Have you noticed? An awful lot of people lately have taken it upon themselves to pronounce on what is and what is not honorable—and, in many cases, who is and is not competent to pronounce upon the subject. On that point, no one ever thinks he himself lacks such competence, but I’m afraid that that only shows we all do. Lack competence. This is because we can no longer agree upon the meaning of the word. You can tell by the frequency with which it is used to buttress a partisan political point—in effect to call those who disagree with us dishonorable for no better reason than that they disagree with us. Such a thing would itself have been dishonorable in the days when honor was well understood—and understood as that which preserved civic cohesion in spite of political differences.
But the days when “the Honorable” was anything more than ornamentation for a letterhead are long gone, as you could tell from what some of us old-timers might have supposed to be the eminently non-partisan occasion of the funeral of a great American hero, Senator John McCain. “You had to control your gag reflex,” wrote Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post, “watching Vice President Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) extol McCain’s greatness as he was accorded the honor of lying in state.” And why was that, Jennifer? Because she thought it hypocritical and disingenuous of them to pay homage to an honorable man with whom they had had serious political differences, some of them expressed (as she was now doing), according to current custom, in personal terms.
No credit to these men, then, as there might once have been, for rising above such differences on such an occasion. And, indeed, Ms. Rubin has given redundant demonstrations that she herself must be incapable of such a feat. Not that the late Senator McCain had been, in life, what you’d call a throwback to the days of honor in politics. His capacity to bear a grudge beyond the grave was evident in his pointedly not inviting President Trump or Sarah Palin to his funeral. The late hero, it seems, was at least as prepared as Jennifer Rubin or anyone else in the media, who had lionized him in death as part of their campaign against the president, to use his honor and the prestige attaching to it to settle political scores.
The point is, for honor to be honor in any but a subjective and emotive sense, it is something about which you need to agree with the people you hate the most.
But why should a military man have been supposed to understand political honor any better than anyone else? Not that I mean to set myself up as the arbiter of honor, correcting the world’s misuse of the term. I would only mention what ought to be obvious: that, even when used correctly according to traditional understandings of the word, without their traditional cultural context it is meaningless. David French of National Review opined last week that “there is certainly an honorable way to oppose the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh . . . . But it’s low and dishonorable to skip the principled opposition and simply smear a good man, engaging in cheap character assassination as Judge Kavanaugh’s Democratic opponents have this week.” Yes, I would have thought so too, but I don’t see any Democrats hanging their heads in shame, do you?
The point is, for honor to be honor in any but a subjective and emotive sense, it is something about which you need to agree with the people you hate the most. It can’t be turned to account as a weapon against them without destroying itself in the process. So what if I or anybody else happens to agree with Jennifer Rubin and disagree with David French? Or cheer for The Wall Street Journal and others who call the anonymous denouncer of the president from within his administration dishonorable and boo The Washington Post for claiming that “veterans don’t get to decide what ‘respecting the flag’ means”? If they don’t, we may want to ask, who does? But by now the answer should be clear: nobody. Honor is no longer a part of our public life in any meaningful sense. The only question is whether or not our public life can long survive without it—and without tearing itself apart, as it now appears to be bent on doing.