We think that the days of honor are past, at least of honor as it was always traditionally understood, which meant bravery (and truthfulness) for men, chastity (or fidelity) for women. Nowadays, we pretend to think — perhaps we really do think — that there is no shame to a man in admitting to cowardice or to a woman in boasting of her sexual conquests like a man. Thus Chris Ayres has recently published a book titled War Reporting for Cowards. Ha ha. A good joke. But that’s the point. It is a joke, and an obvious one, for the guy swathed and trussed up in safety gear on the front cover of the book clearly would never have been found in a war zone in the first place if he were really a coward. He can afford to play around with a charge which, if anyone took it seriously, might still be profoundly disturbing and even — I know I’m sticking my neck way out here — a challenge to his manhood.
There was a bit more of an edge to the question that formed the title to one episode of Sex and the City a couple of years ago: “Are we sluts?” Although it was plain enough from the context and our natural sympathy with the series’ heroines that the answer was supposed to be no, they weren’t sluts — not even Samantha — the question remained hanging in the air because it was never established at what point the jolly promiscuity of the ordinary single urban female today, at least as represented in Sex and the City, reached the tipping point into sluthood. Thus, too, in the movie Uptown Girls, Brittany Murphy’s character on being called a slut physically attacks her accuser in the street. We still believe in sexual freedom for women, but that and a few others like it — notably “whore” — are still fighting words.
That the charge of cowardice against a man still retains something of its old potency was also indicated by the furor that greeted what the press was only too eager to represent as Congresswoman Jean Schmidt’s calling her fellow Representative, John Murtha, a coward for calling for an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. In fact the Congresswoman, who serves in the Republican interest from Ohio, was only relaying what in the old days would have amounted to a challenge from a military man who had written to her. She quickly apologized to Congressman Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, but the story continued to send out shock-waves anyway as an example of Republican perfidy. Perhaps, being female, Representative Schmidt was not quite tuned in to the seriousness of the charge she was relaying, if not making.
And neither, probably, would the press have been so tuned in if it had been made against a Republican. I seem to remember that cowardice was one among the many accusations leveled at the President by Democrats in last year’s election campaign, and no one seemed to think anything much about it. At any rate, it never struck the media as being any more or less serious than any of the other charges — of dishonesty, corruption, paying off political and business cronies, etc. — that were and still are routinely made against him in what now passes for political dialogue in America. Congressman Murtha himself as good as called Vice President Cheney a coward for accepting student deferments instead of serving (as Murtha himself did) in Vietnam, and nobody — except possibly the Vice President himself and his immediate family — seemed to have been outraged about that.
The most interesting exhumation of this once mortal insult in recent weeks has been that of Senator John Kerry who, in a typically passive-aggressive maneuver, sought to attack the Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, by alleging that he too had impugned the bravery and thus the manhood of Congressman Murtha. This was somewhat familiar territory for Mr. Kerry, a favorite gambit of whose in the campaign last year was to claim that Republicans had attacked the badly disabled Vietnam veteran and then Senator from Georgia, Max Cleland — though it was Cleland’s patriotism rather than his honor which was said to have been called into question. But by purporting to defend the by-then ex-Senator Cleland, he was also defending himself, it was clear, against the devastating ads against him by the Swift Boat veterans.
With the attack on Congressman Hastert, he was employing the same tactic. “You and I have to make it absolutely clear that we won’t stand for Republican ‘Swift Boat’ style attacks on Jack Murtha,” as he wrote in a fund-raising letter, according to the New York Times. All Speaker Hastert — who, like Vice President Cheney, was vulnerable to the charge of being a “chicken hawk” through never having served himself — had said in response to Representative Murtha’s call for a pull-out in Iraq was that “we must not cower” before the insurgency there. It takes a certain amount of ingenuity to make that into a smear, I think, let alone an attack on the honor of a decorated veteran like Murtha, but Hastert scurried out from under the accusation with as much alacrity as if he had been charged with cowardice. The real smear, that is, was in the claim that Hastert had smeared Murtha in the first place. It’s interesting that the cultural memory of honor’s claims and honor’s demands remains alive even to this extent, but we can’t help noticing that nowadays the mortal insult and the fighting words are not the charge of cowardice but the charge that you have charged someone with cowardice.