Ethics & Public Policy Center

Honor Enduring

Published in The New Criterion, January 2005 on January 10, 2005



“The last quarter of the 20th century saw a very big shift,” said David Blunkett, the British Home Secretary, in September, 2003, “where rights were predominant but duties were secondary. There has to be a balance restored to the two.” The remark, by the cabinet minister responsible for police and prisons, among other things, can be seen in retrospect as a precursor to one last July by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to the effect that the 1960s-era “liberal and social consensus on law and order” had led to crime and social disorder. Blair was historically more precise but substantively more vague than his minister about what was the pernicious and socially destructive element in the 1960s “consensus,” but I fancy he would not have disagreed with Mr. Blunkett that it was the spirit of individualism which led people to put their own gratification above the good of others, or perhaps even of “society” — which Margaret Thatcher once famously said did not exist.

Last summer, a month after Mr. Blair’s aspersions against the 1960s and just under a year after his own paean to duty, Mr. Blunkett’s long-standing affair of the heart with a married woman was exposed in the British popular press. The woman, an American called Kimberly Fortier before the story blew up and Kimberly Quinn afterwards when she belatedly decided to take her second husband’s name, was the publisher of the conservative weekly, The Spectator. That publication might have been expected to show a certain sympathy for Mr. Blunkett’s views about the balance between rights and duties, but its editor, Boris Johnson, a married man with four young children, was contemporaneously carrying on an affair with one of the magazine’s columnists, Petronella Wyatt. Miss Wyatt, a single woman, was said to have aborted their child at the instigation of Mr. Johnson, who was also a member of Parliament and Conservative front bench spokesman on the arts. He was fired from the latter post by Michael Howard, his party’s leader, when the news of their liaison broke in November — just as the Quinn-Blunkett one was back in the news.

For although Mrs. Quinn had reportedly ended the affair, confessed it to her husband, and been forgiven by him, Mr. Blunkett, who is divorced with three grown children, brought a legal action requesting visitation rights to Mrs. Quinn’s two-year-old son, whom he regards as his own. It was said that a privately administered DNA test before the couple broke up had confirmed this. He believed that the child Mrs. Quinn was now carrying and that was due in February was also his. She and her husband, meanwhile, insisted that both children were theirs, irrespective of “biological details,” and she petitioned the court to be excused further litigation on the subject until April, after she will have given birth. Her request was denied and Mr. Blunkett’s suit allowed to go ahead. “I’m naturally relieved at today’s judgment so I can continue my attempts to gain access to my son,” he said in early December. “I have never wanted anything about my private life and [the child’s] paternity to be in the public domain and would never have gone to the courts if there were another way of getting informal access to him.”

Mrs. Quinn, equally naturally, might otherwise have preferred to keep all discussion of what in dim and distant days past would have been called her “shame” as an adulteress out of the public prints, but in retaliation (as it seems) for the continuation of Mr. Blunkett’s unwanted attention to herself and her children, she or her agents revealed to the media that the Home Secretary, whose duties also include oversight of immigration, had expedited the visa request of a Filipina nanny of hers, had hurried a passport request for her son with the American embassy and had once given her two first class railway tickets at government expense. There may have been other occasions as well on which she was beholden to taxpayers for benefits to which the minister’s spouse, if any, would normally have been entitled. The assumption in all the media coverage of these details was naturally that such minor exercises of the perquisites of office on behalf of a clandestine lover were highly improper, and an independent investigation was ordered by the Prime Minister — who, nevertheless, expressed confidence that his minister would be found innocent of any wrong-doing.

Fortunately, all this personal history also raised fascinating ethical questions which helped to keep the British media interested in the story and presumably comfortable with their position on the windy side of their own ethical standards — such as they are. How much of Mr. Blunkett’s alleged misbehavior, for instance, depended on the assumption that the principals would have preferred to keep their relationship out of the public gaze and how far could it be supposed that a similar suggestion of improper behavior would have attached to similar favors done for ordinary friends or acquaintances? Was expediting the visa for the nanny, who would have been entitled to it in any case, more or less serious as a misdemeanor than the railway tickets, which involved a misuse of admittedly trivial amounts in public funds? Concern about such matters was expressed in the press and in Parliament and a second inquiry was undertaken by the parliamantary standards commissioner. Thus a veneer of seriousness was added to what was, after all, excellent entertainment for the public. Also, the nature of scandal itself appears to have changed, as its use both of the old language of honor or morality and of the more recent language of celebrity has entered a new phase.

