As the bungled attempt by the British government led by Theresa May to negotiate terms for the country’s exit from the European Union has amply demonstrated, national sovereignty, like honour, is indivisible. Either you have it or you don’t; you can’t cede some of it while retaining some for yourself. It’s my contention that the British have had to learn this painful lesson—although those who cling to power in Britain appear not yet to have learned it—because honour and sovereignty are inextricably intertwined and they, along with most of the rest of the Western world, chose to abandon the old honour culture a hundred years ago, in the wake of the First World War. They did so for reasons that are in many ways creditable to them, or at least to their sense of compassion. As a friend of mine once put it to me, “No more honour, no more Sommes? Fair enough.” Honour had taken the country into that horrible, bloody war, and the experience was retrospectively so traumatic to a bereaved nation that, rather than risk a repetition of it (as they supposed), the cultural elite chose to do without honour.
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But honour is also like nature which, as Horace said, may be driven out with a pitchfork, but will always return. What we dumped in the 1920s and 1930s was not honour itself but our own understanding of it and the way it works, whether we want it to or not. By the twenty-first century this ignorance had become so profound that the otherwise historically savvy Ben Macintyre could write in the Times that the soldiers of the First World War didn’t know what they were fighting for. They certainly thought they knew: they were fighting for national honour. A.E. Housman summed up both their attitude and the poignancy of it when he wrote:
Here dead we lie,
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is.
And we were young.
All wars are ultimately fought for national honour, whatever we tell ourselves to the contrary.
The First World War was a tragedy, but tragedy, too, cannot be understood without an understanding of the honour culture which defines it. Tragedy arises out of honour precisely because of its all-or-nothing character. Our tragic sense recognises the disproportion between comparatively trivial cause and tremendous effect because honour tells us that that chain of causation is unbreakable, in spite of our compassionate wish that it should break.
That understanding—so natural to people a century ago, so foreign to ourselves—was the product of what, in my book Honor: A History, I called cultural honour in order to distinguish it from reflexive honour, which was what was left over for us to get along with when we got rid of cultural honour. The Western honour culture had been different from all others because of the friction between it and nearly 2000 years of a dominant religion, Christianity, many of whose doctrines and precepts (love your enemies, for a start) were fundamentally hostile to honour. What we lost, therefore, in destroying our unique honour culture was all that had softened and civilised it by comparison with others; what was left to us was only what we shared with those others.
Like them, we continued to recognise—as it were by instinct—that honour is the morality of the state of nature as imagined by Hobbes nearly four centuries ago: a world in which might has always made and will always make right. That doctrine is of course scandalous to us, so we may choose to ignore the undoubted fact that, as citizens of a sovereign nation, we are forced to live by it in the military and diplomatic sphere. As Locke, trailing in Hobbes’s wake, subsequently observed, princes always inhabit a state of nature with respect to each other. Morality and legality may take the place of honour among citizens of the same country; they can never take the place of honour among nations, since that which makes a nation, its sovereignty, can never be bound by morality. We like to pretend that it can in such supranational bodies as the United Nations or the European Union, but this is only a pretence. Or, where it is not, as in the EU, it is because the nation’s sovereignty has been lost and it has effectively ceased to be a nation.
Something that honour and democracy have in common is that they don’t work on a supranational scale. The largest possible democracy takes place at the level of the nation-state: beyond that, as the experience of the EU shows, there is only unaccountable bureaucracy. Honour, too, though it may and does exist at very local levels, is stretched to its limit at the national level, where the need to reconcile so many disparate interests makes it vulnerable to the kind of breakdown we are now seeing in Britain and America—a breakdown which, not coincidentally, has coincided with the decline of the nation as an idea, and of democratic and constitutional institutions within it.
