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What Happened to Honor? May 13, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Random Observations.

Every fall at Melrose High School in Melrose, Massachusetts, a bedroom community of Boston, prospective team athletes are asked to sign a statement agreeing that they will abide by “the guidelines set forth in Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rules.” These guidelines include rules against smoking and drinking.

In a recent scandal, parents at Melrose who were monitoring their teens’ Facebook pages saw photographs of team members “identified in illegal [underage] possession of alcohol or tobacco.” The parents downloaded the incriminating photos and took them to school officials, who promptly suspended the offending athletes for various periods, the most egregious offender for 60 percent of the upcoming season.

This is not exactly a unique event, but merely the most recent in what seems to me a never-ending parade. What distresses me appears in the comments section of the above-referenced article. The comments fall into three general categories: “all teenagers smoke and drink, so what’s the big deal”; “those evil, maliciously intrusive parents, ruining the student athletes’ future careers as professionals rivaling Michael Jordan”; and, “it’s no one’s business what children do on their own time when they’re not on school property.”

What more than distressed me, what made me want to howl in despair, was this entirely typical comment, made by “Andy F.” at 1:56 p.m. on Friday, May 13, 2011:

this over the top and someone needs to kick that Superass holes a$$ you cant tell teens that they are under you control even at home. and to the one that turned them in your not worth the Bad word that comes to mind.

Now if the kid where doing something that every other kid there age ant doing or things you or your friends didnt do then get made. I think the ones push this to get kids in deep @#$% are the one that got put in trash cans and had no friends.

Forget the illiteracy, which I would find heartbreaking in any student older than about 6 to 8 years old — and I’ll bet Andy F. is a teenager (and I’m terrified that Andy has a decent grade point average!). Forget even the primitive inability to think, and then express the resulting thought intelligibly. What makes me want to howl with despair are Andy’s attitudes, which as I said a moment ago seem to me to be entirely typical: All teenagers smoke and drink, and always have; the parents who turned in the student criminals are “Superass holes” who are “not worth” execrating (I’ll bet that as a well-educated student of 2011, Andy has no idea what the word “execrating” means!); parents who turn in students who break the law do it from malice (“to get kids in deep @#$%”), got put into trash cans — I hope as student victims of bullies rather than as newborns! — and had no friends.

Whatever happened to the concept of honor? Of integrity, probity, honesty, good faith, trustworthiness? Whatever happened to accepting personal responsibility for one’s own actions? Don’t parents read Horton Hears a Who to their children any more? (In Andy F.’s household it’s doubtful even the parents know how to read, but that’s a different rant.) “I meant what I said and I said what I meant: An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”

In 2002, in an interesting essay on honor, James Bowman defined honor as “the good opinion of [people] who matter,” defining such people as “those with whom you [have] a relationship of trust.”

Bowman believes that our modern world-view is incompatible with the traditional conception of honor, for several reasons. First, “The spirit of our times puts such a high value on the moral autonomy of the individual that it can hardly comprehend something so recalcitrant to individual will and conscience as honor,” Bowman says; the true individualist has been liberated from the need for personal actions to have personal consequences. Notice that in the incident I’m talking about, eleven students were conclusively proven to have broken U.S. law, and not one of them received more than a slap on the wrist; not one was expelled, for example, or at the very least barred from the varsity. Indeed, a huge percentage of the comments I read blamed not the student criminals but the parents who discovered the proofs of criminality.

The second incompatibility of honor with modern society, says Bowman, is that honor seems “élitist.” In a public opinion poll, everyone’s views are equal. Donald Trump, who has in past decades identified himself as a poor to average student, abandoned his pandering-to-the-Tea-Puppets pretense that President Obama was not born in Hawaii with a sudden swivel to attacking Mr. Obama’s academic achievements. A graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School (the latter, magna cum laude) who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, Mr. Obama is suddenly being challenged to produce “long-form” proof of his academic achievements, right down to his elementary school report cards. The obvious inference is that Mr. Trump believes that all educations are interchangeable in value, so that if white Mr. Trump was a poor student, black Mr. Obama must therefore have been a worse student.

After George W. Bush’s family money and connections shoehorned him into Yale, it has become elitist to value education and intellectual accomplishment. It has become elitist to value a “pure” vocal performance over the “help” of Auto-Tune and Pitch Doctor. Honor has similarly been devalued. It has become bad manners to acknowledge that Karl Rove does not evidence even the slightest sense of honor. It has become bad manners to acknowledge that the tsunami of lies and smears unleashed by the Supreme Court’s destruction of democracy in its Citizens United ruling was lies about and smears of Democratic candidates by a factor of more than ten to one. Instead, we are all supposed to pretend that the Republicans “won” the 2010 election because voters “disapprove” of Democratic values, initiatives, and hopes for the nation.

Third, says Bowman, is that the concept of honor seems so judgmental. When the elected leaders can embroil a nation in an unnecessary war through outright, knowing lies, and get away with it scot-free (although neither Bush nor Cheney dares to travel outside the U.S., for fear of being arrested for their war crimes by other nations), who are we to sit in judgment on high school students who promise not to smoke or drink — who promise not to break the law — and instead break their promise? “Everybody does it, so that makes ‘it’ all right” seems a far more important social value than “If you promise not to do X, and then you turn right around and do X, your broken promise requires a penalty.”

Fourth, says Bowman, is that honor seems so uncompassionate. Why should a criminal’s family be shamed by the criminal’s behavior, when the family itself did nothing wrong? At his sentencing for spying in May 2002, former FBI agent Robert Hanssen said, “I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it. I’ve betrayed the trust of so many. I opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children. I’ve hurt them deeply. I’ve hurt so many deeply.” Rather than allowing shame and disgrace to be brought to “totally innocent” spouses and children, our culture appears to have abandoned the idea of honor.

A fifth problem, says Bowman, is that honor is a relative term. It is no longer an honor to be given the king’s castoff clothing, for example, or for a newlywed couple to give their local lord the right to deflower the bride. Heck, to hear the pundidiots on Faux News, it isn’t even an honor to be invited to the White House!

Most of the nation appears to have forgotten that in the early months after the dastardly attacks on the innocent of 9/11, Osama bin Laden explicitly denied responsibility for them, saying that his men would never be guilty of something as dishonorable as murdering innocent civilians to promote a religiopolitical agenda. On September 16, for example, Osama’s statement was that “The US government has consistently blamed me for being behind every occasion its enemies attack it. I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks, which seems to have been planned by people for personal reasons.”

In June 2002, remembering Osama’s many denials of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, James Bowman concluded,

I wondered at the time [if the denials weren’t] the indication of a tiny sense of shame, a feeling for the inferiority of his unreformed honor culture and the implied rebuke to it of the Western one, with its sense of chivalry and fair play. Although the latter culture is apparently long gone, all but the most progressive and guilt-ridden among us must feel ourselves superior to those who do such things because we remember that our own honor culture — before we abandoned it in the mistaken belief that we could do without such things — was reformed, by Christianity and by democratic imperatives. Moreover, even those of us who overtly scorn the idea of gentlemanliness may feel ashamed of not behaving like gentlemen (or ladies, for that matter) ourselves. But it may take a war with a primitive honor culture to bring our own sense of honor back.

I’m sorry, Mr. Bowman. The United States has been at war with a primitive honor culture for more than ten years. It appears to me as if our sense of honor disappeared at roughly the same time bin Laden abandoned his.



1. Larry Wirth - May 14, 2011

A great essay thank you. I agree 100%.

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