Honor Among Thieves and Politicians

It is easy enough to get elected to the House if you can figure out what the voters in a district already want and become that. This seems to be the moral of the story of George Santos, the newly elected Republican House member who has recently been exposed for fabricating most of his biography.

Writing in The Atlantic, former Democratic congressman Steve Israel said that the voters in the district say they value integrity “But they weren’t on the lookout for a huckster politician.” The dirty little secret that hucksters of all stripes exploit is that no one is on the lookout for the huckster. There are not enough hours in the day for us to question and research every biographical claim made by everyone we meet. These days, with hollowed out newsrooms, there are also fewer professionals out there to do that work for us.

Generally, most people who adopt false identities work alone. What was unique about the team of swindlers I wrote about in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons is that they banded together in an organized syndicate. Not all of the card sharps in the group adopted false titles of nobility, a few already had them. But the members of the group encouraged and assisted people like professor’s son Bela Klimm to become Count Adalbert de la Ramee.

The rules of the game were that you did not swindle members of the organization. Loyalty to the group mattered, but when it came to the outside world, true and false, right and wrong were not valued. What mattered was whether the stories they told were effective or ineffective. Member Montague Noel Newton had developed his own philosophy inspired by Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest. He divided the world into two camps, fools and adventurers. If you were not one, he believed, you were the other.

George Santos appears to have come up with his false biography on his own. Yet he had some reason to believe he would not be punished for it in the culture he inhabited. He was a member of a political party that had become used to making up excuses for a president that changed the path of a hurricane with a sharpie, was clearly not joking when he suggested drinking bleach to cure COVID and described his phone call with President Zalensky as “perfect.” By the time Santos was running in the midterms it had become a litmus test for many in his party to take it as an article of faith that the 2020 election was stolen. Santos was simply a better liar than Herschel Walker, whose clumsy, repeated claims of having worked with law enforcement were mostly laughed off as an odd quirk.

All of this calls to mind an article I wrote some time ago about the moral frameworks of the “good person” vs. the “honorable person.”

One of the positives about “the good person” is that goodness is portable. That is to say that the good person’s sense of morality is internal and it is thought to be consistent regardless of changing external circumstances. If a nation is engaged in an immoral war, for example, the good person should follow his conscience rather than the will of the crowd even if it seems more honorable in the moment to be a war hero.

Honor is dependent on other people’s praise or scorn. To be honorable is to be aligned with what society considers moral. You can, as the heroes of the Iliad did, engage in all manner of brute violence and slaughter and still be praised for honor.

A member of the group of card sharps, Montague Noel Newton said, “I did not say I was an honest man. I wish to God I could. I said I was honest with my friends.” Honor, in his culture, was to be aligned with his group, to be loyal and committed to his tribe. The question in the Santos case is whether his professional community, his political party, decides that his falsehoods dishonor him enough to be expelled, or whether lying to advance the power of the tribe is the type of group loyalty that keeps him sufficiently “honorable” to stay.

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