Decline of the Honor Culture

Policy Review No. 156 | Published on

By James Bowman

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In the final season of the hit hbo series The Sopranos, there was a revealing scene between the show's dubious hero, mob boss Tony Soprano, and his son, A.J. — a young man who, after a pretty spectacularly misspent youth, was at the end of the series finally beginning to get the idea that he might like to join the family business. Most recently, he had attempted to kill his senile Uncle Junior for once having tried to kill his father, only for Tony to regard this as yet another of his juvenile screwups. A.J. rounded on him: “Well, you're a . . . hypocrite, all right? 'Cause every time we watch Godfather, when Michael Corleone shoots those guys at the restaurant . . . you sit there with your . . . bowl of ice cream and you say it's your favorite scene of all time!”

Tony replies: “Jesus Christ, A.J. I mean, you make me wanna cry. It's a movie. Ya gotta grow up. You're not a kid anymore. You hear me, you . . . you . . . you gotta grow up.” Later, perhaps thinking that it might please his parents if he were to channel his aggressive impulses into what he briefly imagines must be a more socially acceptable form, A.J. announces that he intends to join the army. He says he thinks he might like to learn to be a helicopter pilot and later go to work in that capacity for Donald Trump. His parents are horrified. “Okay, as your parents,” says his mother, Carmela, “we don't feel joining the army is in your best interest.” They offer him a new bmw and a job on a film set as part of their effort to persuade him not to enlist. He happily accepts the bribe.

A.J., always a little slow, finally gets what was, again and again, the central point being made by the comedy of The Sopranos, namely that the old honor culture — both the unofficial one of the mafia and the official one of the armed forces — has become déclassé. The Soprano family has the same desire to “make it” that the Corleones once had, but times have changed. Though they still make their money from the rackets, their aspiration, their idea of success, is not just pecuniary but to become culturally indistinguishable from their upper-middle-class neighbors in suburban New Jersey by adopting their liberal values along with their “lifestyle.” Accordingly, the series begins with Tony's decision to go into therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and their sessions become a running gag throughout its 86 episodes — because they embody the central contradiction between those liberal values and Tony's very illiberal, not to mention violent and illegal, workaday world.

The Soprano family's repeated viewings of The Godfather suggest a kind of romantic nostalgia for the old days of the “men of honor,” as the mafiosi once styled themselves, but the rebuke to A.J. shows that Tony doesn't confuse this with social reality. However much he is still obliged to live according to the rules the gangsters of old once established, Tony is never in any doubt that he has cast his cultural lot with his more respectable neighbors. The mafia is his guilty secret, which he thinks it impolite and even wounding for them to ask him about. Once, on a golf outing with his doctor neighbor and two other men, one of the others asks him about what the mafia is “really” like. Tony takes it to his shrink and says that the other men made him feel like a performing bear.

The irony is of course that the others feel the same nostalgia as he does, as perhaps all men do, for the heroic world he actually still inhabits but feels ashamed of, a world free from the constraints of bourgeois society, in which success is owed to strength and cunning rather than familiarity with the knowledge-based economy that most of us inhabit. The same impulse has produced the “lifestyle” magazine Mob Candy, published in Brooklyn, which is pitched at gangsters and their admirers. The success of The Sopranos itself depended on this same nostalgia — but also on the audience's realization along with Tony and the rest that the world isn't “really” like that anymore. “It's a movie,” as Tony tells A.J. The subtext is that social mobility in America now means moving out of the culture that does the fighting or concerns itself with such classic heroic matters as vengeance and domination. The honor culture is not just outmoded, it is, where it still exists at all, a sign of lower social status.

You might expect this curious form of cultural snobbery to have real-world consequences, and there is some evidence that it does. Writing in the Washington Post last winter, Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton noted with concern a statistical pattern suggesting “that a major national institution, the U.S. military, now has tighter connections to some regions of the country than others.” In fact, she wrote, ever since the abolition of the draft in 1973, “the patterns of state-level contributions of new recruits to the all-volunteer military have a distinct geographic tilt.”

