Political debate in an America without honor

Summary: James Bowman looks at political debate in an America without honor. We coasted for generations on the residual habits from when honor was a living thing for many Americans. Now that inheritance is exhausted. Without honor, many aspects of our politics have become empty forms. Meaningless rituals.

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Political debate in an America without honor.

By James Bowman at his website, 13 August 2019.

It used to be that ideological struggle was pretty straightforward. One lot of people had a theory about how the world works, and how it ought to work, which it sought to impose upon the world or some part of it either by democratic persuasion or by revolutionary force while another lot of people wishing to preserve the status quo, more or less, tried either to debunk the first lot’s theory or to substitute for it a theory of its own. However much they hated each other, both sides found it natural to assume good faith on the part of the other in proposing what it actually wished to accomplish.

It doesn’t work like that anymore. Now the ideologues hardly mention their own theory, apart from specific measures they wish to see enacted. Rather, they try to establish as indisputable fact that the ideology of the other side, even if it makes no claim to any ideology, isn’t really what it believes at all. Through the use of what they regard as a decoding, they are able to attribute to those who oppose them such pre-discredited ideologies as Naziism, fascism or “white supremacism” in the teeth of their vehement denials that they believe any such thing.

For Honor

Now when someone calls you a Nazi or a fascist or a white supremacist it is not an invitation to debate. It signals the end of debate, just as it does if someone calls you a liar. To deny that you are a liar is in a way to confirm that you are one, since this is just what a liar would do, and it is the same with Naziism, fascism or white supremacism, now that these ideologies have been definitively discredited. Back in the days when such an accusation – whether or not it was itself truthful – dishonored a man, they recognized that there was only one way to answer it and so wipe away the stain of dishonor: to challenge the accuser to mortal combat.

When a man – these rules didn’t apply to women – issued such a challenge, he was said to have “called out” his accuser, who would be obliged to accept the challenge or acknowledge himself dishonored instead, since cowardice was the only other accusation, besides untruthfulness, which by itself could stain a man’s honor irreparably. It is grimly amusing to me, as a historian of honor, to see the media referring to any vile and unproven accusation hurled at another as “calling out” the victim, since the latter no longer has such redress available to him. It is as if the bravos of the media were taunting the victim not only with what he is accused of but with his powerlessness to deny it. Now you are said to “call out” someone with what, once, you would yourself have been called out for.

For about a century between the dying out of the fashion for dueling among gentlemen and the rise of the all-powerful media in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a residual sense of honor in our public discourse which would have made all but the most unscrupulous ashamed to make malicious and unproven assertions against another, including against another’s hidden motivations, even if one privately believed the worst about him. In other words, the assumption of the good faith of one’s opponents in debate was taken for granted as a precondition of there being any debate. That has long since ceased to be the case, although we continue erroneously to refer to occasional instances of the shouting and slandering and moral preening that are the media’s daily fare as “debates.”

This is what I think of when I read something like “The Nihilist in Chief,” Ross Douthat’s shameful attempt in The New York Times to blame the shootings in Dayton and El Paso on Donald Trump with the help of Marianne Williamson’s “dark forces,” which are supposed to be at work in Mr Trump (and, therefore, his supporters) for the accomplishment of his evil purposes. Alleging “white supremacism” against him, as is now routine in the media, is bad enough, but at least you can argue against such an allegation, even though it would be a fool’s errand to do so. But how do you respond to the charge that you are an agent of the Evil One, or an assertion like that of the columnist against Mr. Trump of “the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career”?

I actually agree with Mr Douthat that the President “participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters” – but then so does he. So do we all. It is only invincible self-righteousness that allows the media moralist to pretend to stand outside the corruption of his times and point the finger of unreproved and unreprovable blame for it at those he disagrees with. And that same self-righteousness, no longer subject to any restraint, is to a large extent what is responsible for the “general cultural miasma” that turns other, less privileged true believers and utter strangers to self-doubt or self-awareness into deranged killers.


Editor’s note

For another example of the rot Bowman describes, see this excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s new book, Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, coming out soon.

