Friday, April 5, 2013

It's Not Like Gunsmoke

Dodge City, Kansas, back in the cowboy days.  A tall, big-hatted man walks out into the dusty main street.  In the distance, another man squares off against him.  They draw.  They shoot.  Marshal Dillon wins.

This was the opening of Gunsmoke, a TV show starting back in the 1950's.  Every week, James Arness and the other guy faced one another honorably, according to unwritten but widely accepted rules.  And the best man won.

The Old West gunfight was often a lot messier and less honorable than the opening of Gunsmoke.  But the underlying idea was there:  the duel.

Historically, the duel was an affair of honor between two gentlemen.  Frequently, the gentlemen were quite young, and the dispute often revolved around the affections of a young lady.  But older men were available to make sure that the almost kabuki-like rules were observed.

The culture of dueling was very widespread years ago.  I've just finished reading Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, set in early nineteenth-century Russia.  Onegin flirts with his friend's beloved at a party; the friend challenges him to a duel; and Onegin shoots him dead.  Then he feels bad.  (Pushkin himself, the author, died in a duel in 1837.)

Probably the most famous American duel was between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.  At the time Burr was vice president of the United States.  Things did not go well for Mr. Hamilton.

During the nineteenth century, the duel petered out among the upper classes.  Nowadays, young men of good family play lacrosse instead.

But the idea, the little mini-movie, is still there.  When Wayne LaPierre of the NRA says the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, he's immediately taking us back to Dodge City.

The problem with this is that the age of chivalry is over.  People don't call you out into the street any more, to fight a fair fight, face to face.  They wait until you're tired, maybe distracted, maybe walking from your car to your front door.  And then they shoot you in the back.

If the other guy gets the drop on you, it doesn't matter whether you have a gun or not.  You're dead.  Bushwhacking 101.

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