor and the softer teachings of Christianity or modern liberalism? Is it possible to combine hard teachings and soft? Or can we just muddle along believing contradictory things — and somehow making the best of it?

I don’t know, maybe all cultural consensuses are inherently unstable. Just look at all the contradictions involved in our own! Speaking of violence, Hannah Arendt says that it can at times be justified but it never can be legitimate. Just try to get your brain around that one! Sooner or later, when the gap between what people want to believe and what they know to be true becomes too great, something’s got to give. One thing you can say about honor itself, it doesn’t involve any big stretches of that kind. In terms of its strain upon our credulity, it is the easiest form of social organization to take. The trouble is that honor makes us feel guilty for not being progressive enough. It doesn’t live up to our high moral expectations, and the instability comes when we try to reconcile it with something — whether it is Christian pacifism or what you call liberalism — that has a completely opposite tendency. You’re right that I say the Victorian synthesis was contradictory in this way, but it was imaginatively (if not logically) so powerful that as an echo or an after-image it lingers on even today. We don’t expect honorable behavior of that kind anymore, but we quite often applaud it when we see it. In other words, yes, we muddle along believing contradictory things until the contradictions become too blatant and we have to give up one sort of belief to save the other. I guess I’d say that, having given up honor for the sake of liberalism, we might want to take a second look at that transaction and instead think about giving up liberalism for the sake of honor.

Well, let’s try to imagine what such a trade would look like. If we wanted to resuscitate honor — how would we live our lives differently, as men and women? What changes would we make in the ways we raise our children? How practically would our world have to change?

I hope it doesn’t sound flippant, but I think the first and perhaps biggest change would be in manners. Honor and manners — treating people according to their legitimate expectations of respect and consideration — have always gone together, and it’s not coincidental that the decline of the one has coincided with the decline of the other. The problem isn’t just that people are so often ill-mannered but that they are ill-mannered on principle — namely the principle of personal and emotional authenticity. They have learned to think that it is hypocrisy to conceal their emotions, even when these are offensive and ugly to those who are forced to witness them. From this principle, all else — including the sexual revolution, the celebrity culture, the self-esteem movement and the random violence and general vulgarization of public life — follows, and therefore the principle should be called into question at every opportunity. And the most important opportunity is when we are raising our children. I don’t think it’s impossible to teach even today’s kids that respect for themselves and others as expressed through courtesies unconnected with and even in defiance of the way they feel is a noble aspiration, while making a parade of their emotions amounts not to genuineness but to contemptible weakness and narcissism. If we could make just that one change in our culture — though it is admittedly not a small one! — we would make a giant step towards the reclamation of honor for our times. Once that step was taken, the next would be to reclaim the distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate violence, instead of clinging to our utopian illusion that all violence is equally to be deplored, and male and female privileges, duties and obligations. These teachings could also begin in the home, but they would ultimately depend on a cultural change which would require, I think, the dismantling of our educational establishment. So roll on vouchers!

Let me shift gears here a moment. In the English-speaking world, we call politicians “the honorable” — members of Congress, members of Parliament, certain members of the executive branch. There seems to be a special connection between honor and the public sphere of life. What changes would we have to see there to revive an honor culture?

Communism, they say, is over, and yet those of us who believe in traditional and organic institutions and oppose the revolutionary and utopian project never finished our argument with the left. This is because the loss of our honor culture left us with no comeback to the Leninist principle of Who/whom? — or, to put it another way, the view that all power-relationships are inherently exploitative. We may not realize it anymore, but those “honorables” are vestiges of the answer that the honor culture once provided, namely that there is always a class of people so distinguished whom we entrust with power over us. They enact and execute laws not, as Bill Clinton said in another context, because they can but because it is right that they should, either because God ordains them in power — not a popular explanation anymore — or because the people have in some sense voluntarily submitted themselves to them. This is the difference between being governed and being ruled. We have to keep reminding ourselves of that distinction by using the word “honorable” even of those we disagree with and, perhaps, loathe.

In the same way, judges must be addressed as “your honor” because, though they wield the power of the state, it is a consensual and not an oppressive or exploitative power. I mention in my book those now-famous lines from King Lear: “See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief.” The words are often quoted by the Who/whom? school of political thought as if they represented Shakespeare’s point of view, but Lear speaks them in his state of visionary madness, in the course of imagining the nightmare world-without-honor of naked power that his wicked daughters have created and that he elsewhere compares to the overthrow of nature itself. The play could serve as an illustration of the contemporary Anglican Book of Homilies, which says: “Take away Kings, Princes, Rulers, Magistrates, Judges, and such estates of God’s order, no man shall ride or goe by the high way unrobbed, no man shall sleepe in his owne house or bedde unkilled, no man shall keepe his wife, children, and possession in quietnesse, all things shall bee common, and there must needes follow all mischiefe, and utter destruction both of soules, bodies, goodes, and common wealthes.”