All this is just to illustrate why I believe the abolition of the honour culture could not change the honour-sense which seems built into us as human beings, if not genetically then as part of our socialisation that happens so early and so universally that it might as well be genetic. After years of wishful thinking on the part of Britain and others of the First World War’s victorious allies, people suddenly found that honour was as undeniable as ever; a quarter-century after honour demanded that Britain go to war for Belgium, the country’s leaders discovered honour’s demands that it go to war for Poland were equally irresistible. In both cases, however, what was at stake for Britain was not any wish to show compassion for an invaded and conquered country but the honour of Britain itself in choosing not to dishonour its treaty obligations. This proved to be as inescapable after the jettisoning of the old honour culture as it was before.
The pretence and the promise that honour had been cast aside in the intercourse of nations in favour of an international body, the League of Nations, where some sovereignty could be traded for the settlement of disputes between nations on legal and moral grounds, had proved hollow. And yet after an even bloodier and more destructive war, the illusion of international federalism and the corresponding abandonment of honour took hold once more. In America, which had suffered less than the other major combatants of both wars, a belief in honour and national sovereignty hung on a bit longer, possibly because America felt able for some time to treat the United Nations, whose headquarters were on its soil, as an organisation of de facto tributaries.
Vietnam put an end to that. It was unambiguously a war, albeit an undeclared one, and not a “police action” like Korea, and it eventually became to America what the First World War was to Britain: a reason (though not the only one) for casting off what had come to seem the unbearable burden of the old honour culture. I remember the mantra of the anti-war movement, constantly repeated by its propagandists, was that Vietnam was an “immoral war”. The implied contrast was with “the good war” (as it was called) fought a quarter-century earlier. Then, historical revisionists got to work in order to show that even that war had not been fought for honourable reasons after all but because Nazism was uniquely evil and could only have been opposed by force.
The result was that war against any lesser evil than that of the perpetrators of the Holocaust became impossible—which in turn led to the two George Bushes’ ludicrous attempts to cast a petty tyrant like Saddam Hussein in the role of Hitler and so inspired a recrudescence of the anti-war movement of the 1960s. It’s hard to blame the anti-warriors too much. What choice did they have once the culture had decided that wars must be moral if they were to be fought at all? Because they had reality on their side in their insistence that Iraq, if not Afghanistan, was a “war of choice” and that Saddam Hussein was a pretty poor imitation of Hitler, they had the better of the argument—as they are likely to have of any similar arguments in the future, at least for so long as we insist on fighting only moral and not honourable wars.
And that is likely to be for ever, unless we are capable of re-learning what the now long-forgotten honour culture had to teach, which was that there is no such thing as a moral war. War does not belong to the sphere of morality, which depends on the universality of its maxims, as Kant pointed out long ago, ipso facto ruling out any such thing as a moral war. But Kant lived in an era which was in the process of revitalising and democratising its honour culture, which had always been seen as quite distinct from morality. Honour always draws a clear and bright line around what I have called the honour group—in modern matters of war and peace the honour group is the nation—and distinguishes between what is appropriate both inside the circle and outside it.
We are only unconscious of the inherent contradiction of the idea of a moral war because we have been taught to think that honourable standards are outdated and shameful—even though in practice we must rely on them constantly if we are to continue to exist as a nation. The trouble is that young people, brought up to think of honour, if they think of it at all, as no more than a minor branch of morality—several recent authors on the subject appear to take the same view—increasingly fail to see the point of preserving the political antique of nationhood in a world which has given itself to managerialism. But the alternative to a world of nations is not the benign “globalisation” that was a by-product of the end of the Cold War and now looks, in retrospect, like a Golden Age. It is a reversion to the more feral and primitive version of honour which preceded the emergence of the modern nation-state.
In that world, those countries—like Russia and China—which are best able to preserve their sense of nationhood against the fissiparous tendencies of localised and merely tribal honour will have a decided, perhaps a fatal advantage over those—like Britain and, increasingly, the United States—which are not. While the former continue to practise the balance-of-power politics which has been characteristic of the world since the emergence of the nation-state, the latter seem to revert to a quasi-feudal world in which rival sub-national tribes jockey for power one against another in a world where nationhood is, or ought to be, obsolete.