Bowman describes the decay of a vital American institution.
It is happening across our society.
For a broader explanation, see A new, dark picture of America’s future.

James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

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Honor: A History
Available at Amazon.

About Bowman’s great book

Honor: A History.

By James Bowman (2006).

I strongly recommend reading this book about a lost but vital element from our culture. A sense of honor was a strength of the West from its earliest days. Now we have lost it. From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

9 thoughts on “Political debate in an America without honor”

  1. Do you think honor arises as a natural consequence of a warrior aristocracy like knights and samurai?
    And once those were irrelevant that its only a matter of time honor is exhausted?

    Perhaps when men still had strong friendships even fraternal relations along with traditional masculinity is honor able to endure. Therefore loss of honor tracks the loss of masculinity.

    1. Info,

      IMHO: your definition is implying “chivalry.” Honour is rather this non-show-man-ship kind — honesty and fairness; there is no strict codex to follow to become honourable, while there still may be the aura associated with it, which, in turn, evokes yearnings for the times past.
      E.g. — my wife may exhibit all signs of an honourable person, yet she may not even like the masculine chivalry you describe.
      Integrity is another building block of honour. Name one politician of today, who would pass that criterion.
      And, further, do you consider yourself an honourable person? Do you know another person who would fit the description of being honourable?

      1. Jako,

        “Honour is rather this non-show-man-ship kind — honesty and fairness”

        The meaning of honor varies over time and space. Honesty and fairness are only sometimes involved. Look at Dumas The Three Musketeers. Honor is a big thing for them, which is why they fight so many duels. But they are neither truthful nor fair (except to their in-group).

        “my wife may exhibit all signs of an honourable person, yet she may not even like the masculine chivalry you describe.”

        There were codes of chivarly for both men and women in medieval Europe (and in other honor-bound societies, such as the Samurai class of Japan). They were similar, but not identical, for men and women.

        “Name one politician of today, who would pass that criterion.”

        I assume you are kidding. How many politicians do you know personally? Can you look at someone on TV and make reliable guesses about their character (if so, you are a unique human being). Also, remember who selects politicians. If we don’t value honor or integrity, why do you believe we would vote for people who do?

    2. info,

      You may referred to “chivalry” not to honour. Honour’s building blocks are Honesty, Fairness and Integrity — now, could you point out an American politician to pass this criteria?
      Further, showing that others have flaws and deficiencies does not make the accuser honourable.
      From all the candidates of the 2020 election, there may had been one of exception — Ms. T. Gabbard, yet, she did cave in to AIPAC for — apparently a political gain.
      Here we go, politics is inherently an anti-honour engagement.

      1. Jako,

        “Honour’s building blocks are Honesty, Fairness and Integrity”

        Do you have a manual for “honor”? In the real world it represents different traits in different times and places, and usually varies for men and women.

        ” could you point out an American politician to pass this criteria?”

        How many politicians do you know well enough to make that evaluation? That you condemn this giant group with no evidence isn’t vary honorable on your part. One advantage of an honor-bound society is that people are reluctant to bluster like you do – and those that do are removed from the gene pool. If today we had the same rules as in 1800, you might find yourself facing a politician with a pistol in your hand. I suspect we would be sending flowers to your relatives.

      2. Bushido is also a warriors code. But without the courtly love baggage of chivalry.

      3. info,

        “But without the courtly love baggage of chivalry.”

        Courtly love is a literary genre that emphasized nobility and chivalry. It was not part of civility, which was a doctrine by which real people lived their lives.

        Confusing those is like reading Harlequin’s romance novels to learn how people live their lives today.

    3. info,

      “Do you think honor arises as a natural consequence of a warrior aristocracy like knights and samurai?”

      Honor survived in the West long after the age of knights, which ended in the 15th century. It was important in America, where Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson fought duels over points of honor. Honor was a big deal in the west, where calling someone a liar could initiate gunfire. Beyond this, I don’t know.

      For more about this, I recommend reading Bowman’s book. Also see his articles about honor.

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