In 1969, the 10 states with the highest percentage of veterans were, in order: Wyoming, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, California, Oregon, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Connecticut and Illinois. In 2007, the 10 states with the highest percentage of post-Vietnam-era veterans were, in order: Alaska, Virginia, Hawaii, Washington, Wyoming, Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Maryland and Georgia. Over the past four decades, which states have disappeared from the top 10? California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Illinois, all big blue states that have voted Democratic in the past five presidential elections. These states and another blue state, New York, which ranked 12th in 1969, are among the 10 states with the lowest number of post-Vietnam vets per capita.

New Jersey, home of the Soprano family, finishes 50th among the 50 states, with only one percent of its population numbered among post-Vietnam veterans. Clearly, Tony and Carmela are well-attuned to the values and assumptions of their neighbors.

Can we get along with what the headline to Professor Allen's article calls a “red state army”? Her purpose is to persuade us that “It is time to think seriously about a structure for national service — both military and non-military — that could successfully integrate young people from different regions of the country so that they will come, at least, to understand each other. We need to weave a fabric of shared citizenship anew.” But what if adaptation to the fighting culture of the military is not the product of military service? What if military service, or a willingness to volunteer for it, is the product of the fighting culture? If so, we may find in the future that it is not a question of having a red state army but of having any army at all — at least any army that is fit to fight.

Once the dominant culture has spread to the rest of the country — and the blue-state, red-state distinction is already looking pretty threadbare in the wake of last November's election — we all will have absorbed the lesson that A.J. Soprano had to absorb, that violence, whether official or unofficial, is no longer a respectable occupation for well-brought-up and socially ambitious young men. Even the army's recruiting efforts, now pitched at least as much at pare
nts as at teenagers themselves, seem to reinforce the same message and subtly suggest that it is easy to avoid the messier and more dangerous parts of military life by a judicious choice of occupational specialty.

The honor group

This idea of fighting as something rather vulgar has been a long time coming. Even 45 years ago when I was a child, I learned that my boyish interest in violence had to be carefully circumscribed. Yet I also knew and understood a sort of semiofficial fighting culture from the inside. One incident from when I was 13 or 14 years old stands out in my memory. I was hanging out — as we would not have said in those days — with some friends from the neighborhood. We were in no sense a gang, but there was a kind of group solidarity among us as well as a sense of being on our own turf in the background, and these came to the fore when two boys who were not from our neighborhood came riding their bikes through ours. We knew them from school, but did not consider them part of our group, and we must have seen their presence among us as being to some degree in the nature of a provocation.

The alien boys might have ridden on unmolested if I had not noticed that the bigger of them was riding a girl's bicycle. I pointed this out to our group's champion. Immediately, he called out to his opposite number, “Hey, so-and-so” — he called him by his last name, which was a signal of hostility when I was a boy but probably wouldn't have been a few years earlier — “how come you're riding a girl's bike?”

The visitors both stopped dead, turned around, and rode slowly back to our little group. “Are you going to stand up for that?” asked so-and-so of the champion. Obviously, a challenge had been issued, as everybody present seemed perfectly to understand. Yes, my friend was going to stand by his words. He could have done nothing else without bringing shame on himself and the rest of us. So there was a fight between the two boys, which (as I recall it) our champion won by pinning the other boy for a count of three. I don't remember learning that that was how you won a fight, by the way. In retrospect, it seems to me now that I had always known it. Everybody knew it. At any rate, neither the victor nor the vanquished were in any doubt which was which. Once the latter had been defeated and our own territorial claims triumphantly affirmed, the two alien riders got on their bikes without another word and left.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I had just been a party to an affair of honor. Fighting, I did know, was a big part of our lives, even though actual fights were rare. Everyone knew (or thought he knew) who could “take” whom. It was a subject that occupied some considerable part of our boyish conversation, though I don't think we would ever have spoken of it with an adult. It was like a league table: Everybody knew everybody else's rankings. When there was a fight, it was generally one of two kinds: either a sudden flare-up of anger to whose outcome these rankings were not always reliable guides; or a more or less calculated challenge to someone ranked higher up in the table by someone who thought himself ranked too low. A fight would then take place and an adjustment in the rankings would be made, or not, depending on the outcome.

The rules were never formally codified, but they were also well-enough understood never to have been broken, so far as I can remember anyway. Everyone understood that there were limits and conventions, such as pinning for the count of three — as counted, preferably, by someone other than the guy who was doing the pinning — in getting to the outcome that everyone looked forward to, which was the proclamation of the victor. If there were black eyes and bloody noses along the way, I don't remember them. They were not in any case the point of the exercise. We would all have been shocked by the idea that this quasi-sporting event had anything to do with the legal categories of assault and battery or actual bodily harm.

