By Joe Anthony
“What,” asks Shakespeare’s Falstaff, “is honor?” There is no practicality to it. It “hath no skill in surgery,” he discovers. It is a mere word. Air. “Honor is a mere scutcheon,” he concludes, prompted mainly, it’s true, by his cowardice. Honor breaks bones though it does not set them. He will have none of it.
Falstaff’s quest for a definition of honor comes to mind because I, too, have been wondering lately about this word “honor.” It’s in the news so much lately. What is its substance? In particular, what do the tea-partiers and Glenn Beck have in mind when they say things like , “Let’s bring back honor and let’s take back the country”?
On the web, which is where I go for substance these days, the Declaration of Independence is often quoted – substantially – by the tea party crowd. Usually it’s just hung out there as if any analysis connecting it to present circumstances was superfluous. A people have a right to rebel.
Even Jefferson, I feel tempted to point out when reading these declarations to the Declaration, gave a list of particulars as to why a people felt justified in rising up. Even Jefferson listed all those ways he found George III tyrannical. But except for mutterings about Socialism, overreaching, and taxes, it’s hard to figure out exactly what everyone’s talking about. And I’ve looked. What did those tens of thousands at Beck’s nightmare rally mean when they said take back the country (from whom?) and return to a time of honor?
Here are my poor gleanings from the dawn’s last light:
Hatred towards the poor
Disdain for the poor, of course, is as old as our Calvinistic Pilgrim patriarchs, as American as Mom’s apple pie. (Am I the only one whose Mom never made an apple pie?) Surrounded by progressives who cite only the inadequacies in Obama’s health bill, I forget that many people think it gives a great deal to the poor, the undeserving poor, though undeserving is a superfluous word and not used. To tea partiers, all the poor are in some way undeserving; they wouldn’t be poor otherwise. As one blogger put it: “Work all your life at McDonald’s and expect first-class health care? Give me a break! “ These people are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Of course, one could argue that they’ve been taking all along and what they’re mad at is the idea of somebody else taking some, but that’s not how they see it. Their “logic” runs something like this.
You make it and you get the rewards. You don’t make it and you get shit and that includes bad or no health care. Obama is trying to change the rules and hell, we’ve been winning by the old rules. Socialism! I believe in charity but this smacks of rights for the poor. And that is un-American.
They have a point. It kind of is. The poor are always with us. As my Jersey dialect would put it: whadyagonna do? Well, what you’re not going to do is actually do something about it. That’s what they mean by Obamacare. That’s what is meant by all the worry about taxes that are actually lower than when Reagan was president. Billions for Iraq, but don’t be helping the poor get help. Taxes are just a symbol. Tea party, get it? George III could have sent coupons with his tea and they would have thrown that overboard, too.
Nativism, racism, you’re not one of us ism
The tea-partiers are getting awfully sensitive about this point, parading out all sorts of respectable blacks who speak their language—not native speakers, maybe, but fluent enough. Martin Luther King. Oh, he was the man. (Thank the Lord, though, he’s not around. Forty years dead should be safe enough.) You and I both know that a black president goes against nature, the natural order of things, but the liberal media jumps all over us when we mention that. Enough of that. People misspeak.
Even Beck admitted he misspoke when he called Obama a racist. Obama doesn’t hate white people because he’s black, Glen tells us now. Obama hates, and that includes you, bro, all real Christians. Obama says he’s a Christian, but he’s a strange Christian. He’s a very, very strange Christian.
Shit, he’s practically a Muslim. Anyway, he’s not one of us.
And you know, here I have to sympathize a bit – or at least I understand that feeling. Obama is a strange duck. I think of the presidents in my life-time, even ones I truly despised: Reagan, the actor-cowboy, Nixon, the sleazy corrupt evangelist, Ford, the empty-headed Chamber of Commerce booster, and though I disliked (and in Nixon’s case, hated) them, they were all American types. I knew who they were. But Obama? The intellectual, unflappable, cool guy with the athlete’s stance and the odd middle name. Well, hell. Who is this guy? And have we been introduced? I’m not sure we have.
I don’t mean, of course, that we actually knew who these presidents were. Nixon’s dark soul was beyond Milton’s understanding; Reagan’s biographer almost had to concede that, in Gertrude Stein’s conclusion about Kansas, that, no, there was no there there. Even my hero, FDR, had an inner nature that continues to elude us. But they all had a public persona that the people could gather round: love, hate, despise. Obama doesn’t seem to. I wish he’d cozy in for a nice fireside chat, or even a Bill Clinton touchy-feely love fest. But it doesn’t seem his style. Alas, I guess I’ll make do.
Press 1 for English? Why the fuck should I press 1 for English? Whose country is this, anyway?
It has lots and lots of causes, this rash. Rashes are hard to pin down which any dermatologist will confirm. Of course all those Mexicans running around are a main irritant. And they’re all Mexican. As a Brazilian student of mine told me, she is constantly asked what part of Mexico Brazil’s in. (Right next to the Mexican Argentine is what she tells them.)
It’s also dishonorable to talk about torture and American war-crimes. Torturing is not the problem. They hate the admission that the war we’re just getting out of, Iraq, was a mistake and a waste. They know that, but lie and wave the flag. That’s the honorable thing. They think, and Glen Beck leads the charge on this, that any criticism of America is hatred of America. Our country right or wrong. (They never quote the second part: that if it’s wrong let me help make it right.) They hate all the talk about global warming. It’s that word global that grates. They know we’re just after their SUV’s. (Well, we kind of are.) Some of them, in the manner of Castro claiming Osama bin Laden is a CIA plant, even suspect that Obama is behind the BP disaster and the latest oil rig explosion. All a ploy to pick on big business.
As if we needed ploys. So now we have this black president who isn’t like any black in my neighborhood who helps the poor in an un-American non-condescending way. We have all these new rights and all our old hates and a terrible recession, too.
Hell: bring back America. Honor. Now I get it.
Only I don’t. Not really. Some of them are talking about treason, the extreme of patriotic dishonor. The extreme among them (and that extreme is egging closer and closer to the Republican center) talk about the president being treasonous. Firing squad solutions are mentioned. (I kid you not: look it up.)
It brings us back to step one in this discussion: what are they talking about? I understand anew why the only crime the Founding Fathers felt it necessary to spell out was treason: two witnesses and concrete action. They somehow understood people would start throwing treason charges around once the going got hot. They didn’t want it like subjective beauty, in the eye of the beholder. They wanted it defined. They wanted it confined.
Kind of like that word honor. It’s not that I don’t know it in the negative. I thought Richard Nixon so devoid of it that you could have poured all the honor stored in Lincoln and King down past his Cheshire Cat grin – and he still wouldn’t have made it to a baseline honor-level. I just find honor’s meaning elusive when crowds of the well-fed chant it while denouncing health care for everyone. I guess references to old racist-sexist- homophobic times when honor reigned supreme somehow evade my understanding. It’s a word Shakespeare has Mark Antony use sarcastically about Brutus and Cassius as he whips the mob into a frenzy. It makes me want to run away and hide when sleaze-ball Glen Beck employs it on his own mob.
I’m with my main-man Falstaff on this. He couldn’t stomach the word, either. He knew, as I suspect, that honor, like patriotism, is the last refuge of scoundrels.