Friday, December 6, 2013

On Honour And Rob Ford

I've been thinking some about honour lately. That's been prompted by some of what I learned from Michael Sandel's book on justice, and his twelve lectures on justice, What's The Right Thing To Do, as applied to the misadventures of my infamous mayor, Rob Ford, now stripped of much of his power though still retaining the status of his office.

I thought about Falstaff's famous words in the Henry plays, in which he lances empty honour, something Shakespeare loathed, especially at the cost of human life in its name. Falstaff, the pragmatist as cynic, in a negative sense of pragmatist, encapsulates his argument on honour when he says "discretion is the better part of valour." Hotspur embodies one conception of honour that Falstaff rejects. We're much persuaded and amused by and attracted to Falstaff and his views, earthy and grounded, as much as Hal the Prince himself is, in that phase of his life.

But, while Shakespeare creates in Falstaff a figure of irresistible and magnetic vitality, it comes ripping off the page, finally The Prince, that tavern-based part of his life complete, (and Shakespeare too, thematically), rejects Falstaff. He is in his essence a whoring, lying fraud, an embodiment of falsity.

In that rejection lies a distinction between empty honour, its murderous fatuity, and honour with substance, grounding the claims of true valour. For the cynic, nothing is worth anything, nothing that calls for sacrifice counts as worthwhile precisely because it imperils the self. For the cynic only what's good for the self counts as worthwhile. Falstaff is an object lesson in the exclusive claims of the self, claims made all the more difficult to penetrate by virtue of how compellingly attractive he is. And what Prince Hal must leave behind, nay must reject and expel, in donning the sober mantle of responsible power, are those claims, cynical and false as they are.

In his book and lectures, Sandel argues that we must, more than, or in addition to, cost benefit, take account of the integrity, the honourifics, the purpose of any enterprise or project we think important, teleological reasoning, to give it a fancy name. Our reasoning, our arguments, about issues affecting matters we think important, must contain, Sandel argues and I agree, an account of their purpose and must be measured by how the integrity of that purpose is advanced or retarded.

These few thoughts form my view that those who argue that my Mayor ought to be left alone, his private life being private, he not being corrupt in the carrying out of his duties, (and a few eminent people have argued this), miss entirely the dimension of honour and integrity as fundamental to leadership and holding office. Their argument makes the notion of "disgracing the office" meaningless, strips office holding, the higher the office the more so is the case, of a fundamentally important aspect of its meaning. (As for what conduct finally counts as creating that disgrace, that is a separate issue. In the case of Ford, there is for me no question that he has disgraced his office.)

So it's good that Ford has been stripped of much of his functional power. But, for me, it's frustratingly outrageous that he still retains his status as mayor, even while I understand that legally, as things now stand in Ontario, it seems draconian to pass laws, which could in principle be done, only to take away his status as mayor.

To try to put some of this together, Ford stands as an unrejected, unexpelled Falstaff, infecting the mayoralty somewhat as Falstaff would have, had Hal brought him into court as a confidant and close to power.

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