Post-Modern American Honor

James Bowman is a stereotypical modern-day conservative. The only exception is that he’s not only very smart, but his take on mass media and present-day culture is thought-provoking and poignant. I very much enjoy reading his movie reviews. He’s definitely a throw-back to a previous era. One of the main ideas with which he is concerned is the loss in today’s culture of what is generally referred to as “honor.” If I understand the essence of his argument, the loss of an ancient phenomenon such as honor corresponds to the degradation of modern living, and the emasculation of men. Furthermore, honor is not defined in purely righteous terms, but is instead oftentimes, and most certainly in “post-modern” times, associated with attitude, reputation, or what could be considered a façade. Therefore, this phenomenon can be exhibited by both God-fearing Christians and street thugs. He even goes so far as to say, “Honor is not one among the other virtues,” and that it has the tendency to be “hypocritical.” In fact, there is so much of this in his many other articles on honor, that the reader begins to wonder whether such a phenomenon is good, right, or necessary any longer.

Until I encountered Bowman’s writings on the subject, I had always thought that honor, having the same Latin root as “honesty,” was about something more than just saving face among the clan to which one belongs. I’ve always seen it the way it is portrayed in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, where at the end of the first film, Samwise tells Frodo that he made a promise to look after him, and he intends to keep it. Honor was as simple as that. It is because of the influence of this phenomenon in the story that Bowman reluctantly gave the movie a higher rating (one star out of a possible two) than he originally did (no stars). The best part of the film, in my opinion, has to do with unquestioning loyalty and trust, aspects of honor for which Bowman grieves. After Sam and Frodo encounter Merry and Pippin, they are sought after by one of the Ringwraiths. As they make a quick escape, Frodo tells Merry, “I have to leave the Shire. Sam and I must get to Bree.” It is in this moment that the viewer learns everything he needs to know about Merry, and about whatever inherent virtue there is in honor. With hardly a thought about the strangeness of what has just transpired, about Frodo’s cryptic plea, or about any future dangers that might follow from providing Frodo and Sam with assistance, the camera closes in on Merry’s thoughtful face as he calmly replies, “Right. Bucklebury Ferry. Follow me.” This is a moment of pure gold, and I’m glad to see that it forces an old codger like Bowman to admit there’s more to the film than outstanding visual sweep and technical brilliance.

But Bowman is also correct that we live in a culture that no longer understands this phenomenon, nor celebrates it. He also points out that much of the rest of the world persists in ancient honor cultures. It is one of these cultures of lost honor against which the government of the United States initiated aggression eight years ago. This is where I have to part company with Bowman, the old ideas of conservatism to which I subscribed, and perhaps with the true meaning of honor.

I don’t know much about post-modernism, other than that it is mostly used these days to describe the “unprincipled” Left: feminism, nihilism, hippies, black supremacy, queer theory, etc.; in other words, everything Bowman despises about his own generation. Having come from a conservative background like Bowman, I understand to a much greater degree the significance and importance placed upon tradition and heritage. To Bowman and other conservatives, honor would appear to be something we ought not to lose, for no other reason than that we’ve always had it, in one form or another. It may also be his belief that we can’t actually dispense with this phenomenon, as it is perhaps ingrained in our physiology somehow, that honor is something that separates us from all else in the animal kingdom. Therefore, if we ignore it, or refuse to recognize our innate possession of it, we will be unable to direct it in the proper fashion, and at some point in American history, we may see families slaughtering women for minor sexual offences, something that still happens to this day in other parts of the world. Post-modernism, in the nihilist sense of the term, doesn’t recognize honor as having any value, because nothing, including post-modernism, has any value either. There is indeed danger in nihilist thought.