Probably most people still believe this, or some more democratic version of it, without quite realizing how precarious the belief has become as a result of the washing away of its foundations in the old honor culture. Among intellectuals, academics, journalists and the like who are most inclined to Who/whom? and the Golden Rule — he who has the gold makes the rules — I’m not sure that it would any longer command a majority. That’s why, I think, the language of politics has become so debased. The readiness of political opponents to attribute bad faith, bad motives and outright corruption to each other on little or no evidence arises out of the cynical view of power. My son, who is serving in Iraq at the moment, is pessimistic about the chances for democracy there because, he says, everyone in that primitive honor culture assumes that anyone in power will only use it for self-aggrandizement. He should be pessimistic about the prospects for democracy back home then, too, because we seem to be going down the same road. The only thing that will bring us back is a willingness to return to some equivalent of “my right honorable friend” and shunning by exclusion from the debate of anyone who accuses another of lying. I know this sounds like a terrible burden because politicians do lie from time to time. But honor demands that we assume their good faith. Peace and good government ultimately depend on it.

But doesn’t honor also have much harder demands upon us — for risk and sacrifice? Doesn’t teaching honor mean teaching boys how to fight and girls how to endure, teaching that death is not the worst thing we have to fear, teaching us that there are times when it is not just necessary but even right to inflict death and destruction on others? You are teaching a hard message Jim — and isn’t that the reason, really, that Western societies have moved away from honor?

Yes, precisely. At some level we still know all these things, but we have also succumbed to the utopian temptation, which is to believe that, somehow, it shouldn’t be so. The child cries, “It’s not fair!” Not fair that I have to sacrifice, be hurt and maybe die. Lots of other people don’t, so why should I? Why can’t we live in a world where such things are no longer necessary? Honor is, among other things, the voice of maturity that tells us this is a fantasy, that life isn’t fair and that those who do the hard things that nobody wants to do but that have to be done anyway are those who deserve the greatest honors. What I call “post-honor society” in my book is also the society that refuses to grow up, to be a man. Ours is the culture of the absent father in more ways than one, and in particular because we prefer mom’s non-“judgmental” approach that promises self-esteem for all regardless of effort.

In the first shock of 9/11 many of us expected — and maybe this is what moved you to write this book — that the shock of unprovoked attack would revive the honor code in the West. Yet it didn’t, did it? I notice for example that while we found it easy to talk about the grief and loss of the victims of 9/11 and their families, we did not find it so easy to talk about the insult and violation done to the United States by an attack on its territory. Peace activists, so-called, will argue that it hardly makes sense to add the loss of 3000 soldiers to the death of 3000 civilians — and although many Americans sense that there is something wrong with this argument, few other than you yourself are able to explain why it is wrong. Just for the record: would you mind doing it again?

I love the motto you see painted on the city buses in Washington, D.C. “Safety is our number one priority!” I can never see it without peevishly whispering to myself: No it isn’t! If safety were the number one priority, the bus would never leave the garage. Safety is, at best, the number two priority, if that’s not oxymoronic. The number one priority is getting from a to b. As it’s not possible to do that without running any risk, the best you can hope for is to minimize the risk, but you’re not so safe as you would be — for a while — if you stayed at home and locked the doors and windows and drew the blinds and huddled under the covers. The same thing applies to international relations. Those who call themselves “peace” advocates make a similar mistake in supposing that they can make peace the number one priority by refusing to fight. I happen to believe that this wouldn’t work, and that not-fighting would not result in peace. We didn’t fight back after the murder of the marines in Beirut or the first attack on the World Trade Center or the attacks on our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya or the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and it only encouraged the terrorists to hit us again, and much harder, on 9/11. Why should we suppose that refusing to strike at them after that would have produced a different result?

But say that it would. Say that we could purchase safety by refusing to take our national bus out of the garage. What would that amount to in practice? Sure, we don’t send the troops to Iraq or Afghanistan, but where do we send them? If our motto is Safety First we presumably don’t send them anywhere. And if we can’t send them anywhere, what’s the point of having them at all? So we become a pacifist — that is, a defenseless — state. But we know that’s not enough to satisfy the jihadists, don’t we? At a minimum we will have to cut off all support for Israel. Well, OK. As we no longer have any weapons to sell them anyway, we’ll say to Israel: You’re on your own. But is that going to be enough to satisfy our new masters, the guys who, because we respond to their threats by putting Safety First, give us no other option but to go on doing that? What’s their next demand going to be? The most fanatical among them — and the fanatics will certainly be in charge if fanaticism produces such a spectacular result as the disarming of the Great Satan — say they expect us to convert to Islam and institute sharia. Are we going to be quite happy to go along with that program as well?