By the early 1960s, the fighting culture was already becoming unofficial — indeed, moving underground. What in retrospect looks so strange about it is that it all seems to have gone unnoticed by those adults in authority over us who represented an official culture that regarded any fighting as beyond the pale. The males among them must have been boys once too and so must have been able to understand our world, but it was a world from which adults had now to be utterly excluded. So far as they were concerned, fighting was always wrong and a reason for both combatants to be punished, if they were observed by parental or educational authorities, regardless of who was in the right. Therefore, when there were fights, they took place away from adult supervision — often, like the duels of old, by prearrangement at a place and time where authority would be unlikely to intervene. Even to have talked about it with an adult would have been seen as a shameful act of betrayal. This was our business and we would settle it among ourselves without adult interference.

This was my introduction — and something not quite unlike it is, I think, still most young males' introduction — to what I call the honor group. One honor group to which I owed a presumptive loyalty was that of the little neighborhood ganglet which chose a champion instinctively, without challenge or discussion, to go up against the champion of other honor groups. But in a larger sense, we were at the same time all part of the honor group of the kids vis-à-vis the adults and would have looked with scorn and contempt at anyone, friend or enemy, who responded to a challenge to fight by running to a teacher or a parent. This had not always been the case. Later, when I was a beginning teacher, the older members of the staff — who would have begun their careers in the 1940s — could remember a time when a fight was an occasional excitement to teachers and pupils alike. The cry of “Scrap!” would go up on the playground, one of them once told me, and someone would be dispatched to fetch a teacher and some boxing gloves for the two antagonists to “have it out” in the ring, under grown-up supervision.

That was in Britain, in an all-male but nonmilitary environment, a long time ago — almost a lifetime away now — at the extreme end of a very long period, perhaps of millennia, during which the honor culture was the official culture. It was also continuous with rather than at odds with the youth culture of the day, such as it was, and it was therefore in a position to instruct young people and mold their characters according to its dictates. Twenty years or so later, its lessons did not seem entirely alien to me when I heard of them, any more than the unofficial fighting culture of my youth seems altogether unfamiliar to my sons, when I tell them of it. It almost seems as if this fighting culture, whether official or unofficial and however attenuated by now for reasons that I will go into in a moment, is a congenital feature of the adolescent male psyche.

Coincidentally or not, it also seems to be a permanent feature of international relations. The Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey writes in his book, The Causes of War, that the one constant in the wars he has studied from 1700 to the 1980s has been a differing perception of the relative strengths of the two sides: “Wars usually begin,” he writes, “when two nations disagree on their relative strength, and wars usually cease when the fighting
nations agree on their relative strength. Agreement or disagreement emerges from the shuffling of the same set of factors.” Therefore, “any factor which increases the likelihood that nations will agree on their relative power is a potential cause of peace.” In other words, nations are rather like teenage boys: normally grudgingly respectful of each other's sense of territory and status but likely to come to blows when they think their relative position in the hierarchy of territory and status is unfairly low — that they can “take” somebody who has been unjustly rated higher than themselves.

The dominant culture, by contrast, believes implicitly in what the media call “the cycle of violence.” Implicit in the very idea is the notion that violence only leads to more violence and, therefore, in the words of another popular saying, “never solves anything.” Another version of the same idea is to be found in the often-observed bumper sticker of the last few years: “War is not the answer” — even though it quite obviously was the answer to a whole series of questions from the establishment of the United States of America to the defeat of Naziism. But it is the quasi-pacifists and those who share their assumptions who have been most influential in the education of America's children. Such people, both in and out of the classroom, may agree with Professor Blainey and me that nations are like teenage boys, but if they haven't been able to do much yet, apart from scolding them, to reform the nations and purge them of their violent tendencies, they have had a bit more success with the socialization of teenage boys.

The duty to live and let live

This, I think,is the main reason why there is a great and ever-widening gap between the culture of the armed services and that of civilian life in America. It's hard to persuade boys of military age that they have a duty to fight for their country when they have been taught from their earliest years that fighting of any kind is wrong and shameful and only leads to more fighting. As Melissa Miles, a student in a “peer mediation class” at Lake Braddock High School in Burke, Virginia, put it a few years ago: “Violence is not the answer to anything. And war is violence.” She was quoted in an article by Laura Sessions Stepp that appeared in the Washington Post at the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Stepp's purpose was to seek out those Washington-area students who had been subjected at school to what goes under the name of peer mediation, conflict resolution, or anti-bullying education and ask them what they thought of the war.

