Entry from November 30, 2010

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times headed “The Partisan Mind,” Ross Douthat laments, as others (including me) have done before him the hyper-partisanship that characterizes our public life these days:

Up to a point, American politics reflects abiding philosophical divisions. But people who follow politics closely — whether voters, activists or pundits — are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.

In some ways, he says, this isn’t a bad thing, because it guarantees that there will always be someone to protest against anything the government does. That in itself acts as a brake on potential government excesses such as intrusive TSA screenings. “On an individual level,” however, he believes that “honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship’s pull, instead of rowing with it.”

The rowing metaphor is an interesting one, if you think about it. The purpose of rowing is to propel a water-borne craft from point A to point B, often in a race against others who are attempting to do the same thing. “Honor,” according to Mr Douthat, is predicated not of those who contribute to the collective effort to get to B or to win the race but to those whose interference with that effort prevents these things. Put like that, the proposition at once reveals its dubiousness. Ross Douthat may think that getting to point B or winning the race are wrong or bad things to do, though I very much doubt that he does. But even if they were, no one seriously supposes that the individual who turns against those with whom he is engaged in a collective enterprise to prevent its success is worthy of honor. Honor always proceeds from the collective to the individual, not the other way around. The football — or rowing — hero is honored by his team-mates for his contribution to their success, and what they honor is (among other things) his loyalty to them. Honorable disloyalty is a contradiction in terms.

But we have almost forgotten this. Loyalty, like honor, has had a bad press for a long time. This is because both loyalty and honor put the group ahead of the individual and, as everybody knows, we live in the age of the individual and of the individual’s right not to be constrained by loyalty to any group in making up his own mind about what it may be right or wrong for him to do. What Mr Douthat is doing in his op-ed is what the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is doing in his ignorant and unphilosophical new book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (Norton, 266 pp., $25.95). That is, he is using a word that has been drained of its meaning to mean nothing more than what he likes or approves of or believes to be moral and right. The irony is that such rah-boo use of language contributes to the very sort of mindless partisanship he is decrying.

Regrettable though this is, the media, I often think, can do nothing else. That’s why human scum like Julian Assange or Bradley Manning can still hold their heads up among men. The media have prepared the way for them by debasing the virtue of loyalty to such an extent that there is now no act so vile that its perpetrator cannot appeal to “a higher loyalty” in its justification. In the case of Wikileaks this higher loyalty is to “transparency” or those old stand-bys The Truth and the People’s Right to Know. Those who serve such abstract and bloodless but slippery concepts at the expense of organic and human loyalties can confidently expect the approval of the media’s otherwise decent and respectable Truth-mongers who themselves profit from their disloyalty. All the same, I believe that at some level they still know, as we all do, why Dante reserved the lowest circle of hell for betrayers of their country, their friends and their benefactors — and it is their bad conscience about this that leads them to try to redefine honor.

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