Of course it is old news that the ancient culture of honor in public life has been almost entirely replaced by the media’s culture of celebrity. The difference between honor and celebrity is that, where the honor culture depends on the elevation of some people above the mass of men and women, the celebrity culture depends to an equal or greater extent on bringing down to the level of the masses any who might otherwise seem to be so elevated. Thus US Weekly has a section titled “Stars! They’re just like us!” — because, whether they are or not, being like us is what we have come to expect of stars. And that expectation is the reason for the media’s concentration on the ways in which they are most like us, namely in their sexual, marital and family lives. Unlike the so-called “great” men of old who were accorded their honors for being unlike us, celebrities are required to demonstrate their common humanity by their ordinariness, and especially by the ordinariness of their feelings. It is the price they pay, and expect to pay, for being celebrities. That’s why easily slipping into and out of feelings in public, especially feelings of anger, compassion or sorrow, has become the hallmark of celebrity as purple once was of royalty.

When in 2001 the state of Kentucky named an overpass on Interstate highway 75, near Crittenden, after a local man whose sole claim to distinction was an appearance as one of the contestants on the CBS television “reality” show, “Survivor: The Australian Outback,” there was implicit in the act a belief that honoring a mere celebrity was somehow more democratic and egalitarian than the élitist practice of honoring those whose accomplishments might once have been expected to set them up as being “better” than their peers. Paradoxically, the undeserving must be supposed to be more deserving than the deserving! Similarly, the ideal celebrity is one whose talents are only sufficient to such relatively undemanding tasks as reading the news, sports and weather, or acting in undistinguished but popular soap operas and sitcoms, or chatting to other celebrities on television. The price of the adulation that celebrities receive for such labors is that they are required to be simultaneously eminent and accessible, distinguished and ordinary, haughty and nice.

Certain celebrities, like rock stars, can even live conspicuously undeserving lives — or what would have been thought to be so only a few years ago. Their debauchery, drug-taking, self-destructiveness, vandalism or bad manners may show them to be worse than we are, but this too is confirmatory of their celebrity status. “They’re just like us” only more so, being able to get away with doing what we could only dream of doing. The only thing they are not allowed to be is better than we are, as this is too blatant a violation of strict egalitarian standards. In fact, as Albert Borowitz points out in Terrorism for Self-Glorification: The Herostratos Syndrome, to be published by Kent State University Press this month, celebrity misbehavior is just one manifestation of a cultural phenomenon which is also one of the forces behind terrorism. Like Herostratos who in ancient times was said to have burned down the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, solely for the sake of the fame — or infamy, as for him it made no difference — the act would bring him, the terrorists must at any rate be supposed to understand that it’s much easier to win renown for an act of destruction than for one of benevolence or complex achievement.

A celebrity must give proofs of his ordinariness for another reason, I think, and this is precisely to distinguish himself from the heroes of the old-fashioned honor culture, of which the folk memories are remarkably long lived. In totting up his acknowledgments at the end of the introduction to his very scholarly book, Noble Privilege for example, M.L. Bush said he was “indebted to the experience of living in a society where aristocratic values unfortunately remain a potent force.” Even in Britain in 1983, when the book was published, such a statement seems extraordinary — and the more extraordinary for the fact that Professor Bush apparently thinks it unnecessary to spell out what it is that is unfortunate about aristocratic values. Given that Britain was then and is now governed by a democratically-elected Parliament, it seems likely that what he had in mind was (a) inherited wealth — about which, of course, there is nothing inherently aristocratic — and/or (b) honor, and in particular the honor attaching to fighting and dominating others. Once again, we may begin to suspect that we acquiesce in, even wallow in, the celebrity culture precisely because we imagine that it provides a bulwark against any thought of return to the honor culture, or “aristocratic values,” that preceded it.

For the same reason politicians are expected to behave more and more like celebrities by showing their emotions in public particularly when these are such emotions as anger at a terrorist outrage or grief at the conspicuous suffering of its victims, as I argued in these pages over two years ago (see “The Aristocracy of Feelings” in The New Criterion of September, 2002). The British sociologist, Frank Furedi, explains it thus:

The growth of a managerial political style has gone hand in hand with a shift from politics to the personal. . . . As public life has become emptied of its content, private and personal preoccupations have been projected into the public sphere. Consequently, passions that were once stirred by ideological differences are far more likely to be engaged by individual misbehaviour, private troubles and personality conflicts, from Bill Clinton’s affair to Tony Blair’s health to Gordon Brown’s baby.

