Wednesday, December 31, 2008

the honorable thing

Last week R. Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, a French hedge fund manager working in New York, tabulated his losses: 1.6 billion dollars, his own money and that of his clients, poured down Bernard Madoff’s bottomless cavity. He called one important Parisian client and confessed his anguish; he had “betrayed” those who trusted his acumen. He tried but failed to recover the money. That night, he asked the cleaning staff to leave early, so that he might work late in peace. When morning came, according to the New York Times:

Security officers discovered the body of Mr. de la Villehuchet, a co-founder of Access International Advisors, in a chair, with one of his legs propped on his desk. His wrists and his left biceps were slashed, said Paul J. Browne, a New York police spokesman. A wastebasket had been placed under his bleeding biceps, Mr. Browne said.

smirking Madoff - dailymailIt is possible to see de la Villehuchet’s suicide not as cowardice or comeuppance, but as an expression of deep moral courage. He had made a drastic mistake, an act of inexcusable negligence resulting in terrible consequences for a great many people whose vulnerability was a direct result of the trust they granted him. There was absolutely no way for him to repair the damage, and nothing in his power could possibly achieve suitable contrition. Facing an unthinkably large debt of guilt, he surrendered his only comparable asset – his entire universe.

In Victorian England, this was “doing the honorable thing”. Were you fully disgraced, your friends and colleagues would leave a bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver in your study, and you knew what was yours to do. Your end, achieved in privacy and dignity, would eventuate a sort of clearing of the moral air for everyone involved, most of all yourself. Under appropriate circumstances, this was understood to be obligatory on your part, although no one else would be justified in bringing about the desired end were you discovered uncouthly alive.

blagojevich - nytimesThese cases are importantly different from suicide prompted by despondency or fear. People like de la Villehuchet might very well wish to go on living, apart from their moral guilt. Nor are these cases of martyrdom; nothing positive is accomplished. No – these are deaths for the sole purpose of salvaging honor. By these lights, an honorable suicide is merited once one has irrevocably destroyed one’s social status in life. Honor might be recaptured for one’s legacy (and perhaps for the sake of one’s heirs) with a suitably monumental display of regret. But anything else will forfeit honor eternally.

In 1912 the Emperor Meiji died of cancer. As his funeral procession passed through Tokyo, General Nogi Maresuke and his wife drank some sake, put on fresh linens, and then carefully disemboweled themselves. Nogi thereby completed the ancient (but by then illegal) samurai ritual of junshi, the following of a vassal upon his master’s death. In his suicide note, Nogi pleaded culpability for mistakes made while commanding in the Russo-Japanese war. Given these failings, it would have been dishonorable for the general to remain alive once the emperor had passed. (That Nogi’s wife should also die, despite bearing no recognizable personal blame, was a separate tenet of what was even then deeply archaic samurai lore.)

seppuku - wikicommonsNogi’s seppuku divided Japanese public attention. It was an act of supreme loyalty and, in a sense, beauty. Samurai death rituals possess intricate, highly symbolic structure, including the composition of delicate jisei (death poetry) and a tightly prescribed sequence of blade movements. The act plainly requires extraordinary discipline, especially when, like Nogi, one has no assistant to deliver swift decapitation and must instead die slowly from the stomach wound. At the same time, Nogi’s seppuku marked an abominable encroachment of primitive custom on the rapidly modernizing Japanese culture. It was embarrassingly crude for a people rushing toward industrialism and democracy. There emerged agreement that such things must cease – and so they did, until a brief upsurge in interest among the military caste in 1945.

I wonder if the Apocalypse Lite flavor of today’s economic climate encourages actions like de la Villehuchet’s suicide, just as the epoch-making death of Meiji Tenno did for Japanese a century ago. As the global order sputters and staggers, does it seem more appropriate to balance one’s own moral accounts in a suitably conclusive manner? Can this really be the honorable thing to do?

I have mixed views about honor. The concept seems deservedly obsolescent, suggesting a desperate grip on the fraying tail of Romanticism, and carrying the faded but unmistakable odor of feudal patriarchy. Suicide for honor looks like a perfect example of just so much self-important insanity. Really, honestly, exactly what is accomplished by this sort of death? The end of de la Villehuchet’s life undoes exactly none of his mistakes; it leaves absolutely no one better off. The only result is that a human life, an irreplaceable singularity, a still-glittering prospect of extraordinary redemption, is no more. That, for this archaic vagary, this half-digested pseudo-virtue, this ‘honor’?

And yet. There is something admirable in a person’s saying through conduct: ‘This is my mistake. I own it, absolutely and permanently. There will be no equivocation, no blame-ducking. I deserve the consequences that I can’t prevent from falling on others. And with this act, all discussion is closed.’ Silly and romantic it might be, but such an unreluctant embrace of personal responsibility seems, for lack of a better word, noble. If nothing else, while Bernie Madoff smirks his way home and Rod Blagojevich names his own senator, one can’t help but wonder if they might have learned a thing about honor from Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet.

The Master of the World
has passed away--
and after him,
eager to serve my lord,
go I.

Nogi Maresuke, death poem

Monday, December 29, 2008

surprises and expectations

Here, in its entirety, is a story from Reuters:

”What are you doing here?”: man asks wife in brothel

WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish man got the shock of his life when he visited a brothel and spotted his wife among the establishment's employees.

Polish tabloid Super Express said the woman had been making some extra money on the side while telling her husband she worked at a store in a nearby town.

"I was dumfounded. I thought I was dreaming," the husband told the newspaper on Wednesday.

The couple, married for 14 years, are now divorcing, the newspaper reported.

Here’s what I want to know: was the woman surprised to see her husband in the brothel? And why doesn’t the article address that question?

Advanced primates that we may be, we’re still wired to notice the unusual or unexpected. What seems to be unusual or unexpected here (both to the man and to us) is that someone’s wife happened to be working in a brothel. It is not unusual or unexpected that someone’s husband happened to be frequenting a brothel. The man’s behavior is (relatively) normal; the woman’s is not.

Can you imagine this article having been written from the other perspective: ‘brothel employee surprised to see husband as client’? I don’t think we’ll ever see such an article. It’s too hard for us (and for the reporter, our proxy) to identify with this abnormal creature, the brothel employee who is also a wife. But we recognize familiarity in the brothel customer who is also a husband. It’s not that we’re necessarily any more similar to him. It’s just that we’re used to him. And so the story gets told from his angle.

There’s an interesting reinforcing mechanism at work here. The story treats the wife’s presence at the brothel as the surprising factor, because it is the part of the story that surprises us. And it surprises us because of articles like this.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Madam Secretary

The appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton as Obama's Secretary of State is interesting in all sorts of ways, but one seems especially durable. When Clinton takes office, it will be the case that three of the last four Secretaries of State are women.

This matters. Secretary of State is an immensely prestigious position. Thomas Jefferson was the nation's first; John Marshall and James Madison followed soon thereafter. The Secretary of State is fourth in the presidential order of succession, highest of all cabinet positions. Most cabinet secretaries are unknown to foreign leaders and the domestic population alike, but the Secretary of State is extraordinarily visible.

But the real point here is that the position of Secretary of State has traditionally been viewed as one possessing hard power. It requires competence with international realpolitik and a perceived willingness to make threats and compel obedience. Only two generations ago, it was common sense that no woman could occupy such a role. Now Clinton's appointment is remarkable solely because of her primary challenge to Obama; her gender is quite beside the point. The inclusion of women at almost the highest reaches of power has become normalized.

So Hillary Clinton did not get to be the first female president. But in a rather different way, she is part of the process that will eventually make it unremarkable for women to hold that position as well.