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!
True, it is untenable for every member of Congress to grant every debate challenge issued him or her. In this instance, however, even Bachmann partisans know deep down that some of what the congresswoman says cannot withstand direct challenge from a reasonably smart 10th grader. As self-evidently embarrassing as that is, this episode is going to be seen through a political lens, with progressives delighting in it because it reflects badly on Bachmann, and many conservatives regarding the debate challenge as little more than an ideologically motivated stunt. Insofar as there are plenty of Democratic Congressional reps who've made statements that would be proved foolish by a smart conservative 10th grader, they've got a point.
But I am less interested in this particular episode and its fallout than delighting in the implausible America it helped me to imagine, if only for a moment. In that country, the duels of past generations would reappear in a more enlightened format. We'd mostly know a legitimate challenge when we saw it. And bomb-throwing charlatans would think twice during their cable news spots for fear of being called out by an earnest young adult ready to challenge them in a neutral public forum. Social norms would demand that they accept serious challenges. And if they didn't?
Avoiding a challenge wasn't easy. Particularly in the South, where men who refused to duel would be "posted." A statement accusing them of cowardice would be hung in public areas or published in a newspaper or pamphlet.
When Congressman John Randolph of Virginia refused to meet General James Wilkinson in a duel, a furious Wilkinson posted him. The post declared "In justice to my character I denounce to the world John Randolph, a member of Congress, as a prevaricating, base, calumniating scoundrel, poltroon, and coward."
Whether Rep. Bachmann refuse to correct her inaccurate statements, or whether she accepts this high school student's offer to debate -- oh how I'd love to see that! -- I'll certainly continue to regard her as a prevaricating poltroon. And should an enterprising young person issue a similar challenge against her analogues on the left, I'll support them too. Better yet, let some earnest, credible young civil libertarian challenge President Obama to a debate on the gulf that separates his campaign rhetoric from his behavior in office. Dueling by gun or sword is definitely and thankfully dead, but verbal contests that re-cement the relationship between lies and dishonor would do this country good.
Long live the verbal duel!
Image credit: Reuters