Or, he might have added, to George W. Bush’s “lies” about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD in the universal journalistic shorthand) in Iraq before his invasion of that country. In 2003 and 2004 we began to find that the political accusation which was formerly the only one forbidden in any circumstances (the charge of lying) had become the only one to achieve any resonance — partly because the language of therapy, which is so important to the celebrity culture and in which the only sin is insincerity, leaves our vocabulary of fault-finding impoverished and partly because of the need, arising out of the celebrity culture, to reduce the political to the personal.

As so often, we can cherchez la feministe for the breakdown of this old-fashioned consensus about the division between public and private. “The personal is the political,” the feminists of the 1970s maintained, and now we are living in their world. There was, it’s true, a brief period at the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair when feminists rediscovered the value of the privacy of private life. They were quick to disavow the idea that the personal was the political in the interests of the “privacy” of their favorite president of recent times. Republicans tended to see the President’s sins in carrying on a sexual dalliance with Miss Lewinsky in the Oval Office as an affront to the honor of the office of the presidency. The right is perhaps constitutionally disposed to such views, but it was the left — including virtually all the feminists who, up until the day before the scandal broke, had been insisting that the personal was the political — that had the more interesting and, to me, the more piquant appeal to a bygone standard of honor. In pleading as so many of them did, for a zone of privacy within which a public man’s conduct, though perhaps reprehensible on moral grounds, would be presumed not to touch upon his public duties and therefore would be protected from use against him by his political enemies, Clinton’s supporters discovered that there was no standard, implicitly accepted by both sides, according to which the President’s conduct could be judged or protected, or partly judged and partly protected, unless it was a legal one. What other way of considering it was available to us?

Honor, of course, had once provided the answer. The old system of honor suppressed both feelings and morality in the name of the public good. Because our public business could not be conducted at all if it were to be conducted by saints, there was a very clear boundary drawn between public and private life, and only those things falling on the public side were deemed to be subject to the requirements of honor. It might have been thought to be regrettable that a leader should have fallen short in his private morality, but it was only essential that he should not have fallen short in his public morality — whose public nature made it subject to the demands of honor. As many commentators noted at the time, the holdover from Victorian standards of honor lasted long enough into the twentieth century to protect the sexual escapades of President Kennedy from exposure, even though there were journalists at the time who knew of them. These were not legitimate matters of public comment in those days because the press and the political world were still sufficiently bound by that old-fashioned, gentlemanly standard by which the private behavior of another gentleman was not to be made public without the risk of incurring blame oneself as a cad and a snitch. The explicit justification of such reticence as a matter of protecting the wife and children from public scandal was raised by President Clinton, with much less success, in his own defense for “lying” to the public.

It seemed to me then and it seems to me now to be a pity that there was no holdover from the days of the Victorians to protect him and other public men with the tacit understanding that their sexual and other personal affairs should not be a matter for public comment. But we no longer have anything left of Victorian honor to guide us. What came between the Kennedy and Clinton presidencies was not only the women’s movement and the maxim about how the personal was the political, not only the further breakdown of leftover Victorian ideas about honor and the triumph of the unofficial culture over the official but also the success of social ambition on the part of what used to be called, with some irony, “the gentlemen of the press.” One reason why Kennedy was so successful in keeping his sexual adventures quiet was that he flattered the press by treating them as equals — all part of the gentlemen’s club which didn’t blab its secrets in public. With the new assertiveness learned by the media during Vietnam and Watergate, and the decline of old habits of deference, journalists since Kennedy have learned to take for granted their equality, even superiority, to the political leaders of the country. The right of the media to intrude into every aspect of a politician’s life, though occasionally still justified in terms of generalized truth-telling — if all lies are equal, then a lie about sex is not to be distinguished from a lie about, say, the uses of public money — is also mostly taken for granted, as the Blunkett affair showed.

Once honor might have thought it hardly a proper or condign punishment for his misbehavior and that of his mistress that they and their most intimate secrets should be made a common by-word and subject for discussion in the media among a pack of strangers — the whole nation indeed, and a significant part of the world beyond it. Like Trollope’s Mr. Harding in The Warden, ordinary decent people might have looked with horror and sympathy on the fate of those who were unfortunate enough to find their names “bandied about so injuriously and publicly” as their privacy was “dragged forth into the glaring day and gibbeted before ferocious multitudes.” But now even the principals didn’t seem to mind such treatment very much. At any rate we heard from them little of a Harding-like reticence or even resentment of the fact that people unknown to them should be talking about the rights and wrongs of behavior they had no business knowing anything about. Indeed, both parties sought to increase their public exposure as a means of lashing out at each other. Mr. Blunkett’s behavior, in particular, in seeking legally to force his access to the children of another man’s wife, a man whom he had wronged in a way that, back in Mr. Harding’s day, would in the eyes of many have justified a challenge to mortal combat, must have seemed to a lady even today tantamount to a plea for the right to rape. So bizarre was it, indeed, that Anthony Howard in The Times of London was moved to apocalyptic language, saying “the distinction. . . between public and private lives can never hold up again.”

