Saturday, September 23, 2017

Some People Are Not Duelable

I'm not a big proponent of bringing back customs and manners from hundreds of years back. The centuries I study were much worse to live in than this one. But there is one concept from Ye Olden Days that (suitably retooled), I have always found pretty useful. That is the concept of people being "not duelable." I use it in my academic writing. I use it in my daily life. I occasionally teach it to graduate students. And it turns out to be a concept that both the Age of Twitter and the Age of Trump badly need.

Now, dueling itself is a vicious custom and should not come back. But that custom contained one illuminating rule: dueling is something that happens between equals. (It's also restricted to the upper classes; humbler folk who fight with swords, like the playwright Ben Jonson, are just street brawling.) You only duel people who are, generally speaking, on your own level.

If you're a 17th-century gentleman, or a Russian aristocrat, or a young swell in Flaubert's Paris, you don't get in duels with servants or bartenders or some poor hapless working stiff. That's beneath you. (I'm not going to idealize this practice; this is mainly about not giving the hapless working stiffs a fair shot at the rich folk, or allowing the working stiffs to fight back.) Fighting those people isn't simply wrong. The wrongness isn't even the main problem. Fighting with those people is demeaning to you. It lowers you. It invites shame and ridicule.

Early in the 20th century (a little late for this sort of thing), the novelist Vladimir Nabokov's father got so angry about a yellow journalist's attack on him that he decided to challenge someone to a duel over it. (Neither Dr. Cleveland nor Dagblog endorses fighting duels or threatening journalists.) Did he challenge the person who wrote the article? No. That person was, from Nabokov Sr.'s point of view, just some greasy little scribbler, not worth the bother of tussling with. Papa Nabokov challenged the newspaper publisher. (The younger Nabokov has a wonderful chapter about this episode in his memoir, Speak, Memory.)  None of this is exactly Nabokov Sr.'s finest hour, but it taught me the basic "not duelable" concept, which has real value.

Let's broaden the definition of "duel" here to mean any public or semi-public conflict which, on some level, involves your reputation. That's what duels were: fights designed to protect one's reputation, and when someone was not duelable that meant that fighting them, or even challenging them, would only damage your reputation more. Some kinds of political slagging and point-scoring qualify, alas. So do some entertainers' public feuds: two rappers beefing with each other are both acknowledging each other as peers and trying to raise their profiles. And, like it or not, academic writing has its share of this, both because professional reputations are closely tied to that writing and because academic debate works, especially in the humanities, by disagreement. It is almost impossible to write a publishable article about Shakespeare where you don't at least politely suggest some other Shakespeareans are wrong about something. Often, people are much less polite. Sometimes scholars get into epic running beefs. The letter pages of the Times Literary Supplement are notorious for hosting ongoing tweedy vendettas. The question of who is duelable and who isn't in academic arguments is one I've given a lot of thought to, and it needs a post of its own.

One of my favorite examples of non-duelability in pop culture is Crash Davis in Bull Durham, flat-out declining to compete with boy idiot Nuke LaLoosh for Annie's favors: "I'm not interested in anyone who's interested in that boy." Translation: I'm not going to compete with that idiot, because he's not a suitable rival, and it would be demeaning to compete against him." Not duelable, bro.

Two major-party Presidential candidates going at each other is unpleasant and arguably unseemly. But you can't say that conflict is inappropriate. As nominees, they are peers. But if the President of the United States, with all the majesty of that office, decided to beef publicly with say, an ESPN personality like Jemele Hill, which is too crazy to ever happen, he would be attacking someone non-duelable. If he were to get petulant with an NBA player, that is fighting with someone non-duelable. Calling an unemployed NFL quarterback a "son of a bitch" in public is totally attacking someone non-duelable.

Trump does not make the duelable/ non-duelable distinction at all. He fights with people who have vastly different statuses. He goes after the grieving parents of an American serviceman killed in action. He beefs at Rosie O'Donnell, still, for God knows what reason. He gets in spats with the Emmys telecast and the Apprentice, with ESPN. The list goes on, unfortunately. It's depressing to see.

The first problem with this is it's wrong, because the people he goes after are weaker and have no defense. One of the basic reasons large categories of people were originally designated non-duelable is because those people did not have swords or guns. (The laws often restricted weapon ownership to the upper classes.) Picking on the poor grieving mother of a dead serviceman is a disgusting way to use your power. It's wrong because unjustly harms other people. It makes you a bully, and a thug, and an asshole.

The other two problems, which are interrelated, are problems because they harm you, rather than your target. The main problem is that it destroys your dignity. You get into the gutter to fight some rapscallions, what you win is a trip to the gutter. You get dirty and you make a depressing spectacle of yourself.

Trump does not preserve the dignity of his office. He screeches at people who are, since inauguration, vastly below him in station. Part of this is that Trump still insists on operating like a fairly low-level New York media figure, a guy who gets into arguments on a call-in radio show. He's like a less well-adjusted Howard Stern. Part of it is that, frankly, he's a psychologically damaged personality. The rest is that Trump has always behaved like someone from an entirely different social class, rather than like a normal, socially-adjusted rich New Yorker. For all his money, he has never been able to learn the rules of upper-class Manhattan, social norms that usually get expressed as "taste," "manners," and "class." That he's a rich guy with the manners, and open resentments, of someone from a much lower class has always been a big part of his appeal. But it's not an act; Trump isn't someone who can charm donors to the Met and then switch it up to bond with a cabbie. He genuinely doesn't understand the normal rules of upper-class behavior, including the rule that some fights are just beneath you.

What Trump gains by his refusal to observe decorum is the ability to attack people that Presidents usually don't attack. What he loses is the protective aura of his office's dignity. It feels wrong to insult a President of the United States in certain ways, but that's ultimately predicated on the fact that the President isn't going to shout crude insults at you, either. The aura is a two-way protection.

Normally, the dignity of the President's office keeps people from calling the President a bum, but Trump doesn't respect the dignity of office and so it doesn't protect him. If a pro athlete called a president, any president a bum, I'd usually think that was a classless move. But the President in question called another pro athlete a son of a bitch in public yesterday, so he's the one who changed the rules.

And related to the loss of dignity is the problem that when you get down in the gutter to fight with some guttersnipes, the guttersnipes might win. Trump publicly slagging on Colin Kaepernick and Steph Curry opened the door for LeBron James to just lay Trump out:

That's not the golden political rhetoric of yesterday, but Trump is playing the playground diss game, and as playground disses go this is a classic. Trump has no one to blame but himself.

(I do not mean to imply that Mr. James is a guttersnipe. He is a sublime athlete and a philanthropist. But he's also a guy who sweats for a living, not somebody who gets called in to give the Cabinet advice. Do you remember when FDR got into that public insult match with Joe DiMaggio? That's right. You don't.)

The bigger question is whether the dictator of North Korea is duelable for an American president. All of Trump's predecessors thought not, and didn't waste time trading insults with a small-time dictator. Trump, who has no sense of dignity, is getting into a slagging match and, on balance, losing. But actually, this is not at all how people used to talk before duels. Duels are about saving face, but also about finding a way out of conflict if you can: a lot of energy focused on finding a way to say everybody's honor was satisfied without anyone bleeding out. Sometimes that failed, but that was the focus. Papa Nabokov found a way not to fight that duel. Trump and Kim are not looking for an elegant way out of this. They are woofing at each other like playground antagonists, both scared of looking "weak" by backing down. It's a situation that usually leads to the two knuckleheads trading blows because they're afraid not to.

The danger, of course, is that if these two idiots come to blows, it's not just them.

 cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog