Sunday, November 26, 2017

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear when (OK, if you're old enough to know how the rest goes and yearn for it, you'll be disappointed) . . . when blawggers talked to each other on their blawgs.

Over at Simple Justice this morning, Scott Greenfield wrote about honor.
You told the truth because telling the truth was the right thing to do. You kept your promises because it was the honorable thing to do.
We were honorable people.
Now, not so much.
There is no country for the honorable anymore. From the top down, and the bottom up, lies, deceit manipulation, distortion are all acceptable means of achieving goals, and goals are more important than how you attain them. We can fight over whether a goal is worthy or correct, but an honorable person will not lie to win the battle, will not use fallacious arguments to see if he can get an easy win, will not distort the facts to achieve victory.
I started to write a comment, but it was getting out of hand, turning into the sort of linguistic perambulation I'm inclined to over here, wandering about in a haze of seemingly-parenthetical distraction in the hope that I'll actually end up with a point that draws together the threads.  (And you wonder how many posts I've a abandoned over the years?  Or, more likely, you don't.)

Anyway, here's the thing.  I think Scott's wrong.  Sort of.

I want to be clear here.  Scott's not denying that there are honorable people today.  Folks who do the right thing, who speak and act with integrity because it's the right thing to do even when it hurts.  Folks who will not lie, will not cheat, will not . . . .  Fuck it, here's Raymond Chandler.
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
Chandler's was a fictional detective, his fictional detective in particular.  But the description so far as I've quoted it here (and of Chandler's detective it goes on) is apt.

As I say, Scott doesn't deny that there are honorable people.  His claim is that we no longer view honor as a goal, no longer embarce the ideal.  Now it's the game, the score, the win.  Lie, cheat, do what you can to get there.  (What the public has always accused lawyers of, by the way, though lawyers have always asserted that they're better than that.)  

Where he's wrong, I think, is to think it was different once.  He's wrong to think that we used to honor honor in some way more than the breach (Once more unto the breach, dear friends) but no longer do.

It's probably true that actually honorable people are and have always been rare.  But the idea of honor, the ideal of it, that's something else.  Shakespeare's Anthony knew the strength of the ideal when he offered his ironic and iconic lines.
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men.
But so, albeit less eloquently, does Donald Trump when he accuses CNN or the NY Times or Washington Post or whoever, of
It's a fake, of course.  Every bit as fake and as calculated, if less knowing, than Anthony's remarks about Brutus.  But the claim's the same.  And if he can sell it . . . .

There's no shortage of shadenfeude these days.  It comes from the right and the left, from those we, er, honor and those we despise.  But it's all there because we like the idea of integrity - we just don't much act in conformity.  And we're willing (though perhaps topic right now, and it's not clear how far) to forgive blatant hypocrisy and accept outright lies. 

But forgiveness isn't conceptual approval.  Though perhaps between 24 hour news cycles and social media and especially hatred and certainty of our own righteousness in cause (if not in manner) we're more open about our willingness to tolerate the dishonest.



  1. Imagine being an 18-year-old, sitting in a landing craft off the Normandy coast on D-Day, knowing there was a very good chance you would not survive the day. And yet you ran into the water, onto the beach, to almost certain death. Why would anyone commit suicide in such a way? Crazy, right?

    1. And soldiers do the same dumb ass shit today. But that's the individual behavioral example. There have always, and will always, be men and women who don't first think of (or at least act on the best interests of) themselves - even when their actions are sometimes wholly misguided. And there have always been the others.

      Of course, when the war's unpopular, the responses to the warriors may vary from heroism. Think the returning soldiers from Vietnam. And then Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (I refer only to Ben Fountain's book, which I've read; I haven't seen the movie and don't know about it.)

  2. 'Distorting the facts to achieve victory' is what you are doing every time you discredit a witness you know is telling the truth.

    1. That was Greenfield, so maybe he should respond. But context matters, too.

      Honor calls on us to do our job when the job itself is righteous. And so Justice White explained in United States v. Wade (1967):
      "Law enforcement officers have the obligation to convict the guilty and to make sure they do not convict the innocent. They must be dedicated to making the criminal trial a procedure for the ascertainment of the true facts surrounding the commission of the crime. To this extent, our so-called adversary system is not adversary at all; nor should it be. But defense counsel has no comparable obligation to ascertain or present the truth. Our system assigns him a different mission. He must be and is interested in preventing the conviction of the innocent, but, absent a voluntary plea of guilty, we also insist that he defend his client whether he is innocent or guilty. The State has the obligation to present the evidence. Defense counsel need present nothing, even if he knows what the truth is. He need not furnish any witnesses to the police, or reveal any confidences of his client, or furnish any other information to help the prosecution's case. If he can confuse a witness, even a truthful one, or make him appear at a disadvantage, unsure or indecisive, that will be his normal course. Our interest in not convicting the innocent permits counsel to put the State to its proof, to put the State's case in the worst possible light, regardless of what he thinks or knows to be the truth. Undoubtedly there are some limits which defense counsel must observe but more often than not, defense counsel will cross-examine a prosecution witness, and impeach him if he can, even if he thinks the witness is telling the truth, just as he will attempt to destroy a witness who he thinks is lying. In this respect, as part of our modified adversary system and as part of the duty imposed on the most honorable defense counsel, we countenance or require conduct which in many instances has little, if any, relation to the search for truth."

    2. Sure, of course context matters. The argument is that an attorney is trying to discredit a truthful witness as part of their role in the system. The integrity of the system requires conduct that would not be honorable outside of the courtroom.

      This is based on the premise that the system actually has 'integrity'. As an outside observer it doesn't look that way to me. Near as I can tell it's a total shit show.