Not too long ago, I met a gentleman who showed me a scar on one side of his head where, years earlier, a woman wearing brass knuckles had split his temple open. Then he showed me the scar on the other side of his head where a man had subsequently hit him with a pistol butt because he refused to reveal who had hit him with the brass knuckles. There was more to his story, but basically it boiled down to this: Avoid South Carolina at all costs.
He was selling magazine subscriptions door to door, and he was good at it. He said he had two brothers in prison; that he’d done seven years and ten months himself. And that if I bought a magazine subscription from him he’d be less likely to end up there again. Who knows if any of it was true; he may have figured me for a reformer and do-gooder and decided to lean heavily on the reformed felon angle. I bought into it to the extent of a two-year subscription to Black Belt magazine (something I will never live down at the dojo if the magazine ever does arrive in my mailbox). I have no idea if the outfit he was working for was legitimate, but the scars on his head were real enough.
I bought the subscription in part because the salesman told fascinating stories, and also just to help him stay the hell out of South Carolina, but mainly because it was clear that he’d been in some serious fights, this guy. I don’t want to give the impression that I admire the habitually violent (though I’ll admit to a certain sense of fellow feeling). In fact, if you have a history of constantly getting into fights, I think it kind of indicates you’re not dealing with some important issues in your life. But I have noticed something about people who’ve been in a few real fights, who’ve been injured and fought back: They tend not to see violence as a ready solution to problems. They’ve tried it, or had it tried on them, and they know its costs and its limitations.
I think that’s a really valuable perspective for a person to have.
Unfortunately, people with this perspective are much more likely to end up selling magazines door-to-door rather than, say, determining our nation’s foreign policy. They rarely govern states or run for President, or write editorial columns for the New York Times or the Washington Post, or get interviewed by Charlie Rose. Which is a shame, because it means that the people who do make policy and write editorials and get interviewed on national television tend to skew heavily toward the perspective that violence is easy, cheap, morally defensible, and loads of fun.
Thus we get policy makers like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (did you know he has a new book out?), a peacetime Navy flight instructor who overruled the generals planning the invasion of Iraq, and insisted that the conflict there would be over in days or weeks. We get pundits like Tom Friedman and Richard Cohen, who thought invading Iraq was just a swell idea; that the repercussions from Shock and Awe would be candy and flowers.
And we get presidents like George W. Bush, who tossed off pithy wartime quips like, “Bring ’em on!” and “Wanted: Dead or alive,” delighting cable news producers and killing God only knows how many Americans, Afghans, Iraqis, and other human beings.
We talk about violence an awful lot. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the people who talk about it the most, the loudest, and with the greatest relish, usually have the least real experience with it.
There’s a famous unsavory story from back in the extended adolescence of George W., when the young rake, after a night of drinking with his 16-year-old brother, challenged his father to a fight, “mano a mano.” This means, literally, “hand-to-hand,” though I suspect, given Bush’s rather primitive grasp of Spanish and of language in general, he may have thought it meant “man-to-man.”
Whatever he thought he was saying, young George was spoiling for a fight. And I wonder how different our country’s recent history would be if his father, George H. W. Bush, had actually stepped up that night and belted the prodigal son. Not that I’m advocating familial violence; I don’t think fathers should hit their sons, even when the son is 26 years old and becoming an embarrassment on the world stage. Then too, hitting people doesn’t sound like the kind of thing George, Sr. would do, World War II veteran though he is.
On the other hand, I can imagine his wife doing it—and quite capably, too. In fact I can imagine Barbara Bush comfortably handling any number of unpleasant tasks, from slaughtering bullocks to building a long and successful career as a prison matron. Even without brass knuckles, she’d be a formidable opponent, and in my opinion, George W. showed rare good judgment in not challenging his mother to go mano a mano that day.
Anyway, this ugly scene was supposedly the final straw for the Bushes, who promptly bundled George, Jr. off to Harvard Business School. Which is, I must admit, a creative nonviolent response to the situation, though not one that most people can afford to emulate. The upshot was that George the Lesser didn’t get thrashed that day, and maybe that’s why, thirty years later, his thwarted machismo led America into two of the longest wars in our history.
I’d been voting against Bush for years before he became the rest of the nation’s problem but even I was surprised by the simplistic, romanticized understanding of violence he demonstrated after 9/11. I’ve long suspected that, for all his swagger and pugnacious, bristling nastiness, George W. Bush himself would, upon receiving a single stiff punch to the gut, curl up in the floor and cry like a tiny baby.
The fact that I’ll probably never get a chance to test this theory saddens me.
Bush had been spoiling for a fight his whole life, and I suppose now he thinks he’s been in one. I’ve never been in a real fight—a fight where my life was at stake—and I’m well aware of that. I’ve never (to date) had my head split open with a pistol butt or brass knuckles; I’ve never been shot at. I’ve mostly fought under very controlled conditions. But at least when I did that, they were my fights. No stand-ins, no proxies, no armies. I took my own damage, and I have the hospital bills to prove it. I’ve hit a lot of people; pretty much all of them hit me back. And that’s an important point that you might not appreciate if you haven’t ever experienced combat.
Say you’re angry at someone. Maybe it’s something they’ve done or said, or maybe it’s really not about them at all. Maybe they just happen to be handy. Whatever the reason, you strike this person. Hard—as hard as you can (or else why, for heaven’s sake, are you hitting them at all?). And as you strike, your anger, your fear, your outraged sense of justice—it all surges through your hand like an electric current, and you feel this magical spark. You feel that for once, all of that emotion has gone precisely where it was meant to, and you put it there. For one brief instant, the universe is a balanced place, and it all makes sense.
“Ahh,” says your amygdala.
Pretty nice so far, isn’t it? But here’s what you have to remember: The phrase is “mano a mano.” There are two hands doing the fighting. And one of them is not yours.
After the attacks of 9/11, everyone was angry, and looking for someone to hit. Bluster and threats became patriotic. And once we all agreed that “fighting” didn’t really mean hitting and getting hit, but rather was something scripted, proclaimed, and displayed—hell, under those terms, anyone could be a hero. Even a seedy carnival barker like Glenn Beck, or a pasty white lump like Bill Kristol, or a visibly rusting David Broder, could call for war and feel virile and warlike without ever hearing the whine of a bullet.
Ken Adelman could write in the Washington Post that “demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.” Richard Cohen, also in the Post, could assure us that “the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic.” Tom Friedman could go on Charlie Rose’s show and tell Iraq to “Suck. On. This.”
“Ahh,” says the amygdala.
If you’ve never been in the middle of a fight, it’s easy to lose sight of what happens after you take your shot. In real life the other guy always gets a shot. Always. Sometimes more than one. And the question is, what will that be like for you? How will it feel, the fist or the knife or the bullet, when it smashes into your face and your life? Do you have any idea, really? If you haven’t been through it, I can guarantee that it won’t be at all like what you expect. It may not kill you, but it will change you in ways you simply can’t anticipate.
Which is why I reserve a special distrust for people who advocate violent solutions from their safe perches at think tanks and editorial boards and radio syndicates. Rush Limbaugh thinks we should assassinate Julian Assange. David Broder wants us to bomb Iran. John Bolton thinks we should go after North Korea. Big, bold ideas from men who would probably, if punched in the gut, curl up on the floor and cry like tiny babies.
Look, I’m not saying that getting beaten up somehow, in itself, makes you a wiser and better person. All fighting experience really means, in practical terms, is that your vision tends to blur at inopportune moments and the bones in your hands ache every time it rains. But on another level, it means that at least you’ve personally absorbed the cost of violence.
Language is cheap, but the real currency of violence is extremely dear, and if all your experience with it consists of writing checks on someone else’s bank account, you’ll always misjudge the price. To understand the real cost of violence you have to pay from your own pocket. You have to know—not in some abstract way, but concretely—what the other hand can do to you. That knowledge is invaluable for anyone; it surely ought to be more common among our opinion-makers and policy gurus.
So I’m thinking about organizing my own fundraising effort, with its own crew of reformed felons going door-to-door, collecting money for a worthwhile cause. It’ll benefit a truly deserving bunch of people: Tom Friedman, and Richard Cohen, and Bill Kristol, and as many other public supporters of violence as we can round up. And what we’ll do is, we’ll put them all on a bus, and send them to South Carolina.
I’m convinced this will be a great experience for them. They can meet new people and learn the local customs, and if they collect a few interesting scars in the process, well, it will give them something to talk about on Charlie Rose’s show.
I’m no fan of David Broder but if he showed me where he’d been busted open by a set of brass knuckles, I would happily buy a magazine subscription from him.