There is also danger, and a considerable amount at that, in Bowman’s views of honor, however. Just read “The Worth of National Honor” to understand what I mean. At some point, to Bowman anyway, we owe so much to honor that “we” should have stopped the debate on the morality of the killing “we” were about to do (in the First Gulf War) to focus on the honor of what “we” were doing. If his argument is taken to its extreme, it is as if he is saying that “we” need to follow through on “our” word, for the sake of “our” word. Of course, when he says “our,” he means “the government,” which, naturally, he expects us all to support. Reflect for a while on the nature of what transpired in those few months in the Middle East in 1991, and what it has now led to. When truth, critical thinking, and bravery (and I’m thinking here of standing up for truth and critical thinking, not the bravery of running into an exchange of gunfire for whatever honorable reason) are swept aside so that a pampered elitist like George H.W. Bush can do the bidding of his pampered elitist friends, perhaps it’s time to go back on “our” word and reconsider what it is that “we” are giving “our” word to, rather than continue the bloodletting. We do not need to follow through on bad decisions. We need the humility to understand what Captain Robert Lewis at least briefly understood in the cockpit of the Enola Gay over Hiroshima , after he did his part in incinerating thousands of people at once: “My God, what have we done?”

This is what honor, be it socially invented or biologically induced, routinely does. (Think of the absurdity of a duel, usually brought about by nothing more than an insult.) If Captain Lewis had had the capacity to think more critically beforehand; if he had displayed that ability early in life; if his mother and father had encouraged that, along with the importance of being honest and cultivating a love of truth; if all the men who were assigned to fly that day had honored their abilities to question authority and challenge information given to them, to apply their innate abilities for rational thought; then perhaps the war would have ended sooner, or never involved the United States at all. Instead, the more pathetic conception of honor, tied to old traditions of meritorious advancement, romanticization of violence, a strange, American-Christian God who frequently gives sanction to war, and unquestioning socially dictated behavior, produced men who could listen intently to another man who informed them, “We think [the bomb you’ll drop] will knock out almost everything within a three-mile area,” and continue with their plans to do just that. The Japs had it coming, you see. Besides, our honor was at stake. Ten paces, gentlemen.

In the balance of such bloody nonsense, regurgitated for future generations to digest, is the future of the human race. Lewis’s complicit behavior in dropping that bomb did more than “knock out almost everything within a three-mile area.” It altered human history, and mostly for the worse. The only bright spot is that it forced much of humanity out of part of its stupor of conventional honor. It made them question, in a way so many did after the First World War, what the hell they were doing. That question is a good ten times more important in my mind than any question of honor.

When writers and thinkers like Bowman ruminate on The Great War, they merely lament the unfortunate effect it had on the idea of honor in Western culture. Perhaps the final meaning of World War I is that man’s technological ability to wage war has finally outstripped man’s ability to honorably wage it at all. In much the same way that mass, instant, global, digital communication has shrunk the world and aided us in seeing the essential humanity in every human face and the fact that this humanity existed long before to our ability to grasp it, technology in its most horrendous forms has shown us what we ought not to do to one another and what we always ought not to have done. The one who for centuries kept telling millions in the Western World not to do it was ignored, right up until the moment that it became impossible to follow the admonition, in the advance of a hideous yellow cloud that turned men’s bodies into torture chambers: “Love one another.” Bowman himself admits that Jesus was challenging the honor culture built up in ancient Judaism. Since this is the guy Bowman worships, you would think our shared knowledge of the increasingly torturous and shockingly instantaneous instruments of war, coupled with God’s word, would be enough to reassess the need for honor, or what honor should have been about all along.

If honor cannot contend with the truth we are learning about our obsession with using force and violence on our enemies, the only way for it to save face is to bow out gracefully, forever. If we as a culture do not learn to honor love, freedom, peace, and truth above all else, then I doubt it will matter very much what we do honor, if we honor anything at all.

I would urge Bowman to go back and watch “The Lord of the Rings,” only this time, sit through the entire trilogy. He would see that the only truly honorable actions were performed by those who did their part in helping to destroy The Ring, the symbol of power, or the desire and ability to use force and violence to control the outcome. Perhaps there’s hope when an intellectual like Bowman, who normally despises such Hollywood flummery, can see through it to find the hidden jewel of honor, and perhaps in the future he’ll see the inherent good in putting away any further ideas of honorably waging war. Perhaps someday there will be another Captain Robert Lewis who has the courage to eliminate the “we,” and ask himself, “My God, what have I done?”, and to do so before the atrocity is committed. Perhaps that day is sooner than we think.

This article was originally published at “Strike The Root” on August 27, 2009.  It has been reprinted here with permission.

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