I think you can probably guess what most of them did think. Here, for instance, is the opinion of a pupil at Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland, Chris Mulligan: “My school was telling us not to call names or beat people up, and now we see the government bombing Iraq,” he told Stepp. “It seems it's 'Do as we say, not as we do.' I'm very against the war.” Similarly, Puneet Gambhir, then a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, used “peace studies” jargon to tell her that “Americans are dictating for the Iraqi people what a 'good life' looks like . . . Why didn't we communicate directly with the Iraqi people, ask them what a government for their families and friends would look like, allow them to buy into our dream? We never created buy-in.”

These young people have apparently learned little or no history and have only the vaguest of ideas about how wars happen or how politics, diplomacy, and the use of military force in general actually work, though this is something that Puneet Gambhir may well have grown out of by now. As another of Stepp's interviewees told her, “We're quick in third grade to teach nonviolent resolution strategies, but by our junior or senior years in college we know that countries can't always play paper-rock-scissors.” If that seems a somewhat elementary insight to have been so hard-won by a college senior, it is because such ethical training as these young people have received is likely always to have started from universal assumptions, as if the whole world were like their high-school classes in peer mediation or conflict resolution, where kindly authority figures can sit antagonists down and reason them out of their hostility and propensity to violence.

Nor, almost certainly, will they ever have been taught anything about duty as something that is hard and self-denying, let alone self-sacrificing. The only duty they are likely to know anything about is the duty to live and let live, which means respecting other people's ideas of what Puneet Gambhir calls a “good life.” They have been largely insulated from any knowledge of the reality of military life, let alone of combat, by having learned from an early age that “violence” is not only something to be avoided but something that, if you are smart enough, always can be avoided. What has dropped out of these young people's view of the world is the moral datum of what I call the honor group. Not that honor groups themselves have disappeared, of course, but they are allowed no moral status by the official culture — with obvious consequences for the honor group of the nation and the patriotic sense it relies on for its defense.

We are all members of any number of such honor groups, or social gatherings in which, to a greater or lesser extent, we treat the other members as our equals and give them, however willingly or unwillingly, the right to judge our behavior. We fall into these groups through the ordinary processes of life. The family, the neighborhood, the school class or the school as a whole, our workmates or fellow professionals and, finally, our country, all are natural honor groups whose approval — honor — we seek and whose disapproval — shame — we dread. There are few of us with the hardihood of self-confidence not to care from an early age how we appear in the eyes of our fellow members of every one of these groups. Yet those feelings are now what I call unofficial, and maybe even a little bit shameful themselves. Along with nonviolence, we teach our children to do right and not to care what other people think. And by “other people” we normally mean the other members of these socially organic honor groups who may even be depersonalized altogether as that self-evidently regrettable thing, “peer pressure.”

Another way to put this is to say that the official culture of school and church as well as the quasi-official cultures of the media and the popular culture, insofar as they teach the difference between right and wrong, do so only from an individualistic and universalistic point of view. General moral principles always take precedence over loyalty to a group. We are meant to see ourselves as perfect little moral atomies answerable for our behavior to no smaller honor group than the human race — or, since that involves “speciesism,” all living things. Loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice, which commonly take place in relation to a group, are thus downgraded as virtues while toleration, nonviolence, and social inclusiveness become the preeminent virtues. Insofar as this process of socialization has been successful, the moral status of the honor group, so central — indeed, indispensable — to military culture, has been annihilated.

For an understanding of the rival claims upon us of honor groups goes naturally with the military understanding of honor, and those in the military will doubtless recognize the phenomenon of overlapping and sometimes conflicting honor groups with compelling claims upon their loyalties. The country is of course the ultimate honor group and the one that military men are pledged to serve, but lesser loyalties are not abolished by that pledge, and the other honor groups that service to you
r country involves — your branch of the service, your ship or post, your unit or your status as officer or enlisted man — are generally seen as complementary rather than contradictory to it. It is the rare instance in which men of honor have to agonize about what others might think of as these conflicting loyalties.

