Monday, March 10, 2008


For a long, long time I've been puzzled about the radical change in direction this country has taken, particularly in the last seven years. I've noted previously that the seeds of this change were being sown for some 35 years or so, and that it has been a deliberate, intentional reversal of the norms that knitted us together as a culture for 250 years.

Most of the changes being planned for us weren't visible to the majority until the US Supreme Court put George W. Bush into the White House. At that point, we saw in Florida evidence of widespread vote tampering; thugs hired by Rove and others to try to intimidate chad sorters and vote counters; our highest Court put partisan advantage ahead of a transparently fair and valid election; and our most venerable news media bury all of this in the sand as if it never occurred at all.

Soon we were lied to about the need for war; saw important regulations for the public safety dismantled; heard lie after lie told by media spokespersons and people in government alike, without consequence. Then we saw Katrina and, in its aftermath, uncovered the most cynical corruption and abuse of office imaginable, followed by flagrant preying on those most victimized by the failure of a fraudulently constructed system of levees. We've seen so much: Rove's involvement in the fraudulent, partisan imprisonment of a former Alabama governor. The takedown of sitting attorneys general for partisan reasons. The pollution of our Justice department--that is, the lead player in our justice system--with craven partisanship. The flargrant contravention of the Constitution--repeatedly. Domestic spying without court oversight. Torture. And more.

I think what we've lost can be summed in one word: Honor.

Honor used to be that virtue which prevented a person from cheating and lying; from taking advantage of weak and disadvantaged people; from abusing power, whether at home, in public office, or on a ball field; from giving or receiving kickbacks; from accepting full payment for less than full service; from making a lunch with tainted food or manufacturing a car with faulty parts or imperfect functions; from charging more than the service or product is worth by fair measure; from sending hate mail or making obscene phone calls; from fidding on taxes; from stealing from the neighbors or the workplace; from shoplifting; from diverting contracts to one's friends and political allies; from bribing or extorting; from making stuff up about a political opponent's person, family, policies, record, and positions; from withholding evidence; from turning your back on somebody in need; from smearing somebody with lies and slander; from kicking somebody who's down.

There used to be consensus that a person of honor didn't do those things even if he or she could get away with it. And there used to be social, if not legal, consequences for people who did. And those consequences weren't being enthroned in the highest office of the land.

I don't think we can find our way as a country again until we revisit the meaning of honor and inculcate it in ourselves and our children, and demand it of our public servants, our soldiers, our judges, teachers, mechanics, manufacturers, stock brokers, and CEOs.

The one thing we lack more than all others, I think, is that old-fashioned commitment to personal honor. Not that we all once had it uniformly, or that we were all ever perfect, or that the country never screwed up before 2000. Of course not. But I do distinctly remember a time before Watergate, before the King and Kennedy assassinations, before Mai Lai, when honor meant more than a ribbon on a lapel or a gilded statuette.

I can't put a period to it exactly, but I remember that my grandparents had it. There were just some things an honorable person didn't do even if he or she could get away with doing them. There were just some things that a decent man or woman didn't do. This was back in the day when we told our kids that if you had to cheat to win, you didn't win. You lost the game AND you lost your honor. It was back in the day when Girl and Boy Scouts learned the honor meant telling the truth, admitting a mis-step and taking your medicine, not littering the highway, not killing an animal that you didn't intend to eat, not ganging up on someone, not giving your word and then taking it back again. Honor was what a person had who could make a contract on a handshake.

Honor once was what gave a leader his or her credibility and power, and put him or her in the seat of office to begin with. It was the source of his or her authority, not the result of a fixed election.

I bet I sound really out of it, really old-fashioned, and hopelessly naive. I do know that even honorable people sometimes messed up, and that very few public officials have managed ever to truly withstand the temptations and possibilities of great power. But I also know that my mom and dad talked a lot with me about honor as a child, and that the times I didn't seriously mess up had more to do with my sense of honor than with my fear of getting caught. I also know that the times I did mess up had everything to do with forgetting the meaning of honor.

I don't think honor inheres in being a POW. I don't think it has anything to do with being a former First Lady or a sitting senator or a Harvard Law graduate, and I certainly don't think it has a thing to do with being "a have or a have-more," in W's words. It's not about church-going or flag-waving or being pro-war. It's not about any of the "values" so often touted these days, and that's precisely the problem.

It's like everybody woke up one morning to find all notions of honor had flown far away. Things that once would have rained scandal now earn fortunes. Acts that should result in trials for treason are ignored. Companies that should be barred from all government contracting are given no-bid contracts worth billions. Men and women who lie and endorse torture are among our chief officeholders. War profiteering, which used to be right up there with pimping, is a brag on a resume. Ghastly overconsumption and deliberate waste, far from being shameful, are established as the ideal. Being cruel to the poor and the elderly is like a national passtime, and shooting unarmed civilians in high schools and shopping malls is to America today waht croquet was to America in the 20th Century.

I see that. But what I don't understand is why we let this happen.

Can anyone tell me?


shrimplate said...

Most questions that involve "why" can be answered thusly: "because of the money."