Oath Giving & Taking Revisited

Who is Honorable?

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol

We’ve  seen increasing violence and incitement to violence in the United States and many other countries in the name of political and religious ideologies and spurious notions of “Honor.” They underscore the gap between “Haves” and “Have nots” that has been growing steadily in the past 50 years. And they reflect the continuing – in some places increasing – abuse and violence against women. I’ve been researching these topics for some decades, especially in regard to the damaging effects of financialization. By that I mean the control of the money system by the so-called 1% (more like .01%) aided by lobbyists and popular media whose success is advanced by keeping the public ignorant and in debt. The results are damage to our economy, the public good, and the livelihoods of ordinary people – especially those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.

The conflicts brought to mind my essay of 2013 about oath giving and taking. Here’s a shortened version of that paper – Testicles, Trust & Truth Telling– dealing with the history and meaning of oaths in Biblical scripture, and its connection to the subjugation and mistrust of women. This post is a revisiting of that paper.

Codes of Honor – Lex Talionis

Much of the violence involves ‘codes of honor’ which require getting even with anyone who has allegedly violated the code, be they outsiders, or male dominated women. The belief that such vengeance  is ‘righteous’ is an old one. Often called the law of retaliation (lex talionis) it is payback in kind and degree, such as feud violence or blood money. It goes back at least to Sumerian rulers, including Hammurabi 2000 years ago. Strikingly, but not surprising, it’s applied differently, favoring the upper class over the lower class offenders and offended persons, as points 1. 2. & 3. of this History article show.

The same law is found in Biblical texts, such as Exodus 21:24 and Matthew 5:38, where Jesus says the following “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also….” (BTW, since most people are right handed, a slap on that cheek would be backhanded, adding insult to injury.) This quote sounds like Jesus is a pacifist. On the other hand, remember he whipped and expelled from the temple courtyard the money changers, and merchants of sacrifices – costly and cheap – especially noting that they were stealing from the poor and women who could only afford a pigeon or ‘dove’. (See Mk 12:42 and Lk 20:47) I prefer to call his behavior “zeal” against evil, rather than any anger.  Anger would contradict Jesus’ essence which is loving mercy itself.  In any case, I believe violence breeds violence. Our selfish tendency to react violently needs to be overcome. (The painting is by Sanders van Hemessen 1556.)

In America today, it seems that views about promises made and broken fall into two polarized groups – the few who believe that giving one’s word is serious and obligating, and those who think it’s a convenient sales technique, or a front to cover blatent deception. In effect, this is the same distinction separating those who think truth exists, and relativists who think nature is the only reality. It’s a distinction made 350 years ago by Pascal. He was a genius child prodigy in Science and Math, but also a devoted believer, after a visionary experience. Toward the end of his 39 year life religious philosophy became his pastime. He came to believe that finding real truth is a matter of intuition, and requires God’s enlightenment. It was in this spirit that he wrote one of my favorite quotes: “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1670)



Many of the militant groups in recent news reports are also sexist, and racist; they believe that straight white men are and were always meant to control the United States. Their views relate to the ‘untrustworthiness of women’ as well. In any case, if “A man is only as good as his word”, there are very few good men nowadays. And no culture I have found even considers a woman’s word with regard to trust. In patriarchal societies, feminine ‘nature’ is considered inherently emotional, irrational, and untrustworthy. And world wide, including the USA, patriarchy is still the norm. (For example, ask yourself which parent’s family name is generally passed to children in any marriage or divorce proceedings. This apparently trivial fact illustrates how sexism remains unnoticed.)

Although the Jan 6, ’21 assault on the U. S. Capitol included a wide variety of participants, the only black faces seen were capitol police. The protesters, violent as they were, were not treated roughly, considering the seriousness of the attack. Had they been black, that  would not be the case, which was obvious during protests against police brutality in Washington D.C. the previous June 1. President Trump wanted a photo opportunity at St. John’s Church, and had the police clear peaceful protesters away with tear gas and rubber bullets. In his piece for The Undefeated, 2 days after the event, Michael A. Fletcher pointed out this double standard, echoing what James Baldwin said in 1969 in an interview with Dick Cavett. Both President Biden and V.P. Harris pointed to the same double standard in strong language. That the BLM protests have been 93% peaceful throughout the country is confirmed by this Time Magazine article. Nevertheless 42% of those polled think the protests were violent, and designed to damage and steal property. That belief depended on their political perspective, and the news sources they read. Yes, of course it did.

One of the groups present at the Jan 6 protest, and at numerous other Trump-centered demonstrations was the Oath Keepers whom I expected to find were also sexist. But they’re not; they have women members. They also claim not to be racist, yet their view on the threats caused by BlackLivesMatter and by Mexicans crossing the border suggests they are. What they do express openly is their opposition – violent if needed – to government, insofar as it tries to implement policies they oppose. They appeal to the oath that ex-GIs swore on enlistment: “I, A.B., do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic.” Domestic ‘enemies’ include any organization, and especially lawmakers, who favor left wing or progressive policies, as they interpret them, or free trade they (wrongly) believe will hurt American workers. (They were happy whenTrump added tariffs).

The Anti-Defamation League has a long analysis, saying Oath Keepers have a “conspiratorial mindset”. This makes it easy for them to find followers. They fear a tyrannical world-wide Marxist takeover, led by Antifa in this country. Any kind of gun control is looked on as an effort to subjugate American citizens. Mexicans must be stopped from flooding the country, because they will support the socialist Democrats. The BlackLivesMatter movement will encourage a socialist rebellion. The group’s spokespersons were continually pushing Trump to take action, enlisting the militia to intervene and prevent these alleged dangers. With no data to support my idea, I still expect their right wing views would oppose various ongoing movements to improve women’s social and economic condition in our patriarchal communities, including the Equal Rights Ammendment.

I personally believe women differ from men at a deep level. That in no sense indicates women are inferior. Nor is it any justification for their being controlled and abused on the part of patriarchs. Women are more sympathetic and social minded than men, according to Harvard social critic Carol Gilligan, in her 1982 book In a Different Voice. Some feminists believe that apart from obvious superficial biology, women and men are fundamentally the same. I disagree, siding with so-called “Difference” Feminists who think women are inwardly different. Even so, these also demand fair treatment and equal rights. Needless to say, all of this is very much complicated by gender identity issues.

Honor and Big Tech promises

“Don’t Be Evil” is the title of Rana Foroohar’s 2019 book, where she discusses Google’s incorporation of that expression into their 2004 IPO. See Foroohar’s 47 min video discussion. But they recently deleted the idea from their corporate mission statement.

The underlying “evil” that marks current marketing at all levels, is the ability to manipulate individuals to buy products (and/or opinions). Its effectiveness depends on how much marketers can afford to pay for such psychological tools. Jennifer Cobbe explains this in her 2019 article on Surveillance Capitalism in the UK publication OpenDemocracy,  from which comes the following quotation:

” ‘Surveillance capitalism’, as it’s known, involves gathering as much data as possible about as many people as possible doing as many things as possible from as many sources as possible. These huge datasets are then algorithmically analysed so as to spot patterns and correlations from which future behaviour can be predicted. A personalised, highly dynamic, and responsive form of behavioural nudging then seeks to influence that future behaviour to drive engagement and profit for platforms and advertisers. These targeted behaviour modification tools rely on triggering cognitive biases and known short-cuts in human decision-making. Platforms and advertisers extensively experiment to find the most effective way to influence behaviour.”

I would add two comments. First, this sales technique is a continuation – though incredibly more sophisticated – of the psychological sales approach introduced in America  and developed here through most of the 20th century, by Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (1891-1995). A 2016 BBC documentary “The Century of the Self” spells this out. For example, he encouraged sexy women to smoke publicly, as a sign of their liberation – “Torches of Freedom”

Second, Cobbe uses the term “behavioural nudging”. I think it’s more like mind control. Some might suggest that people are ‘free to make choices’,  but I think the bottom line of sales ledgers belies that belief. Moreover, consumer protection has all but disappeared since the Reagan/ Merkel era started.

Defining Honor

“Honor” is a point of focus in many of the trends I’ve been following for a couple decades. In some of these, it seems to mean ‘worthy of praise‘ (e.g. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – “Brutus is an honorable man” (used sarcastically by Mark Antony). ‘Worthy of praise’ is the  original meaning from Roman times. But who gives the honor? Upper class men – often said to be ‘noble’ or ‘worthy’. Low class people – whether male or female – can neither give nor receive honor. So an ‘honorable’ or ‘dishonored’ woman must be in upper class society, but her honor or dishonor depends on her husband’s will and judgment. He, however, may take whatever partner he wishes, and (e.g. Henry VIII) even establish a Church to support his choice.

Today, class has nothing to do with nobility, honesty or respect. I recall a conversation about Confucius in a comparative religion course, when the topic of “class” came up. Confucius was a very class conscious man, and hoped to convince rulers to learn from the ancients, rather than follow those ‘low class’ pragmatists who seized power by force. In discussion, one student shocked me by saying ‘Donald Trump is a high class person’. I over-reacted with annoyance, saying ‘Trump is a low class person with a lot of money. Real class has nothing to do with money – it’s a world view’.  But then I realized my student was right. The idea of ‘honorable’ in its various meanings connected to nobility – upper class, royal,  praise worthy, eminent.- has been replaced by ‘very rich’.

One final point. Privacy seems to be valued by most Americans. Pew Research adds that people also believe their personal data is largely surveiled, equally by companies and government. Obviously, secrecy and opacity are especially wide spread and valued among the most wealthy citizens with regard to income, wealth, taxes paid, shell corporations,  tax havens etc. This is something that should be brought to public attention, for the enlightenment and well-being of the general public, whose correct assessment of the facts makes for effective democratic voting. For these reasons, I believe the ProPublica June 8, ’21 ‘whistle blowing’ publication regarding incomes of and taxes paid by the super-wealthy (.001%) was an honorable act. It did what was true, and in the public interest – as should be key to media values.



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