Is Michele Bachmann Smarter Than a 10th Grader?

A high school sophomore has challenged the Minnesota representative to a verbal duel. Will she pick up the gauntlet?

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Rep. Michelle Bachmann rose to national prominence by courting controversy and firing up the conservative base. Thousands of politically active people would gladly argue with her if given the opportunity. It is therefore interesting that a high school sophomore in Cherry Valley, N.J., has generated national headlines by challenging the Minnesota Congresswoman to a debate.
"I have found quite a few of your statements regarding The Constitution of the United States, the quality of public school education and general U.S. civics matters to be factually incorrect, inaccurately applied or grossly distorted," Amy Myers wrote in early May in an open letter to Bachmann. "Though politically expedient, incorrect comments cast a shadow on your person and by unfortunate proxy, both your supporters and detractors alike often generalize this shadow to women as a whole."

To be honest, I find the bit about incorrect comments reflecting badly on all women to be overwrought and off-putting. Women should be as free to engage in opportunistic, intellectually dishonest hackery as men! But I can't help but celebrate the letter's stirring conclusion: "I, Amy Myers, do hereby challenge Representative Michele Bachmann to a Public Forum Debate and/or Fact Test on The Constitution of the United States, United States History and United States Civics."

Public challenges to elected officials are less intense than they once were. "Duels have been fought by members of Congress from the very commencement of our existence as a nation," The New York Times reported in 1856 -- 25 in total by the newspaper's count, about half as many as were fought by members of British Parliament during the same period. Though obviously violent in character, the object of a typical American duel wasn't to kill one's opponent so much as to defend one's honor. "An offended party sent a challenge through his second," PBS reports in its brief history of dueling. "If the recipient apologized, the matter usually ended."

Myers is operating in a similar spirit. Offended by Bachmann's rhetoric, she called her out in a heated letter that is at once arrogantly combative, sanctimonious, and appealing in its earnest insistence that politicians dishonor themselves when they tell untruths. Presumably she knows the long odds against a member of Congress apologizing to a teenager or accepting a challenge to debate. In issuing it anyway, Myers effectively dramatizes an unfortunate if widely known truth: our most combative elected leaders are so shameless in playing their cynical rhetorical games that they no longer find it necessary to defend their honor.

It helps that she is a high school student. As an adult, it is easy to accustom oneself to a flawed state of affairs, explaining it away as "the way the world works." In their naivete and idealism, young people help us to see society anew -- and sometimes their perspective helps us to clarify what about it is indefensible. Relieved as I am that the age of violent duels is behind us -- and of course women were not able to vote, let alone contend with swords and guns as officeholders during the dueling era -- I lament that public figures no longer feel pressure to apologize for bad behavior, or else to meet earnest critics who call it out in a public forum. Refusing to do so ought to be discrediting!

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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