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In Brief: Honor Bound

Sunday, August 20, 2006

James Bowman traces the concept of honor back to the playground, where an instinctual urge not to be trifled with prompts a picked-on kid to hit back. From that archetypal beginning, he argues in Honor: A History (Encounter, $25.95), came the codes and rituals that lasted in the West until sometime during World War I, when they gave way to the attitude best expressed by Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms : "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates."

Yet according to Bowman, honor survives as a force directing human actions in much of the world -- the Muslim world in particular -- leaving us Westerners "the odd ones out." He praises the rebellion by the doomed passengers on board United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, as showing "how quickly we can revert to older, more honorable assumptions."

Applying a sense of honor can lead Bowman, who has written for several conservative publications, to adopt unpredictable positions. Concerning the attempted impeachment of President Clinton, Bowman notes that "an honorable as opposed to a legalistic standard would have regarded it as out of political bounds to make any mention at all of private behavior that he chose to keep private." And like many other social critics, Bowman laments the influence of celebrity culture on the tone of American life, though with this significant difference: He calls for a return of the mentality in which being a celebrity entailed an "obscure sense of shame."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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