Dégringolade USA: Who Are You Calling Venal?

The question is obviously subjective, for each year brings mawkish eulogies for the nation's virtue.



Image courtesy of Dierk Schaefer via Flikr.


Some time ago I began to write an essay about the concept of reputation in history, but I came to realize that casting historical reputation as being in the eye of the beholder is harder than it would seem. Even today when “reputations” are nearly impossible to erase, they have become less indelible and therefore more malleable as manifestations of the infamous phrase coined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "defining deviancy down."


Is reputation, then, more a reflection of reality upon the individual than something real or tangible held in, or by, the individual?


Dwelling further on this question, I felt moved to write not about the pattern of reputation itself, but the thing that would appear to be at the root of so much obsession today over men and women in public life: venality.


Reputations rise and fall, and venality is a constant. But to explore venality as much as to explore reputation, one must begin with history. Standards of judgment are taught, honed, eroded, over time. When George W. Bush said he didn’t mind what history would make of him or his decisions while president because "we’ll all be dead," he was stating an obvious point about the present, not the future, as to his reputation. His father once made a similar point: "Let the historians figure out what I screwed up and what I got right." In other words, I’m not much bothered by it now, because the now is what I’m bothered by.


Americans are known for a peculiar take on both history and the reputation of their leaders. Often these things are combined. Leaders are regularly ranked from best to worst. Some leaders feed this obsession: Clinton and his "legacy;" Kennedy and his scribes (most notably, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who went on to praise Kennedy’s historical mind); Obama and his "being on the right side of history."


There are one or two more creative attitudes for a leader to take. Fidel Castro’s best remembered line is, "History will absolve me," rather an interesting one for a man who was educated by Jesuits. Ben Franklin took a similar view, peppering his famous autobiography with "errata" – an absolution by way of confession, or creative re-writing of his past. However, he never abandoned Poor Richard’s axiom: "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."


All such gestures are conceits. The difficulty, for obsessives and dismissives, is that all such gestures appear to conflate reputation with legacy. Into the chinks of which can creep venality.


"Reputation," says Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, "is an idle and most false / imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without / deserving." This Iago who at the very beginning also puts a price on character, lets the venal creep in as a subtle guide to the actions of the play "know my price, I am worth no worse a place."


Legacy relates to acts; reputation relates to beliefs. Beliefs can determine acts, just as a reputation matters in determining what a legacy might be. To sum up the Vietnam tragedy, for example, in a single phrase, one could say that the war’s long, terrible legacy was the result of men desperate and doomed to protect a certain reputation. But rarely is a reputation or a legacy made by one or the other — acts or beliefs — alone.


Legacy and reputation coincide in the field of broken promises, betrayals, hypocrisy. The more public they are, the worse they appear, the more the spirit of venality creeps in as we watch various attempts to "stave up" seemingly lost "repute."


Nowadays the verdicts come in digitally — daily, hourly, even by the minute. And even the best trained historians succumb to ever looser analogies and comparisons with assorted politicians and their lackeys compared to, inter alia, von Hindenburg, Goebbels, Richard Nixon, Titus Albucius.


Our public figures compel the urge to scream, stop debasing yourselves! To which they may well reply, why? Is not history, and historical reputation, always contested? Do they not fluctuate in a "reputational stock market" in which "history belongs to the highest bidder?"


Lackeys claim to act on behalf of "reputational interests" of their nominal superiors, of third parties, or of some combination and always, by association, of themselves. The reputation at stake may be public but the interests are complex. Is there a basic, human interest in a "good" name? Traditionally there is. In America especially, much of the country’s culture has celebrated reinvention and mobility, though one mustn’t forget the strongest pledge of many, if not most, of its original Revolutionaries: their sacred honor.


That was "no empty phrase," Samuel Eliot Morison has written, "no echo of dying feudalism, but the proud declaration of free men that, once their word was given, it would never be broken."


I once knew an honorable man who told me that reputation is like virginity: you lose it only once. (It was he who, incidentally, wrote a compelling report for President Dwight Eisenhower showing how the nation’s reputation – and its stake in the Cold War – were imperiled by Jim Crow and the attacks on civil rights activists.) He told me this at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and it made good sense at the time. I’m not so sure anymore. The code duello is no longer a fact of life in most places; reputations are lost and regained.


