Is George Bush an honourable man?
Would it be better for the world if he is? Or if he is not?
Honour sounds like it must be good. Honesty, self-assurance, chivalry, desire to maintain a good reputation.
But when Saddam Hussein was pulled passively from his hole, a National Public Radio commentator asked if the man had no honour. His apologists said he must have been drugged. What did they want that he come out firing his weapons in a so-called blaze of glory?
In some societies, when you are shamed, the only way to reclaim your honour is to fight, to prevail or die in battle, or to die at your own hand think Samurai Japan and ritual seppuku. Think inner-city America and what you have to do when a rival insults your mother, or kills your homie: revenge. File it all under: blood, payment in.
Look at the history of every country and find a worldwide obsession with honour, payable in blood.
One of the worst accusations against Bush is that he destroyed Saddam to retrieve his familys honour, and used 9/11 as the excuse. I would hate for this to be even partly true. But why does Bush deny it? Doesnt he want to be seen as a man of honour?
Not in that way!
We are ambivalent about honour today. Historians describe traditional societies as based on shame and honour. Modern societies, they say, are different based on guilt and what, rational choice?
When my wife and I went to Mexico and let our flat and car to a nice man, we didnt know his references were fake, the man a disbarred lawyer, conman and sociopath (so said the private eye on his trail some months later). We were surprised when he refused to pay the rent or return the car. We sued in small claims court. He counter-sued in a municipal court. A lawyer told us we might win, but it would cost us big bucks. We didnt have big bucks. We backed down. He returned the car after running it between steel posts that ruined the entire bodywork.
I knew where he now lived. I knew his own car. I itched, ached, dreamed to trash his car. I didnt. I was a modern man. A coward. A man without honour. A rational man, aware that I was dealing with a sociopath, who might come after my baby and wife without scruple. Better all round to squelch my fury. You could say I found my own honour in not stooping to his level, but thats playing word games to retain honour as a positive concept.
Actually I felt guilty at my desire to hurt the man. I am not at ease with my own ability to hate. From family and peers I had internalised a mishmash of Christian pacifism, conflict resolution and feminist critique of male violence.
Religions offer one way out of the feud dilemma. They say your ultimate honour and reputation are with God. Let the world deride you, as long as you are right with God. To achieve that, you have to have ways to apologize to God for your sins, ways to receive Gods forgiveness and favour. Human or animal sacrifices, or the ultimate sacrifice that some (not all) Christians think was made by Jesus to buy us all salvation. File again under: Blood, payment in. This is a doctrine that George Bushs fundamentalist supporters believe is core to Christianity.
More universalist Christians believe that God loves all of us, sends the life-giving rain on the just and the unjust alike. They talk less of just war, more of turning the other cheek. Easier for mere mortals to do if they can have faith in the police and courts.
Real alternatives to blood feuds involve institutions and cultures that support the rule of law, methods of settling disputes fairly and legitimately, and presumably that requires the whole panoply of habeas corpus, democracy and civil society. It isnt only peaceful motives, or self control, or faith in a forgiving God or a feminist utopia; its trustworthy institutions, built up laboriously over centuries, that do the trick.
A shame George Bushs sense of American honour will not allow him to support an international criminal court, a strong United Nations, a more democratic WTO, or habeas corpus at Guantanamo. As evident in Iraq, creating institutions of democracy is not his strong suit. Its hard, slow, has to come from below. For the powerful, there is more eating crow than flashing steel in it.
I have doctored this quote only by the brackets:
Even though behind the scenes, the President expressed his mortal fear that hasty escalation of the war would usher in World War III, his public pronouncements were thoroughly drenched in the rhetoric of honor. A more secular understanding would refer to our credibility for living up to international commitments to our friends and allies. But this Texas President instead used the terminology of his native state. As representative of that frontier spirit, [he] put the matter succinctly. If Americas commitment is dishonored in [name of country], it is dishonored in forty other alliances or more. . .we do what we must regardless of consequences. By his perspective, honor had its own logic. Practical considerations and prudence drew out no imperative to cast it aside. We love peace. We hate war. But our course, [he] announced in [year], is charted always by the compass of honor.Bush in Iraq? No, Johnson in Vietnam.
The leaders of what they would like to think is the most modern nation, are still subject to the codes of honour of older societies. Its not just because they are unreconstructed, ego-driven, un-Christian men politicians practically have to be. Its because we are many struggles short of having the worldwide institutions that allow us to be modern.