To get an idea of what such pre-national—and, presumably, post-national—honour cultures are like you only have to look at the history of the American republic. Anyone who still believes in the good old days when civility and good manners were the hallmark of American politics would do well to read Joanne B. Freeman’s new book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. The Congress in Jacksonian America was so consumed with regional hatreds that it seems to have spent more time in brawling and fighting (some of it resulting in the injury or death of legislators) and insulting one another than in actually legislating. And the cause of the animus was most often the most obvious one—slavery apologists’ hatred for abolitionists and vice versa—only indirectly. Mostly the argument over slavery turned violent when the members’ personal honour was called into question with what was known as a “personality”—a slight or insult directed at one’s honourable flashpoints, particularly one’s truthfulness or courage.
Ms Freeman persuasively argues that Southerners were able to make use of their local or regional honour culture to call into question the manhood of the Northerners, who rejected it on religious grounds and so usually refused to fight when challenged. That, in turn, gave the Southerners the excuse they needed to claim that the Northern men were cowards and poltroons and thus to call into question the legitimacy of their own sectional loyalties, which is what they saw the abolitionist cause as boiling down to. The Northerners felt their disadvantage when confronted by belligerent Southerners, as if they couldn’t really deny that it was cowardly to refuse to fight, and so sporadically they did agree to fight—on at least one occasion with fatal consequences. But whether they did or didn’t, the question of national importance—the question of slavery—was only tangentially involved because the American nation did not yet really exist as such. It was normal at the time for Southerners to consider themselves as citizens of their states first, and of the nation only secondarily.
Sovereignty was divided, in other words, and, as Abraham Lincoln was to recognise, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. The American nation only really came into existence after the South’s defeat in the Civil War and “the United States” began to take a singular instead of a plural verb. I believe that this could not have happened without Northern willingness to acknowledge that the Southern cause had been an honourable, though not a righteous one—which is why the effort to remove or destroy Confederate memorials today is part of a wider effort to destroy national unity in the name of civil rights and “multicultural” inclusivity.
The progressives are right, however, that that failure, for more than a few years, to treat the South as a conquered people, that recognition of Southern honour in exchange for the South’s acknowledgment of the new, truly national honour group that arose out of its defeat—the deal on which the American nation as it existed from 1865 to 1965 was founded—turned out to be a bad deal for African-Americans, who were relegated to second-class citizenship. The long-sustained failure to include them in the new honour group helped with the discrediting of honour itself and, along with Vietnam and a contemporaneous opening of the floodgates to new immigration, resulted in the precarious situation which the American nation qua nation has occupied for the last half-century.
The election of Donald Trump shows that approximately half the country still cares enough about American nationhood to want to do something to preserve it, which Mr Trump, for all his flaws, clearly wants to do himself. Too many of his fellow Republicans appear to have been cowed by the politically correct media into being less than clear on this point, which I believe had something to do with their poor performance in elections to the House of Representatives in 2018. That was yet another indication, along with the acrimony and “polarisation” of party politics, of the way in which the American honour culture is devolving into its pre-national and tribal form—a form that is more consistent with and congenial to what is called “identity politics” as practised, principally, by Democrats. The America described by Ms Freeman, albeit without (so far) overt violence between our legislators in person—or “personalities”—is beginning to make a comeback.
Morality is the tool with which the Left has so far succeeded in dismantling America’s honour culture because morality, since Kant, has always been synonymous with precepts which, unlike honour’s, apply universally. In theory, morality requires us to treat everyone the same, all the world over, and not to ask first whether they belong to our honour group or not. That is the real reason, and not its pre-1941 history, why “America First” can be regarded as scandalous by the Left. Morality is also full of what are called “grey areas”. How our post-honour culture loves grey areas! Grey areas are what allow us to be, or to think we are, compassionate as well as just, to take circumstances into consideration and avoid what now seems to us the unspeakable cruelty of all-or-nothing, in or out, sovereign or not-sovereign, honourable or dishonourable. We don’t do things that way any more, or so we suppose.
