Book Bits (Honor: A History)
For several years I’ve posted a book log or book briefs to highlight some of the books I’ve been reading. It’s been a good way to say, “Take a look at this book. Here’s a couple sentences about it and whether I liked it or not.” I love to read and to write about books, so hopefully book briefs have been helpful.
Today I want to introduce a variation on that theme.
From time to time I’ll read books that are particularly fascinating, new, fresh, challenging, or informative. When I read these books, whether I agree with everything in them or not, I’m eager to share more than a few sentences (i.e., book briefs), but I’d rather not do a full length book review (with a summary, evaluation, and conclusion). This tertium quid is what I’m calling “Book Bits.” In this format, I’ll share ten bits from the book-ideas, quotes, or arguments-that I found especially interesting. My hope is that by condensing the book into several bite-size bits I will retain more of what I’ve read and you’ll be able to quickly glean some new ideas or provocative thoughts.
Today’s book is Honor: A History (Encounter Books, 2006) by James Bowman, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center a contributor to several publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and The New Criterion. While I think Bowman misunderstands the legacy of Christianity in relationship to honor, I think the overall thrust of the book-which moves nimbly from history to literature to current events-is powerfully, and necessarily counter-cultural.
1. Bowman’s interest in honor “comes from a long working-out of a conflict withing myself about the Vietnam War” (7). Like many other young people at the time, he considered the war immoral and unjust. But when he took his physical for the draft, he never had to make the choice of whether to serve or not because he was rejected for medical reasons. Bowman was surprised by the physical report, but more surprised that the doctors who informed him gave him the news in such a way to make clear that they thought he would be disappointed by the rejection. This event has haunted Bowman ever sense, and has prompted his concern that the 20th century has seen “the continuing project of discrediting and disgracing cultural honor” (7).
2. Bowman argues that the West does not understand radical Islam. “If you look very closely into what the jihadists, or the various radical groups who support them, have to say about what they do, you will rarely see any reference to poverty. Even religion as such seems of less interest to them than the idea of Arab or Islamic “honor” and “manhood,” with which honor is intimately related” (23). We have tried to suppress older notions of honor, and do not understand those society’s that still live and die, and kill and get killed, in the name of honor.
3. But honor is not so easily erased from our memory. “The basic honor of the savage-bravery for men, chastity for women-is still recognizable beneath the surface of the popular culture that has done so much to efface it. If you doubt it, try calling a man a wimp or a woman a slut” (5).
4. Despite this cultural memory of an older kind of honor, most of the book is Bowman’s attempt to chronicle how a new honor code has supplanted the old one. We saw this transition happen at breakneck speed in the 1960s, where a youth culture developed to rival the dominant culture and what was once honorable became dishonorable, and what was once dishonorable was now honored (132). The new hero is the anti-hero, “one whose heroism consists less in doing than in suffering and having suffered” (136). We no longer honor those who do their duty, keep their word, and bravely face the enemy. Instead we bestow honor on those who can reveal personal authenticity (138). It’s the Shrek-ification of heroism (a phrase I just made up). Nobility is less in overcoming your weaknesses and more in learning to be yourself. The older courage was about allegiance to external imperatives and expectations. The new courage is about being true to your own physic reality and inner self (206).
5. “If honor was the dirty secret of the warriors, intellectual vanity was that of the anti-warriors. There is much about honor that is absurd, but that matters more to the intellectual prides himself on the ability to spot absurdity beneath a plausible surface that it does to those who value honor about intellect” (223). Is it any wonder most young people get their “news” from Jon Stewart?
6. The new honor code: “we often find it easier to feel outrage at insensitivity than unchastity.” What’s worse in the world’s eyes: living a life of free, promiscuous sex or calling the person who does so a slut? It’s not even close which is more culturally outrageous. And for the record, I’m not in favor of either the word or the activity.
7. Bowman’s foreign policy analysis: “A great many grown-up and intelligent people believe, or pretend to believe, that by behaving in a friendly and accommodating way to our attackers, we will show them that they have nothing to fear from us and so defuse their wrath. The idea that such behavior would be taken by a ruthless and implacable enemy only as a sign of weakness is as foreign to them as the idea of honor itself” (306).
8. Bowman suggests that to regain honor in our culture, we have to do four impossible things. 1) We have to defeat the idea that there is nothing worse than war. 2) We have to make inequalities socially acceptable again. Here Bowman’s thinking not of money but of the inequalities of virtue, respect, esteem, and achievement. 3) We have to create a new sub-culture that looks at celebrity culture with amused contempt. 4) We have to embrace the inherent differences between men and women, “in particular making the traditional role of women as wives, mothers and nurturers not only respectable again but the most honorable of female aspirations” (306).
9. This means heaping “scorn and ignominy upon the ‘self-esteem’ movement to the point at which it may never recover” (312). Honor, he argues, is incompatible with an egalitarianism that does not allow for differing levels of accomplishment and gifting.
10. The only sentiment left with universal cultural currency is pity. The moral high ground is not found in being more pious, but in being more put upon. “Pity is not a contemptible sentiment,” Bowman makes clear, “but it is by itself an inadequate foundation for public expressions of emotion as assertions of the community’s values fit to be considered worthy of respect” (313).
I told you it was a provocative book. I don’t agree with every point of Bowman’s analysis. His work would have been stronger with more careful Christian reflection on the nature of suffering, virtue, and honor. But as a noble effort at spitting into the wind, I commend Bowman’s book to you as a reasoned argument that explains what has changed in our world and what we’ve lost.