The indelible principle applies less to reputation than to today’s epidemic of venality, for once a person shows a capacity to be venal, it’s hard, even impossible, to erase. However much a reputation recovers, venality can always come back. With venality, then, and not reputation per se, acts and beliefs merge.


Perhaps that point was present in the minds of the various current and former military officers who broke with tradition and have spoken out publicly against the actions of their commander-in-chief.


This reminds me of a story that John Kenneth Galbraith used to tell. Tasked with integrating Radcliffe College into Harvard, he found that his toughest opposition came from the grande dame of Radcliffe, Mrs. Bernice Cronkhite. Exasperated, he blurted out, "here comes a time, my dear, when every young lady must be the guardian of her own virtue." An also exasperated Mrs. Cronkhite replied, "Mr. Galbraith, may no more pornography come from your mouth."


So, a venal quality sometimes is in the eye of the (usually male, public) beholder. But unlike a reputation (or, for that matter, a legacy) venality is less contested, and more self-evident in a human character. That is the case for most individuals. What about for groups of people, societies, nations?


The question is obviously subjective, for every year for almost as long as I can remember, there have been mawkish eulogies for America’s virtue. Though not just America’s. The leitmotif of the "Brexit saga" was the UK’s lost reputation for pragmatism and good sense – another fallen, perverse, delusional, self-obsessed former Empire turning in on itself.


But we’ve seen all this before in the not too distant past: for both the US and UK in the 1970s; for Russia during the 1990s; for France more or less since the 1930s; and so on. Ideas of “lost” prestige or repute, of “broken” legacies, merge with vanity, and venality.


Standards race with institutions toward the bottom, and surprise many of us by the speed of their descent. Only a couple of years ago, for example, most educated Americans would have been incredulous to hear that institutions from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — all respected throughout the world — would have seen their reputations so badly tarnished with such rapidity.


It’s no wonder the study of national reputation has become so trendy among political scientists and other students of human nature. It would otherwise be an easy contest — it only asks for partisanship, not real knowledge or research. In fact, it dwells on its own biases and those of others by asking, what constitutes a good national reputation?


How does one measure such qualities as competence, credibility, stalwartness, and reliability in the world? How much is a good reputation worth to a nation’s people and their progeny — morally, materially, strategically? Is it worth fighting for a reputation? Dying or killing for one?


In the rarefied world of diplomacy, such questions were once answered by way of elaborate signals — "the diplomatic slap," etc. — and formalized language. Today, however, it is impossible to answer them without descending to a level of (venal) didacticism.


Sacred honor must not be judged by its dividends. Ben Franklin, a gifted diplomat, was, all his virtues and achievements notwithstanding, a rather egotistical fellow who cared much about receiving credit. Such people almost always ultimately achieve less than those who prefer to give credit to others. For credit like reputation is also variegated. People in the future can’t tear down your statue if you have no statue in the first place.


Thus, if it is true that venality is linear, and reputation is cyclical, which is not how most people think of them, then on a very basic level the people who today bemoan the state of the world ought to have hope.


And if the line of venality can be stopped, a good reputation for governments, elites, societies, and nations may return. But this is not necessarily true for legacies. Their die has been cast.


Here, I am finally reminded of the death last year of a colleague, Norman Stone, a man with a mixed reputation. He made it early in his career with a very effective attack, amounting to a dismantlement, of the legacy of his one-time teacher, E. H. Carr. The attack was all the more effective, albeit somewhat dishonorable, for its author’s personal relationship with the subject and the invocation of reputation.


It was not surprising then that immediately following his own death, several enemies of Professor Stone took to print to sum up the man’s purported venality. The least effective of these attacks — for example, the one that appeared in the Guardian — came from people who professed not to have known Norman at all. Yet they attacked not his legacy — for they asserted he had almost none — but his reputation as a scholar and human being.


"Watergate does not bother me; does your conscience bother you?" It is a good lyric from 1974, aimed at the heart of the most sanctimonious among us. Who are we really to denounce venality? But denounce we must. Just don’t act surprised when the stone is cast back in the other direction.



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