The point is that it doesn’t matter if we’re happy about it or not. We have renounced the means of saying no to it, or to anything else, by putting Safety First. Even if we were not forced to become an Islamic state ourselves, we would certainly have become a subject people, and everything we know about being a subject people — particularly being subject to those who belong to primitive honor cultures and have never had the benefit of Enlightenment ideas about the fundamental rights and dignity of man — suggests that it’s worth making quite a lot of sacrifices to avoid being put in that position. The 3000 soldiers are a grievous loss to us, but they will not have died for nothing — and nor will the 3000 dead of 9/11 if their example inspires us to fight at last. When you consider the numbers that have been killed in previous wars to keep our country free of foreign and hostile domination, and the sacrifices that had to be made by non-combatants to keep our armies in the field, we’re getting off remarkably lightly.

The most famous use of the word honor in American history occurs in the last line of the Declaration of Independence, in which the members of the first Congressional Congress pledge their “sacred honor” to the cause of independence. And yet we learn from you that honor can never really be sacred, because it is built on a code that deviates very significantly from the teachings of the Western religions, especially Christianity. And yet this most Christian of western countries is the one in which the honor code survives best, both in the folk memories of ordinary people and in the official culture of institutions like the US armed forces. Is this just testament to the ability of Americans to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time, as F. Scott Fitzgerald urged us to do? Or is there something more?

I think the Founders would have said that “sacred honor” was a metaphor. To them their honor was, as it were, a sacred thing, on account of the supreme value they placed on it. They meant “sacrosanct” but made it even more emphatic. But you are right to point to the contradiction. The Founder of the religion which the Founders of the nation still professed to believe in would have recognized nothing sacred, either literally or metaphorically, about honor. That’s the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount and all that stuff about turning the other cheek. But the Founders were not the first or the last to live with this contradiction. All of Western civilization is built upon it. Nor do we get rid of it by substituting for Christianity, as so many of our more progressive European cousins would do, some liberal Enlightenment principle that is ultimately derived from it. Ideas of human rights and social justice and multicultural respect for other “belief systems” also have their origins in Christianity — and Christianity’s traditional rebuke to honor — which is why they all still remain so largely alien and unfamiliar concepts in Islamic lands.

The reason honor retains the small foothold that it does in the United States may be because of the burden of world leadership. If you’re Sweden or Canada you have the luxury of being able to suppose that honor is a dead letter. You can opt out, on liberal principle, of the struggle against those who deny the very idea of liberal principles and it won’t matter very much. The willingness of a tiny majority of Americans to carry on the struggle on your behalf is all that it takes for you to devote yourselves to peace — or “peace” — and human rights instead. But if we take the advice of those on the left and the right in this country who argue that we should retreat from that struggle, leaving it to the Israelis and others who find that they can’t retreat, you would begin to see the question of honor being raised in many other parts of the world as well. That includes France, which I suspect is not many years away from the realization that it can no more retreat than Israel can.

You point out very insightfully that the terrorist enemy the US fights is motivated as much by a primitive tribal honor culture as by the teachings of Islam. Yet frankly to many Americans these terrorist enemies look anything but honorable: indeed they look rather cowardly in their preference for the clandestine murder of civilians over direct encounters with soldiers on the battleground. Do you think this contrast is something that could be used as a tool of psychological warfare? Or are the two thought systems so remote from one another that people immured in one cannot sufficiently connect with the other?

Yes and no. You’re never going to shame the jihadist by pointing out to him that it is cowardly to attack civilians — particularly when he’s killing himself along with them. The solicitousness of the strong for the weak is a characteristic of Western honor, not the Islamic kind. But there certainly must be ways of exploiting the honor-consciousness of the enemy. I wondered, for example, if there might not have been a connection between the release of the video showing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi wearing tennis shoes and looking unfamiliar with the workings of his weapon and his death just over a month later. Could it be that one of his hitherto fanatically loyal cadres saw this and, realizing that the great leader had feet of canvas, ratted him out to the Americans? We don’t know that this is what happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, if and when the Iraqi insurgency ends, it will be because the insurgents have begun to look to significant numbers of Iraqis more ridiculous and contemptible than they do noble and heroic. I don’t think there’s an easy way to get to that place, but that’s the place we should be trying to get to.


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