Entry from March 19, 2009

A review by Julian Barnes in The New York Review of Books of three new American editions of essays by George Orwell reveals that at St Cyprian’s, his prep school — in Britain a prep school is a private school for boys under 13 seeking entrance at that age to “public” or posh private schools — Orwell was known to denounce other boys for homosexuality to the school’s proprietors. These were “Sambo” and “Flip” (as the boys called them) Wilkes, a married couple whom Orwell also denounced, though much later, in his essay “Such, Such were the Joys.” Homosexuality was, says Mr Barnes, “one of the contexts in which it was proper to sneak.” Or at least Orwell thought so. But Orwell had a precociously modern way of arrogating to himself the right to revise the code of schoolboy honor inherited from generations of scholars past which also showed up “decades later, during the cold war,” as Mr Barnes reminds us, when “Orwell sneaked on the politically unreliable to the British Foreign Office.”

Well, by then everybody was doing it. E.M. Forster, whom Orwell thought of as belonging to “the pansy left” was, right around the same time, assuring himself of a fame (or notoriety) that may well outlast his novels when he said that “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” — thereby introducing into the culture a note of moral confusion which shows no signs of being cleared up even today, decades later. Nowadays people, many of them very far from being of a progressive cast of mind themselves, are still struggling with a progressive conscience which has insisted ever since Orwell’s day that the old standards of honor and morality must be revised in light of changed social conditions.

A few years ago, a Harvard academic by the name of Sharon Krause wrote a book called Liberalism With Honor (Harvard University Press, 2002) in which she assumed all the way through that the old honor codes could at last earn their keep by making themselves available for use as tools in the on-going liberal task of social engineering. Just make the things that were honorable or shameful correspond with the things that liberals thought politically and socially either desirable or undesirable. What could be simpler? But shame, like honor, is no one’s to command. People honor what they value and are ashamed of what disgusts them, and they have a way of making up their own minds about what these things are. Now someone with the remarkable name of Pepper D. Culpepper, who is also at Harvard — what is it with these people? — proposes that the way to deal with those who are making more money than he thinks they ought to make is, in the words of The New Republic’s headline writer, to “shame the bastards.”

Good luck with that! Noting that legislative attempts to limit executives’ pay leave too many loopholes, he writes,

Here’s a better idea: the Financial Services Committee could annually identify the top two executives whose compensation is most out of line with company performance. In recognition of their monstrous pay and of Congressman Frank’s past legislative efforts, these could be called the Frankenpay awards. Winners of the awards would be required to testify before the committee about the details of their pay packages. Boards of directors will think twice before approving a pay package likely to land a CEO in front of Congress. . .

The irony here is that, in seeking to use an ancient and otherwise outmoded technique to accomplish what Mr Culpepper sees as a desirable social end, he fails to notice that the AIG bonus babies and others are already shamed — and it hasn’t made a bit of difference. They have become the laughing stock of the country and are hiding themselves away, so much as possible, from public view, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to part with their money without a fight. The point is that our culture has disparaged shame for so long that, when we want to bring it out of mothballs, we find that it’s too late. Somewhere along the way — perhaps in the Clinton years? — we became officially shameless, and all the faculty of Harvard can’t restore our lost sense of shame.

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