Wednesday, October 12, 2011


October 12, 2011:

I write occasionally for a magazine called Military History and for some time I've wanted to do a piece on dueling. The subject interests me because all lost traditions interest me; I've been fascinated for years by lost character types, too, like the Seducer, or the Spinster, or the elderly Bachelor, people who, thanks to the sexual revolution, it is no longer possible to be. The last movies made about Seducers were probably the Doris Day/Rock Hudson films of the early 1960s. I rather miss them. I once wrote a piece about the art of seduction (a subject I actually know only by report, I should add) for GQ; it was openly nostalgic, the art having been lost when the Pill appeared and puritanical values lost their grip on American life. We can all be grateful for that, but at the same time there was something elegant about a seduction carried out with style and respect; and we can only mourn the loss of style and respect when it comes to relations between men and women.

And then the duel. Duels died when the sense of honor became debased, and that happened when modernization and industrialization loosened the grip of aristocrats on both culture and society. A slow process, to be sure; Andrew Jackson fought a duel (and killed his man) as late as the 1820s, and in England duels were fought as late as the 1850s, even though they had been illegal for a long time before. Is it possible to be nostalgic about dueling? It seems silly to be so, but who could not love the drama of them? They were fought, evidently, mostly at dawn, in the morning mist, the outcome could be fatal, although it generally wasn't, and it was always one's honor at stake. Someone had accused you of lying, or had called you a coward, or had tried to seduce your wife or had actually seduced your daughter, and this was insupportable. Your reputation as a man of honor, someone who would stand up for himself and his own, had to be defended. So you issued a challenge, slapped him in the face, say, with a glove, or sent him a note, whatever suited you, and arranged for seconds and a meeting, and staked your life. Who wouldn't have liked to be in attendance, and watch? Duels had a tragic grandeur about them. Good people could die. John Scott, editor of the London Magazine in the 1820s, got caught up in a literary controversy with an anonymous writer for Blackwood's and The Quarterly named, as I remember, John Gibson Lockhart (that Gibson may be wrong), who had savagely attacked John Keats and the other so-called Cockney poets--i.e., lower-class poets--in those journals and had then lied about his authorship of the critiques, and the result was a duel in which Scott was killed, leaving his wife and children destitute. The interesting part of it was that Lockhart didn't show up for the duel. He sent a friend, who was a better shot than himself. Later Lockhart married the daughter of Sir Walter Scott and subsequent to that wrote Scott's biography. But for me he is always the coward who cheated at a duel, and it gives me an odd pleasure to make his name known in this way, so that the dishonor always lies at his feet.

Honor is about self-respect, and it is in political life that we most feel its loss. How often do politicians resign rather than do something dishonorable, like lie to the public, or put into force a policy they know to be disastrous or dishonest or immoral, or disguise their own beliefs? Look at Mitt Romney, professing not to believe in a health care plan modeled on the very plan he helped make law in Massachusetts when he was its governor. That he is pandering to a conservative base he has to have behind him in order to get elected is obvious. How can he do this, and respect himself? I can hear voices among my readers: can he be serious? Don't all politicians do this? Yes, that's precisely the point. Hypocrisy rules. Lies rule. It is endemic, and it makes all politics seem cynical and debased. This is what I liked about Eisenhower; a military man through and through, he had enough of a sense of honor that when he came to realize that the country was overly militarized, he made a speech about it, talked about the military-industrial complex, and became, in that act, one of our greater presidents.

Honor is about self-respect, about courage, about honesty; it is behind the fact that women and children are rescued first, something you could see on the Titanic when rich men chose to die rather than scramble for a place in the lifeboats. It is the foundation of what we call manners, the customary treatment of others with respect, opening doors for women or men, too, for that matter, being kind to people and animals, giving up seats to pregnant women or old women in the subway, showing deference to age. And it is, or should be, the principle on which the wealthy build their relationship with society. The honorable rich acknowledge their debt to society, their luck, which they didn't earn, and they give back. The Rockefellers are the prime example of this sense of noblesse oblige; for all their faults, and who does not have faults? they understood that they were stewards of their wealth, that it was not theirs alone. Bill Gates seems to be following the same path. This is the honorable path. People like Warren Buffett understand this. People like the Kochs do not.

We mistake the past if we think it was better than the present; generally, it was not. In the 1830s, when Tocqueville was writing about the egalitarian society the United States supposedly was, one percent of the population owned nearly half the country's wealth. A similar situation prevailed in the 1770s, and in the 1920s. There has never been a garden of Eden and the meaning of the Greek word "utopia" is "no place." Still, I sometimes think that if the old aristocratic virtues had not died out we might live now in a marginally more honest society, one more respectful of others and more sensitive to their needs. I am sick of living in a political swamp, with crocodiles and snakes on all sides. The very air stinks of them.