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July 25, 2003
Honor, Hubris, A/C

This article on honor (or honour, as our cousins spell it) both hits and misses a number of points.

Yes, I have a few nits to pick. Not many.

America, it seems, remains culturally divided along the Mason–Dixon line, and the crucial difference now, as at the time of the American Civil War, is honour.
I think the difference isn't the Mason Dixon line, though that plays a related role. I think the difference in modern America (and, for that matter, in other countries) is not division into North and South, but division between big city and small town and the differing values found in each.

It's now time, boys and girls, to take a little trip down the rat-hole of amateur demography...

Now, I may be talking through my hat here; I'm doing this without actual research and without a net; I'm no anthropologist, demographer, or statistician. This is off-the-cuff, nearly extemporaneous.

If the Mason-Dixon line plays any part in the aforementioned big/little city/town calculation, it is because north of the Mason-Dixon line a larger slice of the population lives in large cities; south of the line, there is a greater likelihood of living in a smaller town. The South has historically had a much smaller population than the North, and a lower population density. In 1860, there were about 20 million in the North; there were only 9 million people in what would become the Confederacy, of whom about 3 million cannot be said to have been in the South by choice (yes, I mean slaves).

Right through to today, the South is less densely populated than the North, though it is catching up to a certain extent. Why? My guess: air conditioning.


I don't think the South would have begun its "boom" were it not for the ready availability of inexpensive air conditioning. The stereotypical "slow lazy southern town" portrayed in "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "Mayberry RFD" is closer to being true than not. After all, who really wants to exert themselves when it's 93° out and 98% humidity? Not this ol' boy, that's fer darn sure.

But the big/little dichotomy is not just a North/South phenomenon. Most of the American West is sparsely populated. Even that most populous of states, California, has a lot of wide open territory scattered with small towns. With the majority of the population concentrated in Los Angeles, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay area, there's a lot of land left over.

And in general, the small-town values in most of the West echo those of the South. Heck, I was born and raised in California - my hometown had about 8,000 residents, and within an hour's drive, the largest city was under 100,000. [Don't you dare call me a yankee.]

But what, exactly, does all this have to do with honor?

It's simple, I think. There is one characteristic available to the residents of large cities that is generally unavailable in smaller towns, and this trait affects personal behavior in countless ways: Anonymity.

When you are in the position of being known in your community (not famous, just known) you are more likely to behave in ways that we might describe as honorable. You'll be more polite when you know (even unconsciously) that your Mother will hear about your rudeness.

If you back away from a challenge...

In the modern era, honour is generally considered obsolete. As Guy Crouchback notes in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen, it is a ‘thing that changes. I mean, 150 years ago we would have had to fight if challenged. Now we’d laugh.’
Or in other words, behave cowardly. Do so in a small town and you know your Father, brother, and buddies will hear about it - and on such behavior are local reputations founded. Growing up in such an environment develops characteristics in a person that will not often change.

Take the discussion to the big city - or, for that matter, to the Internet. The anonymity afforded there allows the individual to get away with behavior that would be frowned upon or simply not tolerated in a smaller community.

If none of your acquaintances knows you are a cad, you can behave in pretty much any despicable way you want. Threatened by a bully, by a mugger? Run away - no one who knows you will ever know about your cowardice. Want to troll or deface a website? No one will ever find out the vandal was you. Probably.

In summary, your personal honor - or lack thereof - both builds on and affects your personal behavior.

Paul Robinson's article makes a number of points that might tend to offend an honorable person's sense of, um, honor. It's not until we are halfway through the article that we read

The kind of honour I am referring to here is not the gentility of men such as Robert E. Lee.
Well, gee, thanks for clearing that up, Paul. I suppose I could write another screed on the differences between gentility and honor. Suffice it to say that honor usually requires a degree of gentility of behavior; gentility on its own does not guarantee honor.

Robinson, a former officer in the UK and Canada, does pack quite a few good points into the article, but that's not to say that I agree fully with everything therein. At one point he says of Jacksonians

They see the pursuit of national honour as the prime purpose of policy.
I think not. Self-preservation (by utterly defeating our mortal foes) is the prime purpose of policy.

Indeed, I think Robinson really goes off the track in his conclusion where, attempting to draw a parallel between the antebellum South and the current state of the country, he says:

As the ancient Greeks knew, the pursuit of honour often leads people to attack others, to drive them down, in order to inflate themselves. The Greeks called such behaviour hubris, and believed that hubris inevitably resulted in disaster. It certainly did for the Confederacy..
Having spent the majority of the article attempting to draw parallels - some accurate - between the Old South and the current United States, Robinson tries to suggest, not altogether subtly, that the US is "attacking others to drive them down, to inflate [our]selves." And will ultimately defeat ourselves thereby.

This is both factually and analytically incorrect. A glance at a dictionary will correct his definition of "hubris." He could begin here or here.

To suggest, however, that what the US is engaged in is "attacking others to drive them down, to inflate ourselves" is a mistake of the greatest magnitude, particularly for a former military officer.

Overwhelming manpower and force of arms applied by the Union defeated the Confederacy, not any supposed sin of national pride.

But perhaps Robinson fails to recall that bright, clear September morning less than two years ago?

On that day, we as a nation were attacked by men whose purpose was to drive us down, to inflate themselves. And so far, they have mostly been destroyed, root and branch.

Hubris, indeed.

(Article found via Betsy)

Posted by Russ at 12:19 AM, July 25, 2003 in Nat'l Security & North Carolina

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Thanks for your take on this. It's been an interesting thread to me for the last couple of days.

Posted by: Indigo at July 25, 2003 11:05 AM

Richard M. Weaver provides us with an antidote for Paul Robinson's defined "hubris":
"...The most insidious idea employed to break down society is an undefined equalitarianism." ...just watch the 6 o’clock news. Yet once the egalitarians achieve their nearby goals, "they merely substitute a bureaucratic hierarchy" for natural social differentiations..."
Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 40-41

It is easy to accuse a society, or its citizens, of hubris, when, in fact, what is meant is that one is not seeking an end to inequality.

Posted by: Frank DiSalle at July 26, 2003 03:53 PM

Evidence for your air conditioning theory.

Posted by: bigwig at July 27, 2003 10:58 AM