And yet, today in America we are witnessing a curious phenomenon: the more the claims of morality are trumpeted against the remaining honour-loving, “nationalist” troglodytes, the more the putative moralists are coming to resemble those they hate—or, rather, their own caricature of those they hate. I like to cite the self-refuting banners hung outside at least two of the mainline Protestant churches in my home town that read: “All are welcome; no exceptions.” Ah, but I recognise myself, as I am intended to recognise myself, as an exception, since that stern exercise in virtue-signalling is tantamount to saying: you’re only welcome if you take the same view of illegal immigration that we do.
This is far from an isolated example. In the Fall 2018 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, a review-essay by William Voegeli points to a significant change since the days of Martin Luther King in the definition of “racism” which he traces to Developing New Perspectives on Race (1970) by Patricia Bidol-Padva. Most Americans still believe in the universalist definition of racism, which is also still found in most dictionaries, as invidious discrimination by one racial group against another. But that, writes Mr Voegeli, is no longer the case in “social science academic disciplines, especially in the more recently created ‘victimhood studies’ departments”:
For social justice leftists indoctrinated in this viewpoint, it is now self-evident that racism has nothing to do with a person’s attitudes about racial groups, and everything to do with where one stands on questions of redistributive justice among such groups. The words of one blogger reflect the resultant bullying certitude: “Your first step is to accept that ‘a hatred or intolerance of another race’ is not the definition of racism. The dictionary is wrong. Get over it.”
Among those who have got over it is the Editorial Board of the New York Times, which refused to rescind the appointment of Sarah Jeong in spite of her long history of abuse and threats (which she now claims to have been joking) directed against “white people”. The New York Times appears to have accepted the word of Ms Jeong’s apologists that those who accused her of racism were “‘willfully ignorant’ of what that term now connotes”. Of course, what it connotes is the moral and, hopefully, legal superiority of one favoured group over another, just like old-fashioned racism, except that this is now officially to be considered as anti-racism. The anti-racists are now the racists and the racists are anti-racist—but only under the now-outmoded definition of the word.
It is my contention that this derogation from universal, Kantian morality is, like most of what is called “identity politics”, no more nor less than the recurrence of tribal honour under another name. Its claim to moral superiority on behalf of the honour group of the politically “woke”, however, is assumed to be moral because of its Rawlsian bias to the poor, the disfavoured and the putatively marginalised. Certainly the violence committed in the name of “Black Lives Matter” or anti-racism or anti-fascism (“antifa” for short) is more reminiscent of Ms Freeman’s portrait of pre-Civil War America than of Dr King’s non-violent and explicitly moral crusades of the 1960s. Less than seventy-five years after the American nation took on the honour of leadership of what was once called, not inaccurately, the Free World, it has now become the only honour group without a justified claim, at least according to the progressives, on anyone’s first loyalty.
A few years ago, when I used to debate gay activists who were agitating—successfully, as it turned out—against the continuance of Bill Clinton’s policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the American armed forces, my interlocutors would invariably claim, on vaguely constitutional grounds, a right to be “Who-I-am”. Who-I-am to them meant “gay”. I maintained that it was not their gayness which was disqualifying for military service so much as their assumption that they were entitled to identify themselves first as gay and only secondarily as American. “Who-I-am” for an American soldier, sailor, marine or airman, in other words, ought first and foremost to be an American soldier, sailor, marine or airman. For any lesser loyalty to usurp that first place and define who-I-am was to undermine the sense of national honour without which no army can continue to function.
Well, I lost that battle, which is now being reprised on behalf of “transgendered” people—who also think that they are entitled to serve as soldiers, sailors, marines or airmen while continuing to be “who-I-am”. And, like the gay servicemen, they appear to have a significant if not a decisive part of the judiciary on their side. Here is another not-so-grey area in which moral claims are being made for honourable ends—the honour, that is, of a privileged group—except that it declines to use the word, since honour, like nationhood, is now something to be ashamed of, or else it is assumed to have been completely assimilated to morality. It is not, however. It still exists behind the scenes both in President Trump’s “nationalism” and in the progressive advocacy of tribal honour which opposes it. American history in the title of Ms Freeman’s book, The Field of Blood, may give us a good idea of how that opposition is all too likely to end.
James Bowman is the media critic for New Criterion, a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, and the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture.