Tuesday, December 07, 2004

An armed society is a rude society

There is a distinction between politeness and formality.

An armed society may well be a formal society, especially when dealing with the use of weapons, or it may not. The Old West seems to have been rather less formal in real life than in the formula Westerns - two of the losing side at the OK Corral were unarmed. Likewise, Sir Thomas Malory may have come from a formal society, although one somewhat unravelling under the stress of the Wars of the Roses (consider the rape charges), but did he portray one? Longstreet's Georgia Sketches are also informative, both of the existence - and the limits - of formality.

It will, however, be a rude society. When rudeness may be dangerous, men will be rude to show their courage. A skilled duellist was often rude to demonstrate he could afford to be - as Lord Cardigan was. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton frequently pressed on a duel to show himself manly, and win political concessions; it was a shock when Burr challenged him.

That's why lesser swaggerers were rude; behaving like Lord Sharpshot was a cheap way to claim the prestige of Lord S.'s skill and virility - such as that was.

The most scurrilious period in our history was the 1790's, when a set of dueling pistols was a household accessory; second place I would accord to Brann the Iconoclast, who wrote at Waco in the 1880's; third to the antebellum seditionists who cheered the ruffian Preston Brooks - armed societies all.

This is not my conjecture: Thucydides said of Athens, as Thackeray of England and Twain of our South, that they did not acquire civilization until men had ceased to go armed. Those who prefer to learn the hard way may visit the slums of Miami, or New York.

So much would be true even of a hypothetical armed and equal society, like the cads* of Beyond This Horizon. In a society which is armed and unequal, like the ones we have actually known, there was in addition the systematic rudeness required to enforce the pecking order: "I don't need to be polite to *you*; out of my way."

[*Yes, cads: Gentlemen, after an affront in a crowded restaurant, do not draw projectile weapons and blaze away upon the spot. The real Code Duello provided means to settle (by correspondence and the good offices of friends) whether there is a real affront, whether it can be resolved amicably, and (if those fail) how it can fairly be settled by more direct means.

At the least, gentlemen would go outside. Even if one trusts one's own aim will not hit a bystander, there is no ground for such confidence in one's opponent - especially if he is wounded while firing.]

[I do not contend that the Code Duello was a high moral standard, or that it worked out fairly, or that it was always kept to. I simply contend that Heinlein, who adorns his page with the phrase, was writing in ignorance.]