For a Revival of Dueling
By DAID L. COHN
WHEN Huey Long was riding roughshod over the state of Louisiana, vilifying, slandering, blackmailing, and spreading lies about men from the platform and in his hired press, he used to tell his henchmen: “Nothing is lost except honor. ” On one occasion, however, he changed his tune when he feared that something else might be lost — something that counted. Just before he arrived to make a speech in a Louisiana town, the publisher of the local newspaper inserted a notice warning Long that if he so much as mentioned his name he would kill him. Long kept his mouth shut, and it was forever closed a few months later when a young man, goaded beyond endurance by the Senator’s vilifications of his family, killed him and was killed by the politician’s bodyguard.
These are some of the things that may happen in a country when the law of libel and slander is inoperative or ineffective; when dueling is illegal and men, honorable but helpless, have to take the law into their own hands.
It is not alone in Louisiana that honor seems to have been lost. Consider some of our syndicated columnists. Their eyes glued to the keyholes of the nation, they think nothing at all of telling us that so-and-so is about to divorce his wife and marry a cutie; that such and such a woman will soon elope with her chauffeur or will have a baby next Thursday afternoon. With the subtlety of a switch engine, they hint that so-and-so is a seducer, a grafter, a homosexual, a drunkard, a smoker of marijuana, a wifebeater, or anything else that may pop into their minds. In these amiable and profitable labors they are assisted by a group of maggots and botflies in human form who for various motives supply journalists of the abdominal school with what the trade calls “the dirt” — as rich pay dirt, if more polluted, as was ever found in the Klondike. And the public — that is, you and I — lap up the filth with almost lascivious delight and call for more.
Similarly, there are newspapers whose editors use their columns for motives of personal revenge, libeling people they hate, making monstrous accusations against them, exposing them to the contempt of the community, sometimes wrecking their private lives or driving them into political obscurity. Congressmen, arising on a point of personal privilege, consume the time of the country denying the slanders and gossip of columnists, or, taking advantage of their immunity from slander suits for anything said by them in Congress, indulge in the luxury of slandering others.
The delicate art of “smearing” has become a large industry working full time. Its products are in great demand, no personal risks are involved, no capital investment is required. Soon correspondence schools will arise to teach the art: “You Too Can Learn to Smear in Your Spare Time.” All over the land we hear the anguished cries of Mr. X that he is being smeared by Mr. Y, while, by a logical process, slander breeding slander, we have reached the point where we now have what is elegantly termed the radio “smearcast.”
One of the privileges of being a democrat is that, if you are talked about, you can talk back. But this happy condition no longer prevails. How can you talk back to a powerful newspaper or a radio network? Editors (and this is a sharp break with the past) no longer have to smile when they say that word. Once upon a time in the United States, editing was a hazardous profession and many editors died of the occupational disease which the boys jocularly called “lead poisoning.” But now that civilization has struck its fangs into our jugular vein, we do not shoot editors if we think they have libeled us. We no longer regard that sort of thing as cricket — and besides, it is dangerous. In most parts of the country there is a closed season on editors and you will be jailed for shooting one. Only certain sections of the West and South still look upon the editor as less sacrosanct than the ivory-billed woodpecker.
The remedy for the libeled man, we say, is at law. But if a man resorts to law, what are his chances of getting a verdict that will still lying tongues? They are small. The average man who would sue a powerful publication or radio network is not likely to do more than think about it, because he cannot afford to sue. He may be kept in the courts for months or for years and be financially ruined in the process. We are, moreover, lenient toward libelers because the case against them is difficult to prove — usually because they are conscious of the law and proceed by insinuation and innuendo, so that, while their meaning is clear to the reader or listener, it is not evidentially libelous or slanderous.
The ordinary man is, then, helpless in the face of the libeler; and if he proceeds by the old-fashioned and altogether salutary manner of knocking the daylights out of him (provided he can get by his bodyguard), the law, which does not protect him against character assassination, will jail him for assault and battery committed upon the person of the assassin.
We may note, by contrast, that the case is otherwise in Great Britain. The humorless Britons do not think it is funny to ruin a man’s or a woman’s reputation, or to permit journalists to bring down the contempt of the community upon the heads of others. They therefore savagely apply the law of libel and slander, with the consequence that tongues wag and hands write far less loosely in Britain than they do here. These stuffy people, tradition-ridden, still cling to the quaint concept that to besmirch a man’s name is almost equivalent to taking his life.
How, then, are we to protect men against slanderers, libelers, syndicated gossips, and the whole clan of sewer gentry who not only operate without hindrance in the United States but who make a profession of besmirching others and grow rich and notorious in the process? If a man cannot defend himself at law, how is he to defend himself?
The remedy is simple and clear-cut: revive the practice of dueling.
Dueling had its virtues as well as its vices, but like other institutions — such as free-handed banking and the free-lunch saloon — it was abused. Trigger-quick men, itching for a sport which made wing shooting pale by comparison, went about the country seeking to have their honor offended and, succeeding in doing so without much difficulty, kept themselves amused at the expense of the other fellow’s life or limb.
This was especially true of cock-of-the-walk young officers of the United States Navy. If they were not properly addressed at breakfast in the wardroom, they felt their honor had been impugned, and they promptly issued challenges. Duels were fought at the next port of call, and sometimes the ship would return to this country in charge of a junior officer, all the others having found graves in Kingston or Leghorn. This practice went on for years until the Navy, having at long last decided that it was not bringing up its officers to be duelists, wetted down the ardor of the young men with threats of court-martial for dueling.
Nonetheless the fact is that nowadays the law does not adequately protect assailants of men’s honor and reputation and thus they are put in the intolerable position of being besmirched without recourse or of taking the horsewhip into their own hands and going to jail. This concept is not only repugnant to all our instincts of fair play and decency but is all the stranger in a country which permits outraged fans to throw pop bottles at that robber, the umpire.
The remedy, then, is to revive dueling and put such safeguards around it as to prevent it from becoming the plaything of expert pistol shots in search of stronger diversion than softball games. Certainly no man should have the right to make an outright deal for a duel with another man. He must first present his case to a Court of Honor composed, say, of ten volunteer men and women of the community who are both levelheaded and persons of integrity. If they hold against him, he must retire and peacefully lick his wounds or hire a lawyer to present his grievances in court. But if they hold that he has been injured, he should then be permitted to challenge the offender by public notice in the local newspaper so that the community will be aware of it and become a party to it.
As for a choice of weapons, it must be remembered that we are a pragmatic people (“results count”) who, moreover, regard a man as effeminate if he uses eau de cologne. It follows, therefore, that we are not to be satisfied in such a case by a meeting under the oaks, pistols fired in the air, kissings on both cheeks, and elaborate reconciliations among the offended parties. This may satisfy Latins — and if it does, it is the right system for them although it is obviously not the one for us. One must also bear in mind that we are not only a pragmatic but we are also an evangelical people who sulk in frustration if we cannot draw a moral. Consequently the weapons to be used in dueling should be of a kind that will produce results and point a moral.
Under these circumstances it is conceivable that there might not be many duels, because the gentlemen who permit their typewriters and tongues to clatter at random are wedded to the axiom that there is no sweeter fat than sticks to their own bones. Every man would then become the policeman of his own words, and we should come into an era of writing and talking which would exalt the beauties of restraint, the sweet uses of understatement, and the austerities of accuracy.
- Our fire-eating contributor DAVID L. COHN believes that the judicious use of forty-fives would go far to improve our public manners. Congressmen wishing to legislate to that end are invited to get in touch with him.↩