Filling honor's absence

There's a scene in what is perhaps Hollywood's greatest tribute to the Marine Corps, The Sands of Iwo Jima of 1949, that illustrates the point. Private First Class Al Thomas, played by Forrest Tucker, has a mortal grudge against John Wayne's Sergeant John Stryker for busting him in rank down from sergeant. Once, on shore leave, Thomas and three buddies, who also have no love for the sergeant, find Stryker dead drunk and staggering in the street just as two beefy members of the shore patrol advance upon them. Without a moment's thought, Thomas hustles Stryker out of their way and pretends to be laughing and joking with him. One of his companions is incredulous: “You mean you're going to help this guy?”

“Listen,” says Thomas, “if he'd cut my mother's throat five minutes ago, I wouldn't let those swabbies get their mitts on him.” Then he grumbles: “What a break! I find this guy all set to drop a couple of stripes, and the Shore Patrol's got to show up.”

Not for a moment does Thomas doubt that, in this instance, his personal feelings about Stryker must take second place to his sense of loyalty to the honor group of which both of them are a part: namely, that of the enlisted men vis-à-vis “the brass.” Later, Thomas and Stryker are having it out in an illegal fist fight when an officer happens along and threatens Stryker not just with losing a couple of stripes but with a court martial. “The sergeant was just showing me some judo holds,” says the battered Thomas, ridiculously. When the officer has left, Stryker pays Thomas a grudging compliment. “At least you're not a stool pigeon,” he says.

Here, too, there is an unofficial fighting culture, just as there was on the playgrounds of my youth. In both cases, too, the official culture would have disapproved of the fighting without seeking out opportunities to find and punish it. There was enough of a residual sense of how male loyalties are formed and strengthened to have created a kind of saving hypocrisy about such things. In the aftermath of World War II, when this film was made, I think that even Hollywood had got the message that fighting men were judged primarily by their loyalty to the honor group of their comrades — a loyalty that had so recently been tested even unto death — and only secondarily by their obedience to the rules or their officers, let alone the duly-constituted political authorities of their country. In essence these were kids on the playground who would never have dreamed of resolving a fight by running to the teacher.

That might still be true of many youngsters even today, in spite of all that the official culture has been able to do to break down these primal loyalties and the ties between members of organic honor groups. But the official culture of today operates at too great a distance from these processes to see the value of this hypocrisy or the virtue in the ties of loyalty and solidarity among unofficial honor groups. Hollywood now not only takes heroism out of the real world and therefore out of the lives of the boys and young men who might otherwise feel inspired by it; it also, like the rest of our culture, champions the stool pigeon under his softer name of “whistle blower.” The model held up for boys' admiration is now almost always the loner, a solitary figure working on his own and by his own wits and fighting prowess — like a superhero, private eye, investigative reporter, or spy, like James Bond. He's almost never a man defined by his membership in and loyalty to some honor group, like Sergeant Stryker or Private First Class Thomas.

The importance for military culture of the honor group and the demands of loyalty it makes upon us ought to be as obvious as the efforts made by the official culture in America today to minimize those demands and to break those ties of loyalty — not only with the help of peer mediation and a root-and-branch approach to “violence” but also by marginalizing, with ethical universalism, the importance of honor groups in the lives of ordinary people. The logic of this teaching is essentially pacifist. Having identified these honor groups — including the nation — as generators of conflict, the exponents of the prevailing trends in ethical teaching generally tend to see them as something to be discouraged if not abolished. They identify the honor group to which we should see ourselves as owing primary, and in extreme cases, exclusive allegiance to the whole world, also known as “the planet.” Any lesser loyalty, including loyalty to our country or our family, should be regarded as being of so much lesser importance as to be optional and, therefore, no loyalty at all.

Judging and belonging

This is also the message conveyed to many by the all-volunteer military, by the way. It cannot be quite coincidental that, according to a recent survey, since 1987 the younger a person is the less likely he is to agree that “the best way to achieve peace is through military strength.” This was the conclusion of Scott Keeter in his study, “The Aging of the Boomers and the Rise of the Millennials,” put out by the Pew Research Center as one of several papers now published as The Future of Red, Blue and Purple America. The survey, taken in January 2008, also found that, where 51 percent of the hippies and draft-dodgers of my age who are still around identified “strengthening the military” as a “top priority” for the nation, only 27 per cent of the so-called Millennials (those born after 1977) did. Put in such abstract terms, these propositions obviously cut against the pacifist grain of much of their moral education.

