Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Appalling Return of Honor-Based Politics

Greg Gianforte, who may be the first Congressman
sworn in while under indictment for assault
When Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a journalist, in a move so brazen even Fox News “watched in disbelief,” the attack itself seemed secondary to me. When Gianforte handily won what observers had previously called a closely divided special election, I realized we’d witnessed a new period appearing in American politics. The next day, the Portland double stabbing confirmed for me: we’ve entered a new period of honor-based politics.

I’ve known several people who complain that American culture today lacks honor, that we’ve become a systemically dishonorable people dwelling chink-deep in shame and disrepute. Most toss this off fleetingly; the two I know who most vigorously repeat this accusation are ex-military, veterans of a culture steeped in honor. I think I understand their meaning, as American mainstream culture has lost any sense of shame, from politics to prime-time TV.

Yet restoring honor is no catch-all solution. Honor, the sense that today’s actions cling to one’s name into the future, has its appeal in a society where even sexual assault boasts can’t derail political campaigns. We need people to face consequences for their decisions; some people should need to spend time reclaiming the integrity of their names. But restoring a literally medieval honor code won’t solve the problem.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers dedicates an entire chapter to honor-based societies, to the elaborate culture of claims and counter-claims, of confrontation and defense, that comprise such societies. Honor systems are bound up in elaborate rules for how to answer somebody’s challenges. Tellingly, he grounds his description of honor society in the southern Appalachians: Hatfield and McCoy territory. Honor societies share one common cultural manifestation, the family blood feud.

Honor culture, in Gladwell’s telling, rests on a network of rules, mostly unwritten, of how to uphold one’s name. One such rule: no challenges go unanswered. If anyone impugns your name, that requires immediate response. If anyone questions you, even incidentally, you must answer immediately. Failure to answer leaves a stink of dishonor clinging to your person, which cannot wash off until you provide some response to reclaim your name.

In the Fox News telling, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs treated Greg Gianforte very rudely. He interrupted an interview already in process, refused to switch a voice recorder off when directed to do so, and attempted to hijack the conversation. In a dignity-based culture, Gianforte could’ve sat back, let the Fox cameras capture Jacobs behaving dickishly, and won the debate without opening his mouth. It was his fight to lose.

You knew this guy was coming
into the story at some point, right?
But in an honor-based culture, Jacobs questioned Gianforte’s positions, which means he questioned Gianforte’s integrity. If Gianforte couldn’t respond quickly, and preferably with sufficient force to stop all future questions, he’d look weak. In honor societies, personal feuds can continue for years, dragging entire communities and families down, and end only when one participant is too thoroughly demolished to ever fight back. As you know if you’ve seen Hamilton.

Possibly emboldened by Gianforte’s victory after attacking somebody, Portland stabber Jeremy Joseph Christian went on a rampage the next day. We’ve already seen documented how his racist rantings on public transportation ascended to violence when onlookers intervened, creating two new heroes. But it’s largely the same motivator: somebody interrupted him, challenging his position. He needed to answer, quickly and overwhelmingly, to restore his name. That never ends well.

Gladwell’s description of honor culture attributes the Hatfield-McCoy dynamic to learned culture. The honor-bound behaviors of the southern Appalachians reflect the same attitudes found in the Scots-Irish homelands from which the region’s white residents first emigrated. Though Gladwell stops short of attributing the cause to genetics, he nevertheless hangs the motivation on the region’s Celtic heritage. These people feud, he implies, because they're a bunch of angry fighting Micks.

But I suggest something different happens. The Scots-Irish left, or more accurately got forced off, marginal land in impoverished, colonized countries, and wound up on marginal land in impoverished, hegemonized states. The same dynamic of marginal land, chronic poverty, and cultural subjugation obtains in Gianforte’s Montana today. And though Portland is hardly poor and marginal, Fox and Breitbart have convinced many whites they’re living in such conditions, despite the evidence.

Therefore I suggest we’ll probably face similar situations again. Voters in places like Billings, Montana, and eastern Oregon, preponderantly supported a tiny-handed President who sees ordinary questions as personal affronts, and answers every challenge by attempting to destroy the challenger. I once thought we were facing expressions of America’s id. Now, I think we’re seeing white America defend its honor.

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