Outdated humor

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 26, 2004

During this election year, we are once again deluged with statements from various candidates – local, state and federal; Democrat and Republican – claiming to represent American values.

I addressed the issue of values a couple of weeks ago, so I won’t go there again, but some recent Olympic news got me thinking about the concept of honor.

I suppose when it comes to honor I am Medieval in my thinking. To some, this is akin to be hopelessly out of touch with the world and living in the past. It probably is.

Searching the Internet for a definition, I found this as the number one entry in a modern online dictionary: &uot;a tangible symbol signifying approval or distinction; &uot;an award for bravery&uot;.

Not quite what I had in mind. Further searching found this from Webster’s 1913 Dictionary:


1. Esteem due or paid to worth; high estimation; respect; consideration; reverence; veneration; manifestation of respect or reverence.

2. That which rightfully attracts esteem, respect, or consideration; self-respect; dignity; courage; fidelity; especially, of character; high moral worth; virtue; nobleness.

3. Purity; chastity; – a term applied mostly to women, but becoming uncommon in usage.

4. A nice sense of what is right, just, and true, with course of life correspondent thereto; strict conformity to the duty imposed by conscience, position, or privilege; integrity; uprightness; trustworthness [sic].

That’s more what I had in mind. Honor is a quality that is not only earned by your deeds and actions, but is a integral part of a person’s psyche – the one quality that keeps you honest, gives you self-worth and self-respect, and that makes you always strive to be the best person you can be.

Honor is the quality most admired in tales about the medieval knights, such as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Chivalry is the concept most mentioned, but chivalry is simply a manifestation of honor.

The ideal knight would defend the defenseless, rescue damsels in distress, and die rather than bring shame or dishonor on his king or his God. The reality, I realize, was much different. Most knights were swaggering bullies who looked upon peasants as little more than slaves and gloried in how many unarmored people – soldiers or civilians – they could kill.

Nevertheless, the medieval world at least had the notion of honor even if they didn’t very often live up to it.

But the folks in the Middle Ages didn’t invent honor, nor were they the only practitioners of honor. We’re all familiar with tales of Japanese samurai warriors who, after suffering a dishonorable defeat, would kill themselves by slicing open their stomachs with their swords.

That, however, is not where the phrase &uot;to fall on one’s sword&uot; comes from. Romans who lost their honor because of something they did or failed to do would, literally, fall on their swords as the only way to erase the stain on their personal and family honor.

Most ancient civilizations, it seems, had a strong concept of what was honorable and what, therefore, constituted dishonor. The only remedy for dishonor, of course, is to die. In fact, in Japanese, Medieval European, and Roman cultures, death is preferable to dishonor. In death you could regain honor in the afterworld; but in living with stained honor, you were doomed forever – shunned not only by honorable people, but also by God Himself.

Today, most people only see honor as the trophies they get for some accomplishments: &uot;He was honored with the Noble Peace Prize.&uot; &uot;She was honored with a Pulitzer.&uot; &uot;They gained honor for winning the Olympic Gold Medal for beach volleyball.&uot; Etc.

Earlier this week, it was announced that a judging error had wrongly given a Gold Medal for gymnastics to an American rather than to a South Korean who ended up with Bronze because of that error.

Given that as true (there have been counter-allegations since then), what is the honorable thing to do? I listened to people talking about it and just about every one said the American should not give up the medal. It was awarded to him, therefore, it is his. He was honored with a Gold Medal.

I beg to differ. If it is true the South Korean really won based on points, the honorable thing for the American to do is give him the medal. It seems simple to me. Sure, you’ve worked all your life to attain something – to receive that highest &uot;honor&uot; – but what is it worth if you must give up your honor to receive it? Financial reward. Bragging rights. Dishonor.

Take a look at most sports to find out where we are. If a football receiver traps the ball after it has hit the ground even though the referee calls it a good catch, how many times have you seen the receiver tell the ref that he really didn’t catch it? Not a one. If he did and it was a crucial moment in a crucial game, his teammates would consider him a traitor and the fans would chase him out of the state.

If a CEOs company collapses because of mismanagement, which costs thousands of employees their hard-earned pensions, will the CEO do the honorable thing by publicly resigning, apologizing for his bad management, and dip into his own fortune to help the employees? That doesn’t happen. Assuming the CEO wasn’t a crook, he will stay on the job until forced out, accept every cent he can get from the Board of Directors as &uot;his due&uot; and, at best, give lip service to caring about the people who thought they had a solid retirement plan.

The very concept of honor has disappeared in modern America. People are not expected to act honorably. In fact, people are expected and encouraged to act dishonorably.

Take President Bush’s reaction to the Swift Boat ads, which have been proven to be lies and distortions by several different independent sources. Assuming that the Bush campaign had nothing to do with creating those shameful ads, he should publicly repudiate them as a matter of honor.

It’s an independent group, so maybe he can’t get them to stop running the ads or speaking their lies, but the least Bush could do is repudiate the ads. If he had honor, he wouldn’t have needed John McCain or John Kerry to ask him to do so. An honorable man would have denounced the ads as soon as he realized they were malicious lies.

Bush has yet to denounce the ads. So much for honor.