The news this week featured a man once held in high regard by many Americans, and the news was not good. David Petraeus, former Army general and CIA Director, had reached a plea agreement with the Justice Department, and will spend two years on probation and pay a $40,000 fine. He admitted to giving top-secret information to his mistress, Paula Broadwell. For the downfall of this once-important man, it was about as soft a landing as he could hope for. The news prompted me to revisit a piece I wrote two years ago for our local newspaper, The Chronotype:
They have fallen left and right, a parade of men once held in high esteem for their accomplishments, their values, their good works. In just the last two years: Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Petraeus, Lance Armstrong, and then just before the Super Bowl we learned of Dan Marino, Hall of Fame quarterback and family man, with a mistress and a “love child” in his recent past. Undoubtedly there will be more. When the news broke last fall about Petraeus, the general who led us to victory (or at least what passes for victory these days) in Iraq and toward the same in Afghanistan before taking over the CIA, I asked myself, “Is there no honor left, anywhere?”
The Petraeus scandal was most disturbing to me. Here was a man who had worked his way to the pinnacle of his profession, a man at arms who had through discipline, innovation and hard work achieved so much that his name was being mentioned as presidential material. I read his biography, All In, not realizing then that he was sleeping with the author. In the span of days, everything Petraeus had built for himself was in shambles. He lost his job, his marriage was rocked to the core, his reputation forever besmirched, and for the many who hoped he might be the one to take the reins of the nation in four years to lead us out of our downward spiral of dependency and financial stupidity, hopes were dashed.
The evolution of honor.
In what was an interesting coincidence, at about the same time I finished a series of articles on my favorite website, Art of Manliness, about honor. It is a concept with a rich and complex history, and like everything else has evolved over time, but not necessarily for the better. The more I learned, the more I came to believe that what we need in this country now, perhaps more than ever, is for us to re-acquaint ourselves with this timeless notion of respect.
My generation gave us the idea of “I’m okay, you’re okay,” and its cousin, “Do your own thing.” In those heady days we rebelled against authority to usher in the Age of Aquarius, throwing off the shackles of our narrow-minded parents and their antiquated ideas about faith, duty, discipline and honor. In our tie-dyed shirts and grubby jeans we drove our smoke-filled VW buses down the road toward the next century, convinced we would have ourselves a groovy world by 2001.
Things haven’t exactly worked out as we planned.
The author of the Art of Manliness series, Brett McKay, wrote, “Traditional honor consists of having a reputation judged worthy of respect and admiration by a group of equal peers who share the same code of standards.” Originally, those standards were based on strength and courage, but over the centuries they came to include things like chivalry, industry, self-control and sincerity.
But in the 20th century things started unraveling with urbanization and anonymity dissolving the intimate personal relationships honor required. People became uncomfortable with the concept of shame, violence even in self-defense was to be avoided at all costs, and individual feelings were elevated above the common good of the group. Your own sense of honor, if you had one, was determined by no one but yourself. Accountability became a thing of the past.
Without honor, where are we?
One particular part of McKay’s thesis struck home: “Without honor, mediocrity, corruption and incompetence rule. Honor is based on reputation, and when people stop caring about their reputation, and shame disappears, people devolve into doing the least they can without getting into legal trouble or getting fired.” Like so many big things, this retreat from honor began with small things. People stopped caring about how they dressed, and “Casual Friday” became “Casual Everyday.” Customer service became harder to find and was often replaced entirely by a machine. The guy in the next cubicle got the same bonus as you did even though he spent half his day playing video games or surfing the internet, so you stopped caring, too. The last politician you voted for proved himself an incompetent blowhard, but instead of helping find a quality replacement you decided not to vote at all. You fudged a little bit on your taxes because hey, everybody does it. On and on it goes.
At the same time we have seen the decline of honor we have given rise to the most regulated and policed society we have ever had. The Code of Federal Regulations has grown by almost 25 percent in the past two decades and now contains nearly 175,000 pages. We are being told what we should not eat and should not drink (while at the same time, conversely, we are told it is now okay to smoke marijuana, depending on where you are.) If we say or publish something that somebody finds offensive, we risk a reaction ranging from public scorn up to threats of violence. The phrase “politically correct” was unknown to our parents’ generation, but we know exactly what it means: when we are told “That’s not PC,” we had better stop it.
Why all the rules and regulations? I think it’s because that people can’t be trusted to do the right thing anymore. They have to be compelled to do it, and when there is no longer any universal understanding of what “the right thing” is, then your definition is just as good as mine.
Honor is more powerful than rules in shaping human behavior. Honor checks our narcissism, builds community, creates meaning. Without it, nobody cares what you do. Merit goes unnoticed, good goes unrewarded, evil goes unpunished. Most Americans today believe we’re on the wrong track, but we’re not sure what to do about it. Perhaps we can start by embracing honor once again.