Never is a long time, but it is certainly true that not only is nothing private nowadays, we seem to be approaching the point where there is no longer any expectation even on the part of those whose privacy is violated that anything should be private. There was a time, perhaps, when as Trollope writes elsewhere, it was “not what one suffers that kills one, but what one knows that other people see that one suffers.” But human nature seems to have changed since then, and public suffering is no longer a shame but a badge of honor. That’s why nearly everyone now takes for granted the media’s standards of public rectitude — according to which anything that any public figure wants to keep out of the realm of public discussion becomes for that reason alone prima facie evidence of wrong-doing. All that matters is the “truth,” to which, it nearly always goes without saying, the world in general is or ought to be entitled to access, just as Mr. Blunkett is to “his” children. In fact, his suit is based on precisely this assumption, that the trivial “truth” of his biological paternity should be privileged over every consideration of modesty, morality, decorum, shame, public confidence in political leaders or consideration for his former mistress, the husband she betrayed on his behalf, or even the child or children for whose welfare he expresses such solicitude. None of these things carry any weight at all next to the exigency of such truth.

It is an extreme postition, perhaps, but not out of line with that of the scandal-culture of the media — which, in a new and frightening variation on the Stockholm syndrome, is now being embraced even by its principal victims. We have another example closer to home in the conduct of the recent election campaign by John Kerry and the Democrats. President Bush’s electoral vulnerability, felt keenly even by many of his supporters, lay entirely in his having undertaken an unprecedented and mind-bogglingly dangerous U-turn in policy. Elected as a conservative (in every sense) Republican with a particular dislike of what he called “nation-building,” Bush after September 11th, 2001 could be said to have turned into a Wilsonian Democrat but for the fact that he went far beyond anything Woodrow Wilson would have dared to do in proclaiming not only a right but a duty, on grounds of national security no less, to intervene militarily to promote democracy anywhere in the world. But Kerry chose not to attack him on this obvious point of vulnerability. Part of the reason may have been that he needed as his base a nucleus of the left who would not have liked too blatant an appeal to conservative Republicans horrified at the thought of a president who had gone abroad, in defiance of John Quincy Adams’s excellent advice, in search of monsters to destroy. But he also presumably thought that he could win by adopting the media’s approach of treating all the doubts and difficulties attaching to the administration’s strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan as a form of scandal.

No one had any very clear idea about what Kerry himself would have done about the terrorist threat, but everyone knew that he thought — as he frequently said in answer to the question — everything Bush had done was wrong. And by “wrong,” it often appeared, he meant wrong in the sense of Michael Moore and many others of his allies on the left: not, that is, merely misconceived but stupid, incompetent, corrupt. Charges that the President had “lied” had, though for different reasons, something about them of the absurdity of Michael Howard’s justification for sacking Boris Johnson, namely that he had “lied” about his involvement with Miss Wyatt. There, however, even the media began to sense that something wasn’t quite right about such reasoning. As Jane Shilling sardonically put it in The Times,

If, in the future, some other member of Mr. Howard’s Shadow Cabinet (or indeed, who knows, his Cabinet) were to find him or herself in a similar pickle, the thing to do, at the first whiff of a gathering scandal, would be to hoist a white hanky on a stick and come out, hands up, saying to the assembled gathering of party whips and interested hacks: “OK, lads, you got me bang to rights. It’s me behind the two-way mirror in that corset and suspenders. Yup, and the guinea-pig is mine as well.” And then everything will be all right, because honesty and integrity has been upheld and nothing will have been done to shake the trust of the people in their politicians. This is certainly an innovative take on the role of private morality in public service.

She means “innovative,” of course, ironically, since it is now and has been for some time the take everyone has, or at least must pretend to have, on that subject — which helps to explain why the media so relentlessly pursued the sex scandals of the Clinton era even though Clinton himself was such a media favorite. Even he, it seemed, could not be suffered to “lie” about his private life without raising the almost literally unthinkable question as to the public’s right to know, well, pretty much anything they want to know about our public figures.

