The Magazine

Honor Among Bankers

Europe vs. America.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Thus Rod Blagojevich, having been caught red-handed trying to sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder, has responded to his impeachment by the Illinois legislature by comparing himself to Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of appearing at his impeachment trial, he did the rounds of the talk shows in New York, submitting to some slight indignity from the gentle mockery of his interviewers in order to establish his eligibility as (now) a misbehaving celebrity for the indulgence of the great and forgiving American public. So far is our culture from a common understanding of honor and shame that no excuse is too preposterous for what would formerly have been a shameful deed.

Thus, three days after Governor Blagojevich appeared on The View and declined to mimic Richard Nixon--though he was said to do it well--saying "I am not a crook," HBO ran a rehabilitative documentary on disgraced preacher Ted Haggard in which the pill-popping patron of rent boys finally comes out as .  .  . an evangelist for therapy. The healing process is apparently well underway for Ted, and his wife, like Eliot Spitzer's, is standing by him. The disgraced--as these things go nowadays--Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain may have been innocent, as he insisted to the media he was, of looting his failed company to pay large bonuses to its executives, but it would be a more believable claim if he were not displaying a positively Blagojevich-like chutzpah in insisting that his actions had been "completely transparent" to Bank of America, which has got stuck with the bill.

It would be very wrong indeed to wish upon the likes even of Messrs. Blagojevich, Haggard, or Thain a fate like poor M. Villehuchet's or Herr Merckle's. But it must be admitted that there is a certain dignity about these gentlemen's exit, a faint vestige of the old honor culture that was Europe's gift to the world, even if (as some would argue) we are otherwise well shot of it. It makes the unseemly competition for celebrity victimhood that is now the hallmark of American culture look tawdry by comparison, but at least we may aspire to such honor as there may be in being among the most compassionate of nations to the great who have fallen, and who demand to be pitied.

James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is
the author of Honor: A History.