Special Report

Honor Roll

The author of Honor: A History assays the liberal ghetto's nonreviews of his new book.

By 9.21.06

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Now it can be told. I've been just a bit embarrassed by the uniformly good reviews of Honor: A History so far. Not that there have been that many. But that's sort of the point. When the New York Post,
the Wall Street Journal, the New York Sun, National Review, The American Spectator [Paul Beston's review is posted today -- Ed.] and the Weekly Standard all agree that it's a good and important book, isn't that enough in itself to explain if not to justify why no more mainstream or liberal publication has bothered to review it at all? It's true that New York Times columnist John Tierney gave the book and me a flattering write-up, but otherwise I have been stuck in the right-wing journalistic ghetto. It was in the hope of avoiding this fate that I deliberately avoided, as far as possible, anything Ann Coulterish, so as not to give, say, the New York Times Book Review any excuse for ignoring it as a winger book. Even if the Times had given me the Harvey Mansfield treatment, which I commented on last March 22, it would have been forced to show, as it did in that case, its own incapacity for understanding or intelligently criticizing a serious argument about honor and so made my point about the Post-Honor Society.

Well, now at last a negative critique has appeared in, of all places, Wired, or at least the Wired website, and it does precisely that. It's by a guy called Clive Thompson who bills himself as a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He starts off with an ironic claim that all you need to do to understand international affairs is to spend a bit of time with a video game called Saints Row which, like other games (such as Grand Theft Auto) that are based on gang and criminal culture, has to do with acquiring and keeping respect. That's also the subject of Honor: A History, which he claims to have read. Actually, that's not true. He only claims to have "been reading" it, which may mean that he only picked it up for ten minutes before putting it back on the shelf. At any rate, he proceeds to skip over everything in the book concerning the ways in which the Western honor culture has to be distinguished from that of gangsters and terrorists -- which is virtually everything in the book -- to conclude that I am proposing we emulate gangsters and terrorists! "Is it just me," he writes archly, "or are other people unsettled to discover that neoconservative thinkers are openly embracing the same sort of ethics contained in gangsta video games?"

Hmm. It's maybe a little more sophisticated than the number Walter Kirn did on Harvey Mansfield in the New York Times, but not much. Yet his willful misunderstanding of the book may have been partly motivated by the following curious statement: "Say what you will about gamers, but we actually know that Saints Row is a fantasy." Actually we don't. In detail it's a fantasy all right. The people you pretend to kill in it are only images on a screen. But in conception it is based on something real. It may be true as Mr. Thompson says -- I'm not so sure myself -- that the "middle-class kids" who play these games are "perfectly aware that in the real world, this macho kill-'em-all carnage achieves precisely nothing....They know the relentless, violent pursuit of honor and respect rarely leads anywhere but jail, poverty, and epic levels of bloody retribution." But even if they do know this, there are an awful lot of gangsters and terrorists in the world who do not or, if they do, who don't care. It was about them that I was writing, not kids playing video games. He's the one who brought them up. But the pretense that I was thinking of video gamers rather than real terrorists is presumably what's behind his supposition that I am "so far down the rabbit hole" as to claim -- as I do not -- that "Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have actually worked -- that they have stricken our global enemies with fear, and raised our respect meter to a juicy 'full'."

Here's what I do claim. All wars are ultimately wars for honor. It's just that some of those who fight them know this and some don't. The point of my book was to show that we Americans (or most of us) don't know this anymore, because we have lost our own honor culture -- which, when we had one, was very different from the one we now confront in the Islamic world. That's why, on the official level we have to make up impressive sounding moral (ending tyranny, establishing democracy) or prudential (WMDs) reasons for fighting while at an unofficial level we are always tending to slide back down into the same kind of primitive, street-level honor culture that the enemy inhabits, as at Abu Ghraib -- where, by the way, as soon as the Americans moved out and the agents of the new and democratic Iraq moved in the other week, the torture seems to have re-commenced. You have to try real hard not to understand this, or to make it the equivalent of my advocacy of America's adopting the Islamic honor culture, let alone my applauding our lapse into the custom of the country at Abu Ghraib. But then Mr. Thompson does try real hard. I'm gratified to see how hard he has to try to come up with his bogus critique. It suggests that he couldn't think of a legitimate one.

Incidentally, I'm told that the podcast of my recent interview with the Wisconsin Public Radio show, "Here on Earth with Jean Feraca," is now available to anyone who wants to download it for the next two months. I recommend it to Mr. Thompson. It's probably a bit easier to understand than the book, and it's certainly a lot shorter.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.