And yet Jane Shilling’s reductio ad absurdum of Michael Howard’s reasoning in the Boris Johnson case suddenly didn’t seem so absurd in that of Mr. Blunkett — as her Times colleague, Nick Robinson, showed in analyzing why, at a time when the paper published a poll revealing that the views of Mr. Blunkett’s integrity held by three fifths of British voters were unchanged by the scandal, he seemed likely to weather it. Some, Robinson noted, had supposed that it was because of public sympathy for his blindness, or admiration for the way in which he had overcome that handicap to rise to one of the highest offices of state. But he noticed a more important difference between this and sex scandals under the last Tory government, where there were still some vestiges of shame on the part of the principals. In Blunkett’s case, “there has been no hiding under a coat in the back of a car. . . no nights in a ‘safe house,’ no flicker of shame or embarrassment. Instead, we’ve witnessed an awesome display of the burning indignation and sheer bloody-mindedness that has got him so very near the top. In my business you can smell weakness from 100 yards. This week we got barely a whiff of it.”

I think Robinson may be on to something here. Respect for strength and contempt for weakness in our political leaders may well be the kind of cultural constant that survives even so radical a change in public attitudes as that which we see in these post-modern sex scandals. Honor in that sense — the sense, that is, of honor’s origins among small bands of barbarian warriors for whom strength meant survival and weakness meant death — lives on long past such temporary cultural manifestations of it as the elder among us remember from Victorian notions of sexual propriety. Senator Kerry’s failure successfully to exploit the media’s willingness to dig up scandal in the Bush administration or the president’s personal life may have been owing to the same survival. Even if we have forgotten it, or forgotten how to articulate it, we still know at some more basic, quasi-instinctual level that what ordinary people not on the media bandwagon care about in their public servants is not morality but honor. President Bush seems instinctively to have understood the continuing relevance of wild or primitive honor to our highly sophisticated and democratic politics during the campaign by resisting the media’s demands that he publicly confess his mistakes in office and apologize for them.

He must have understood, perhaps even more clearly than Blunkett, that for all the media’s demands for feelings and vulnerability on the part of those to whom they offer the dubious blessings of their spotlight, there is deep within even those who are otherwise happy to attend to the scandal folies an atavistic respect for strength above all other qualities in political leaders, particularly in times of national peril. This respect is itself so strong that it really doesn’t care a bit about those human feelings which would seem to be, if you believe the media, all anyone cares about anymore. Yet even though people today might agree that keeping sex out of public life would be a good thing, what prevents it from happening — or what prevents the media from suffering any serious censure for not allowing it to happen — is that people would view as hypocrisy any return to an idea of honor as the merely public dimension of morality. Victorian honor itself rested on a compromise between traditional aristocratic standards and the new spirit of democracy and equality that was always and inherently unstable. Moreover, traditional, honor-based societies could never be entirely at ease with individualism, and individualism was always the direction in which Victorian “progress” was tending. What would in any case have been a powerful, perhaps unstoppable social force, was immensely aided by Victorian prosperity and technical progress. The rich have always been individualistic (though bound with greater or less success to the community by principles of noblesse oblige), and as what to earlier ages would have seemed immense riches became available to more and more people, the individualistic tendency naturally grew stronger.

That, you may remember, is where Mr. Blunkett came in — Mr. Blunkett as he was, at any rate, before his public exposure as an adulterer and possibly a misappropriator of public funds and misuser of public office. Actually, I imagine he is of the same opinion still. He does not strike me as the man to be shaken from his views by a little bad publicity, and in fact that might well have been, if Nick Robinson was right, the very quality most likely to preserve him in office. You could tell by the admiring way in which the Sunday Times editorialized: “For a man whose political future is in the balance, David Blunkett is showing almost Churchillian defiance.” Well, why not? What else have our politicians to be heroically defiant about but the media’s demands that they demonstrate their humanity by public suffering. When Blunkett fell anyway in mid-December, it was assumed to be because his Churchillian qualities ran out after he was forced to apologize for some remarkably ill-timed criticisms of his ministerial colleagues published in an authorized biography. Ah, a charming weakness at last! Others said that it first became clear that Mr. Blunkett had to go when he appeared at a Christmas party attended by Labour MPs and sang “Pick Yourself Up” from the movie Swing Time (1936). Fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers will remembeer that this song includes the lines:

 

Will you remember the famous men
Who had to fall to rise again.
So take a deep breath;
Pick yourself up;
Dust yourself off;
Start all over again.

 

Small wonder that a Labour colleague thought the song showed Blunkett to be “seriously unbalanced.” For what kind of man nowadays believes himself to be that kind of “famous man”? To the extent to which we still live in an honor culture, its first honorable principle is never to acknowledge that we still live with and care about honor.

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