Entry from July 13, 2010

What is it with these people? I keep telling them but they don’t listen! Today yet another New York Times editorial — headed, “No Honor, Only Horror” — reveals that it wasn’t only the Book Review editor at the Times who never got around to reading (or reviewing) Honor, A History. In that book, I patiently explained to writers and editorialists at our newspaper of record who had failed to understand it the difference between honor and the kind of liberal morality and ethics they are forever preaching — indeed, the difference between honor and liberalism generally. I pointed out how Enlightenment principles thought to be universal had been formulated in the first place, in the West, precisely to take the place of the honor culture which had preceded them and which continued to linger on in spite of them; how that honor culture, like every other, was socially contingent and prized loyalty to the group, which I called the honor group, above any universal principles; how, above all, the honor-obsessed cultures of the world — many times larger in size than our little liberal enclaves in Europe and America — were necessarily deaf to well-meaning appeals to them on the basis of liberal-progressive humanitarianism.

Now the Times editorialist has taken the occasion of yet another presumed “honor-killing,” this time among Hindus in India of an upper-caste woman who had married (as her family thought) beneath her, to weigh in as if I had never written.

Honor killings are widely reported in the Middle East and South Asia, but in recent years they also have taken place in Italy, Sweden, Brazil and Britain. According to Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, there are 5,000 instances annually when women and girls are shot, stoned, burned, buried alive, strangled, smothered and knifed to death by fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, even mothers in the name of preserving family “honor.” Ms. Pillay has rejected arguments that such family violence is outside the conceptual framework of international human rights. There is a reason these religious and cultural beliefs are allowed to persist. Politicians don’t have the courage to call it what it is: murder.

There’s another reason they are “allowed” to persist: because culture precedes politics. Politicians can sometimes nudge the culture in more desirable directions, but they can never move it very far. This is because politicians are created by culture, rather than culture by politicians. So long as we allow honor cultures, like everybody else, to be self-governing, they are going to continue behaving like honor cultures.

But the Gray Lady proceeds serenely on her way, pronouncing her harmless anathemas upon the benighted who are, whether she likes it or not, “outside the conceptual framework of international human rights” and likely to remain so. She reminds me of an acquaintance who, shortly before 9/11, circulated to me an Internet petition — a petition! — which was to have been presented to the Taliban, then in charge of all Afghanistan, not just a part of it as today, protesting in the strongest terms against their treatment of women. Perhaps the petition was actually presented to some Taliban bigwig even as their friends and allies, the al-Qaeda suicide bombers, were on the way to murdering 3000 Americans.

Such do-goodism, it should be unnecessary to say, is incommensurate with an understanding of what is going on in the world. It presupposes that the kind of people who stone women to death or engage in honor killings of family members are people of the Enlightenment, like ourselves, to whom an appeal can be made on the basis of reason and universal principles when that’s just the problem: they have no universal principles to start with. The Times’s feckless editorial scolding is therefore worse than useless. It merely confirms the unenlightened ones in their conviction that we understand not the first thing about them — and that all our high-flown liberal principles are only for preaching about, and to confirm ourselves in our own sense of moral superiority, never for acting upon

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