October 17, 2008

Honorable mention

While honor can be a proud banner in the hands of the truly noble, it is all too often a sorry defense used by those for whom real virtue is too troublesome to be bothered with.

Everyone knows that John McCain is a man of honor. Most may not know the same of Abd el-Samad, an Egyptian farmer who earlier this year was arrested for hanging his 16-year-old daughter and then beheading her body in order to restore his family honor after she was suspected of having an affair.

Honor, you see, is a slippery concept. “To John McCain,” as a Time magazine article recently put it, “honor means telling the truth, doing the right thing rather than the easy thing, and putting America’s needs ahead of your needs.” To Anwar el-Sadat, the Egyptian president who claimed in a speech in October 1973 that his nation had finally “restored its honor,” honor meant launching a surprise attack on the Jewish state on Yom Kippur. While honor can be a proud banner in the hands of the truly noble, it is all too often a sorry defense used by those for whom real virtue is too troublesome to be bothered with.

It is this lesser honor that has tainted McCain’s campaign. His staffers, for instance, at one point handed out tire gauges to voters and members of the press in order to mock Barack Obama’s suggestion that Americans save money and energy by keeping their tires fully inflated. McCain’s point is clear: America is too great a nation to concern itself with small virtues. But those who wrap themselves in the nation’s honor to excuse its vices are the ones who most dishonor their country. Like misers, these superficial patriots revel in what has been acquired in the past but think little of using it to enrich the future.

It has often been said that the Republican Party is the party of private virtue, but that seems no longer to be the case. While liberals are measuring their carbon footprints, Republicans are smitten with a vice-presidential candidate who worships the Lamb of God even as she stalks animals for pleasure and glowingly compares herself to a violent beast, who relishes the thrill of exerting her power over powerless creatures and yet deems herself suited to leadership in a democratic country. One could call her a rank hypocrite for claiming to believe in the divinity of the Bible and simultaneously declaring herself free of doubt about her readiness for the highest office in the land, since every Bible student worth his salt knows that Moses and King David were both shepherds who tended animals instead of hunting them.

But let’s be charitable, for how easy it is to be confused about the nature of the good. How is it that a true American hero and a savage child murderer are both pursuing the same thing? Such is honor. At one time ethics beyond the call of duty, at another just a euphemism for power and pride. It should come as no surprise that the word can encompass such vastly different meanings, for there is little more human than to mistake might for right.

This campaign seems to have brought forth a new wave of the lesser honor. While Palin’s adoring throng admires her simply because of her raw assertiveness, many Republicans have gone so overboard that they are beginning to throw all love of real virtue to the wind in disparaging Obama’s intelligence (arrogance), thoughtfulness (indecisiveness), composure (aloofness), and compassion (weakness). What can be done for a nation that loves equality so much that it loves mediocrity, in which everything pure is puritanical, and everyone who is smart is smarter-than-thou? Honor is a two-sided coin as well, and America is getting the tail end of the bargain.

Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC.