Saturday, August 15, 2009

Them's fightin' words

A Central Massachusetts columnist today called for civility in the discussion about health care. I, too, would prefer civilized discussions to scream fests, on this and all other topics. I found myself thinking, though, how differently these things were handled a couple of centuries ago. I’ve been watching, courtesy NetFlix, John Adams. The shouting matches in Congress (and hey, how interesting that our legislators all fit in one small room in those days) reminded me that the debates often went beyond shouting to shooting.

In Gentleman’s Blood: A History of Dueling, Barbara Holland quotes Adams: “ ‘Politics . . . had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.’” According to Holland, “Every faction considered all other factions a threat to the republic and a personal insult.”

In those days, gentlemen stuck to their guns, literally. They weren’t likely to retreat from a long-held position simply because people were yelling at them. If a man did retreat, someone would call him a coward, and then he’d have to fight a duel to prove he wasn’t.

I don’t know if we’re doing better today because our politicos don’t shoot each other so much, or our forefathers did better because they'd put their lives on the line in defense of principle (or manly pride).

History simply makes me ask questions. And watching the miniseries has made me want to read the book.

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