Qwertyman for Monday, May 15, 2023
I’VE BEEN following the saga of the Hon. George Santos, the freshman Republican congressman from New York, who’s been caught in a tangle of lies he made about his education and employment on his résumé, and who’s now been charged in federal court on 13 counts from wire fraud and money laundering to theft of public funds and making materially false statements to the House of Representatives. So brazen have been this young politico’s prevarications that even his fellow Republicans—many of whom had forced themselves to swallow Donald Trump’s gargantuan lies about the 2020 election—have called on Santos to resign, if only to spare their party from the prolonged embarrassment of nursing a self-confessed falsifier in their ranks.
Now this is what gets me: Santos had earlier admitted to having fabricated about four-fifths of his CV, an act he called “résumé embellishment” which involved a “poor choice of words.” He said he was sorry—but then just as quickly insisted that he was no criminal and intended to serve the rest of his term, and even run for re-election. He boldly reappeared in Congress—still dressed like the preppy he never was—and acted like nothing happened. Despite the ostracism, he stood his ground, knowing that under its rules, the US Congress couldn’t kick out one of its own—even someone convicted of a crime, unless that crime was treason.
The story fascinates me because it illustrates the utter shamelessness and disregard for the truth that now seems par for the course in politics, and not just in America. The fact that many of his colleagues found Santos’ behavior reprehensible offers hope that some people still know right from wrong. The other fact, that Santos refuses to take responsibility for his actions and resign—and that some people continue to support him nonetheless—reminds us of how degraded the idea of “honor” has become in contemporary society.
Social scientists tell us that “honor” has evolved over the centuries from the chivalric, even aristocratic notion of responsibility to a community—think of a hero undertaking a noble sacrifice, even at the cost of one’s life, for the common good—to something much more individualized and internalized, to one’s own sense of respect, dignity, and integrity.
I’d argue even further that for most people today, “honor” has become a much more elastic term, one that allows for a range of justifiable behaviors. I’ll give you an example: would you rat on an officemate, perhaps even your best friend, who’s also your chief competitor for that AVP position? You could, and you would—if you convince yourself that becoming that AVP is a more important honor, something your family and circle of friends would appreciate. This is the difference, as one scholar noted, between “internal” and “external” honor, between integrity and reputation. If we equate, as many might, “reputation” with popularity, with a positive public perception of your image, then it’s easy to see how and why many people find integrity expedient and expendable.
These thoughts ran through my mind when I learned of the recent passing of former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, and read the many eulogies and encomiums following his death. All of them spoke of him as a man of honor, someone who fought for his country, stood by his word, and conducted himself with dignity. I had only occasional brushes with him, but can agree from those encounters with what was said. Some people communicate their integrity instantly, even wordlessly, just by their very manner.
On the other hand, there are people who, by their swagger and arrogance (often a cover for some deeply felt inferiority), immediately invite mistrust if not repugnance. I’m reminded of a man who, from his lofty perch, drenched the good secretary with vitriol, accusing him of being “not a Filipino, you don’t look like a Filipino,” and threatening to “pour coffee on your face.” To which the diplomat merely reiterated the need to defend the country’s interests and to beware of the duplicity of our aggressive neighbor.
The sad thing is how many Pinoys laughed along with that sneering man and thought that he was doing and saying the right thing. For years, he had fed them a diet of vulgarity, as if to reinforce the idea that that was the Filipino’s natural state and that he was one of them and spoke their language. In fact, he was cultivating and normalizing their basest instincts, an easier thing to do than the nobler alternative: appealing to their better selves, to what they could yet be. I see this innate goodness and decency, this desire for self-betterment, in Filipinos every day, even among the poorest of us. Overwhelmingly, this is still who and what we are. Those who believe otherwise debase only themselves.
But we are short on exemplary leadership—on leaders who value honor and integrity, on leaders who can feel shame, on leaders who can curb their profligacy out of respect for the poverty of the many, on leaders who will be genuinely missed and mourned by the masses when they depart. Our role models have become so few—and our expectations of our officials have become so low—that many of us have forgotten what honor truly means, assuming simply and tragically that it comes with wealth and power. The word “Honorable” is too easily affixed to certain high offices. Are they truly so?
I may be aghast at Rep. George Santos’ behavior in New York, but who knows how many lies are buried in our politicians’ CV’s, how many “résumé embellishments” and “poor choices of words” we have had to swallow?
And then again there’s a part of me that says, forget the résumé; it’s never been a trustworthy predictor of moral intelligence. Ability is the most basic we should expect of our “honorables.” Living up to their titles lies at the other extreme. But still I have to wonder: if a George Santos happened here, would he resign?