Yet, curiously, at the start of the Iraq war as at the start of all wars for which we have polling data, young people were more in favor of the war than their elders. This continued for more than a year after the insurgency became a serious problem for the American occupation of Iraq. Now the young are more likely than the general population to be opposed to the war. But as Keeter says in his analysis of the survey, “one conclusion from this review of attitudes about war is that young people today tend to be more skeptical of the use of military force in principle than in practice, at least when facing a new conflict.” One reason might be that young people are particularly susceptible to the ebb and flow of fashion, and so might have been expected to be, as they were, disproportionately in favor of the war when it was popular and disproportionately against it when it became unpopular.

But they are also closer than the rest of us to that adolescent fighting culture, unofficial though it be, and so might be more alive to the demands of national honor. Lacking the intellectual tools to reject or criticize the ethical universalism they have been taught in theory, they nevertheless instinctively recognize the deficiencies of this theory in practice and in the intercourse of nations. Never having been taught in school or church or by the media or the popular culture to recognize the claims of loyalty upon them of an honor group smaller than the planet, they nevertheless cannot be altogether unaware that such groups exist and do make such claims — claims that, in most cases, they will have found more or less comp
elling in spite of themselves. It takes a considerable degree of unworldliness, together with intellectual and moral stiffness, to put the interests of the planet ahead of those of the family, friends, and neighbors among whom we live in the face-to-face world.

That may be one reason why so many young people are eager to escape that world for the different sort of friendship offered by Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites. Those friends, like the planet, don't have their eyes on you all the time, and their access to you may be controlled. Also like the planet, they make only trivial and mostly painless demands upon you. Friendship, in being extended so widely, is cheapened, and its hold upon us — which is the power of honor and shame — is accordingly loosened. Like those comforting abstract concepts of our ethical world, mankind, humanity, or Planet Earth, our virtual friendships eventually reach a point where they are too large in number and too remote to care very much what any individual does. The small measure of obligation to reduce our “carbon footprint” or to treat people from other countries, even when they are hostile to us, just as we treat our neighbors and friends leaves us free, for the most part, to do what we like without enduring the disapproval of local honor groups whose demands on us are accordingly devalued and made to seem intolerable.

There is even an insulting name for those who would reassert the claims of those local honor groups: judgmental. Honor groups do judge us, I'm afraid, and often in stark, black-and-white terms. If we don't like being judged, whether for good or ill, we're likely to avoid them. Yet in gaining the freedom that comes from operating under the loose supervision of “the planet,” we also lose the good that comes from membership in lesser but face-to-face honor groups, namely the sense of belonging, which always has come and always will come when people are able to say that these, but not those, are my people. The need of the young to belong, to fit in with some honor group less shadowy and insubstantial than the earth itself cannot be denied, but in the prevailing moral climate of today it also sets up a psychic disjunction between the moral fantasy world which makes no serious demands on them, except the demand for toleration of others, and the honor groups which do, or might.

Finally, here is something else to consider. Close to a third of the Millennials are the children of divorce. Where the socialization process is weakest — particularly among young men without resident fathers or other strong, adult male influences — the honor group of the gang tends to move in to fill the vacuum. The gang culture is in some ways remote from the lives of ordinary, middle-class boys, but they harbor a sort of honor-nostalgia similar to Tony Soprano's, which is what leads to the popular culture's celebration of the language and music of the ghetto and the gang, with its belligerence towards others and contempt towards women, its honor talk of respect and “disrespect.” For most, this is as much a fantasy as the Godfather movies are to Tony, and it takes its place among the other fantasies — of superheroes and monsters and space aliens — that now make up so much of their freely acquired personal culture.

Such things occupy the space that once belonged to real fighting heroes who were formerly so well-known but are now in such bad odor with the dominant culture. The violence that the gang culture gives rise to is made a fetish of — partly in reaction to, and as a confirmation of — the anti-heroic, anti-honor stance of the dominant culture which, sooner or later, is going to need an honor culture of its own if it is to survive. I don't think the fantasy one will do.

James Bowman, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, is the author of Honor, A History (2006) and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture (2008), both published by Encounter Books.