Saturday, November 14, 2020

A World Without Honor

     [Recent events caused me to remember this old essay, which first appeared at the Palace of Reason on December 16, 2003 -- FWP]

Curmudgeon Emeritus -- Francis W. Porretto

December 16, 2003

     About twenty-five years ago, a friend passed a book along to your Curmudgeon that purported to be an expose of the crassness of capitalism, through the adventures of an academic who'd unsuccessfully marketed a board game. The author was Marxist academic Bertell Ollman. The book was Class Struggle Is The Name Of The Game. And yes, the name of Ollman's board game was Class Struggle.

     Your Curmudgeon will not go into the details of the game, except to say that its rules were sculpted in such a fashion as to support Marxist economic theory. It didn't sell many copies. Ollman's book tried to lay its failure onto every pair of shoulders in the game industry, save his own. As the friend who'd provided the book said, Ollman was unwilling to admit that practicing capitalism took a bit more than wishful thinking.

     Not long afterward, while Christmas shopping, your Curmudgeon found a copy of the game in a small hobby shop. Out of sheer curiosity, he asked the clerk on duty what it would cost. The clerk responded, "I have no idea."

     That was not the response your Curmudgeon expected. "Is it for sale?"

     The clerk replied, "I suppose so, but I don't know what the owner wants for it. I can't imagine why he has it. If it were my store, I'd throw it away." He spread his arms to indicate the store around us. "We practice capitalism here. What the hell are we doing trying to sell a game that attacks it?"

     The clerk, by the way, was dressed in what one might call "alternative" regalia: tie-dyed T-shirt, scruffy jeans and sandals. He sported a long pony tail and a beard as well.

     More recently, a Curmudgeonly acquaintance wandered into a similar store looking for a popular toy. She didn't find it, but there were several items of similar kinds on the shelves, so she inquired of the proprietress whether there were any "in the back." The proprietress, a woman who'd moved to the United States from Taiwan, answered "I won't carry it."

     "Won't?" The toy in question was very popular, a big revenue generator for many larger stores.

     The proprietress nodded, her expression grim. "Made in China."

     Stories such as these warm the cockles of your Curmudgeon's heart. If yours don't respond in kind, perhaps you should see about getting new ones.

     There are a lot of folks in the world with what we might charitably call "flexible convictions." The flex is always in the direction of self-interest. There's nothing wrong with self-interest as such, but how can one claim sincerely to hold a conviction if he sets it aside the moment it threatens to cost him something?

     Quoth Abraham Lincoln, "Important principles may and must be inflexible." If a conviction isn't important, is it accurate to call it a principle?

     Honor is compounded of honesty and constancy: candor about one's principles, plus the resolve to uphold them faithfully. Of course, if one has no principles, the subject is impossible to discuss.

     On the geopolitical scene, there aren't many demonstrations of honorable conduct available for examples. Counterexamples are much easier to find.

     United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been against Operation Iraqi Freedom from the very beginning. His has been one of the most prominent voices condemning the United States for "unilateral action." Yet, with the recent capture of Saddam Hussein, has Annan demanded that the U.S. restore the arch-villain to his throne? That would be consistent with a principled opposition to our actions in Iraq. No; Annan merely wants Hussein's future turned over to the United Nations, in the guise of the International Criminal Court.

     From the beginning of the American expedition to depose the Hussein regime, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has stoutly maintained that France could not and would not absolve Iraq of the debts the dictator had incurred. Yet, now that his country's major corporations are screaming to be let into the bidding for reconstruction contracts, it seems that France can indeed do so, or at least can discuss it as a quid for a reconstruction quo.

     Here at home, Democratic presidency-seeker Howard Dean has been strident in his condemnation of the Bush Administration's Iraq intervention, and of its handling of anti-terror matters generally. Yet Dean volubly congratulated the instruments of that policy when they captured Hussein, although he continued with a demand for "internationalizing" the occupation -- that is, for taking the authority and responsibility for it away from those he had just congratulated.

     To these three creatures, principles are an inconvenience, and honor is a stranger. Nor are they alone.

     Many chafe at hard-edged insistence on the importance of an abstraction such as honor. They deride its reality, claim that it's subjective at best, or demand that it be held subservient to "practical considerations." But a simple test indicates that honor is among the most important realities of human society.

     The test comes from Robert Pirsig: Remove honor from the field of human interplay, and watch for changes.

     If no one could be trusted to keep his word, each of us would have to live alone, and behind the stoutest locks imaginable. On the occasions when a man had to endure the company of others, he would constantly be on guard for an attempt to get behind him. We would all go heavily and conspicuously armed at all times. Trade would be reduced to quick, nervous exchanges of small goods under carefully negotiated conditions. Sex would be impossible. No one would ever agree to be placed under the authority of another.

     America is a rich society because its people are nearly all nearly always honorable. They share a set of principles of honorable dealing, and they hold to them with admirable fidelity. The ability to trust gives rise to the ability to collaborate and trade, with all that follows.

     Compare that high standard to what prevails beyond our borders, even in the "Western" nations with whom we share a political and cultural heritage. Then ask yourself whether you'd ever accept a world government with the power to enforce its will on Americans.


Linda Fox said...

Almost all men are honorable; the few that are not, except for politicians, are the local communities' problem. In communities that tolerate dishonorable men, life is hard. Many of those communities are female-dominated.

A not-small percentage of women are dishonorable; not merely in sexual conduct, although that is often an indicator of their lack of honor. But, willing to lie, cheat, and steal for their own benefit, or that of their children.

This is an ancient tactic of women; only strong sanctions against those women violating norms of honor will keep it in check. Women are prone to use tears to get sympathy for their own failures of honors:
- They were misled by a man
- It was 'for the children'
- It didn't count because they NEEDED the results to be different, so their perfidy didn't count
- The 'system' was rigged against them, so cheating wasn't wrong

The group shunning of women transgressing honorable norms USED to keep those women, generally, in check; similarly, men enforced group norms, as well (Cal Cunningham's defeat in his race for the Senate shows this; when word got out about his sexual activity with the wife of another soldier - one under his command - he was TOAST).

Popular media is all about "the feelz", not about the natural consequences of dishonorable choices. About the only good thing about the near-complete collapse of Hollywood and other media is that these influences may be lessened for the next generation.


I was just trying to talk with my older kid about honor. They had asked about my "bucket list" and one of the listed items was to visit and tour Japan. I've been a Japanophile for decades, and - long story cut short - while in graduate school applied to spend a summer as an exchange researcher (politics and favoritism cut that possibility out*).

Anyway, I was describing a picture of a person on the subway, suitcase in front of them with their WALLET and PHONE on it... and them completely asleep in the seat. I said that was a HIGH TRUST society and that it was probably one of the few places on earth where a person could fall asleep with those items exposed and expect them to still be there upon awakening. (Regretfully, I cannot include Israel on that list - at least as blanket statement; certainly not the USA!)

I teach my kids that we keep promises. That to have, and be known for having, a Word is one of the most important things we can possess.

* If anyone wants to hear the tale of woe, post a comment at my blog and I'll reply with the whole sordid story. Unless our gracious host would like to hear it too.



"If it feels good, do it" - wasn't that the motto?