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The End of the Gentleman

The New Criterion has an article up by John Kekes on the ideal of the gentlemen that is a window into misguided conservative thinking on the topic of how men should act. He writes:

Being a gentleman is not a matter of inheritance, wealth, or refinement. It needs to be earned by having a character with a sense of honor at its core. Character sets limits a gentleman will not cross and acknowledges responsibilities he will not shirk. It involves a commitment to a way of life that in some small or large way, by example or by action, contributes to making some lives better or protecting them from getting worse. Since this is not the best of all possible worlds, it is often difficult to be a gentleman and live honorably within self- imposed limits, meeting responsibilities both to oneself and to others.

He explores this through stories of three people, a French aristocrat who sacrifices himself for the king during the Revolution, a woman (???) who declines an offer of marriage from a British aristocrat, and a Japanese officer during World War II.

What’s notable in this take is that the concept of the gentlemen it promotes is almost entirely one of self sacrifice.

If honor is the central principle of gentlemanliness, then it would have to follow that the traditional defense of one’s honor would be included. A gentleman would fight a duel or otherwise avenge insults to his honor, but that seems missing here.

Rather than a traditional take, this is a modern, highly edited version.

The rules of gentlemanly behavior have been historically defined by the upper class. Indeed, to be a gentleman was to have a certain social status in society. Even once the gentleman appellation was more generally extended, the standards of gentlemanly behavior were set by the upper class.

The loss of the gentleman’s code is one of the consequences of the fall of the Protestant establishment in the United States, as I noted in my retrospective on it.

Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who popularized the term WASP for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, wanted to see the establishment reform by accepting Jews, Catholics and blacks, and taking up more leadership positions in society, rather than suffer the collapse he saw it heading toward.

An establishment, when a large share of senior leadership positions in the key domains of society are held by members of the upper class, was what allowed the moral and behavioral norms of the upper class such as being a gentleman to be considered normative for society. No more establishment, no more gentleman’s code in the long run, but instead ideological rather than moral codes.

Calling for an embrace of some archaic gentleman’s code of behavior is misguided today because these codes are no longer generally applicable. The gentleman’s code was also as much a social code as an individual one, making it doubly obsolete.

What’s more, people like Kekes don’t actually want to go back to how people like aristocrats lived. Those societies had organic social hierarchies, patriarchal families and strong gender role polarity, etc. that are out of step with modern sensibilities. So instead they just cherry pick elements of that world such as self-sacrifice and say that today’s men should live up to it.

But that’s a recipe for trouble in life. The lessons of the WASP decline show that attempting to live by the old rules in a mixed environment with people who don’t share them is a recipe for personal harm. For example, the high WASP Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. was totally loyal to the Catholic JFK as his ambassador to South Vietnam. He did not defend himself when the Kennedy’s blamed him for the Diem coup, even though recently unearthed tapes showed that Lodge was acting under Kennedy’s instructions.  During the Carter administration, the WASP gentleman Cyrus Vance, Sr. tried to present the President with a complete set of options on the Iran hostage crisis and a fair presentation of everyone’s positions on them. But Zbigniew Brzezinski went behind his back while Vance was on vacation and sold Carter on the idea of an ultimately failed hostage rescue attempt.

This idea of continuing to play by an old set of rules while everyone else is playing by a new and different set is very key to how conservatives view gentlemanliness today.

For example, National Review writer Jim Geraghty explicitly wants men to act more like Ward Cleaver. But he’d never dream of telling women to act like June Cleaver.

The conservative definition of a gentleman today more or less boils down to, “Be a schmuck!

No wonder today’s men are rightly telling these conservatives No Thanks.

Having a core of honor, and being a gentleman historically, is perfectly consistent with sticking up for one’s self, asserting legitimate self-interest, and fighting to win as opposed to just immolating oneself. Having a moral center and integrity, being polite, caring about others, having lines that can’t be crossed do not have to mean being a loser.

As long as being a gentleman is reduced to being self-effacing doormat, don’t expect many takers anytime soon.

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