Entry from January 27, 2009

Although he doesn’t say so, Bret Stephens’s article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Guantánamo Is No Blot on U.S. Honor,” seems to have been written in reply to one by Karen J. Greenberg in Sunday’s Washington Post, which refers to Gitmo as a “shameful episode” and “one of the most shameful passages in [America’s] history” as well as “the damage the prison inflicted on America”s honor and security.” This seems to be a favorite trope at the Post, as Eugene Robinson had written on the op ed page of Friday’s paper of “the damage that George W. Bush did to the nation’s values, honor and pride.”

Oh, please! I like Mr Stephens’s formulation of this kind of thinking as “the proposition that self- esteem can be a form of self-defense,” since that is precisely what crypto-pacifists like Ms Greenberg and Mr Robinson must assume, even if they don’t state it openly. The idea that keeping those who are sworn to destroy you under lock and key in a safe place might be dishonorable could hardly have occurred to anyone who was not a pacifist, but in any case neither the pacifist nor anyone else out of sympathy with their country’s leaders can reasonably take up the position of arbiters of those leaders’, or their country’s, honor.

Following on from my last post on this subject, I am more interested in what I see as such people’s attempts to hijack honor for partisan advantage. This betrays a basic misunderstanding of what honor is. Honor is what you have left when you take away partisanship. It is what even your enemies will say about you if they are themselves honorable, just as Grant would not have dreamed of impugning the honor of Lee, or vice versa. True disgrace, by contrast, can only come from your friends — those who share the same honor group with you and therefore share the same culture, the same obligations of sympathy and trust. That’s why shame and dishonor are — or were — such powerful things if ever they were incurred. I don’t think anyone would accuse these new, would-be honor magistrates, Ms Greenberg and Mr Robinson, of sympathy with George Bush.

The left tried the same trick in the recent election campaign — see, for instance, Tina Brown here on “Good Morning America” — foolishly casting aspersions on the “honor” of Senator McCain every time he said something about Senator Obama that they didn’t like. They knew that honor was important to Mr McCain and thought they had found a way to get under his skin, not realizing that they had no standing to pronounce on Mr McCain’s honor, unless it were in support of it. In the same way, the charge of lying brought by political enemies against each other is an attempt politicize honor and has now become routine in American politics. No more is such a charge what it used to be in the days of honor and the common culture it depended upon, namely the most serious charge you could bring against a man in public life. Partisanship needs to be conducted as a thing apart from questions of honor, which was the point, back in the old days, of banning the words “lie” and “liar” as “unparliamentary language.”

If, as is now the case, there is almost nothing left when you take away partisanship, then to that extent honor is a dead letter. It is no coincidence that its demise has been accompanied by the moralization of politics — which is really the abolition of politics — and, with it, promiscuous accusations of lying. Paradoxically, as it might seem, the more acceptable it is to accuse someone of lying the more actual lying there is bound to be, whether in political campaigning or anywhere else. The more commonplace the charge is, the less weight any instance of it carries, and the less the penalty, too, for those who lie by calling their opponents liars. As everybody charges everybody else with dishonesty, dishonesty itself is discounted and those who really do lie can become confident that they will pay no price for lying. As more and more people assume that “they all do it,” sooner or later they all will do it.

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