Entry from January 22, 2010

In my last post I mentioned that The New York Times sometimes seems to be trying to pretend to its readers that the Western honor culture is not only dead but that it never existed in the first place — by, for example, claiming that “a pile of rubble is a pile of rubble,” whether it is in Haiti or at Ground Zero in Manhattan. That the one pile of rubble was caused by a natural disaster and the other by a foreign attack on the United States is apparently an irrelevant distinction to at least some of the crypto-pacifist progressives at the Times. There are, thank God, still many Americans outside 620 Eighth Avenue whose sense of the national honor is intact enough to know that an attack on their country requires a response in kind, but what is increasingly the official culture as represented by the media prefers to pretend that they don’t exist, or else that they are “wing-nuts” and Neanderthals whose opinions, in the Age of Obama, are of no account.

Imagine my astonishment, then, upon reading the following in a Times editorial yesterday about how a proposed settlement of a long-standing court case involving a Federal trust’s management (or mismanagement) of American Indian lands should be taken up by Congress (which has to give its approval) without delay: “The nation’s honor demands that the settlement finally be approved.” Come again? The nation’s honor? The nation may have no honor — or no honor worth considering — when it comes under attack, but it sure as heck does when it comes to what the Times describes as “justice” for its oppressed minorities. Under the circumstances, therefore, I think we need to revise our verdict on the progressive agenda. Perhaps the abolition of traditional and organic honor is only meant to clear the way for honor’s re-invention — as a tool of progressivism.

The Times is not the first to think of this idea. A few years ago a Harvard assistant professor named Sharon R. Krause wrote a book called Liberalism With Honor which attempted to make the case for a reinvention of traditional, aristocratic honor in the service of a liberal and progressive agenda. Like most liberals today, Professor Krause was really a utopian who took for granted the ability of clever people like herself simply to re-make honor to their own specifications — just as they hoped to remake society itself with honor’s aid. If the one, why not the other?. But honor, though not unchanging, is probably at least as resistant to change as society, and changes in neither are at the command of social engineers. What the Times was really doing in its Indian editorial was reminding us that the old-fashioned, unreconstructed kind of honor was still around and still serviceable, even for progressives, when it happens to suit their purposes by, say, keeping faith with indigenous peoples.

Or even, perhaps, by a display of some of the manly virtues. Consider another article that appeared on the Times’s website as part of the “Opinionator” blog in the wake of Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. There, Timothy Egan argued that it was “Time to Cowboy Up” for progressives. It wasn’t quite clear what he meant by this in substantive terms. “Pass health care that helps right the major wrongs of the system, and then explain what they’re doing,” he advised the Democrats in Congress, who might be forgiven for pointing out that that is what they had just tried and so signally failed to do. Were they simply to try again with the same bill? Or something else? Probably something else, but so far as Mr Egan was concerned the important thing was the ungrammatical Red Sox t-shirt mantra of a few years ago: “Are You Gonna Cowboy Up or Just Lay There and Bleed?”

True, he doesn’t use the word “honor,” but his appeal is to honor — and traditional, manly, suck-it-up-and-keep-playing honor too. With this kind of call to arms, you’ve got to wonder if the pacifist agenda — by which we are all to forget that there ever was any such thing as national honor — is any more likely to triumph in the end than Martha Coakley was. Of course, there are other reasons to hope that the Democrats cowboy up and (to change the figure) go over the top into withering machine-gun fire on behalf of an unpopular health care reform bill. But we shall soon see whether or not honor is in any position to make a comeback in American public life.

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