by William Bradley
I. Young Pugilist
So there we were—all the kids from the neighborhood—sitting in a darkened movie theater, watching the final moments of Rocky IV. If you’ve never seen the movie, it goes like this: Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend and trainer Apollo Creed is killed in the ring by Ivan Drago, an unstoppable Soviet superboxer in hammer-and-sickle trunks whose only dialogue comes in muttered lines like “I must break you” and “If he dies, he dies.” He’s inhuman, this Russian. He’s the organic pinnacle of sports technology; raised on cutting edge training techniques and anabolic steroids, Drago is both an immoveable object and an unstoppable force.
Naturally, Rocky’s got to travel to the Soviet Union to fight the Russian. I mean, he can’t just let this go. He has to prove that he’s the greatest—not just in America, but in the entire world. And of course he needs to avenge his friend (“This Time… It’s Personal”). But the thing that stood out most for me at the time, and which continues to stand out to me to this day, is that he was doing it for his country.
Naturally, Rocky had to win. He had, as Survivor sang, “The Eye of the Tiger.” And the promotional poster hanging in the theater’s lobby showed Rocky—bruised and bloody—lifted in triumph with an American flag draped across his body, gloved hands in the air, so anyone who hadn’t entered the theater blindfolded knew how it would play out, even if they weren’t familiar with the formula created in Rocky II and further perfected in Rocky III. But there was more to Rocky’s victory than fulfilling the audience’s expectations by following a now-familiar storyline. Rocky had to win, because we all had to win. The Communists would not win the Cold War, and by God they would not win this boxing match. Ronald Reagan and Sylvester Stallone, together, would seal our victory.
Sweeter still, as the fight raged on throughout the last act of the movie, the Soviet boxing enthusiasts—heretofore fervent Drago supporters—began to change their minds about their guy, our guy, maybe even their system of government. Who knows? But as Rocky proved his athletic superiority, the crowd rose to its collective feet. “ROCKY! ROCKY!” they chanted. We kids in the theater were too polite to stand up and chant along with them, but glancing over at the others, I could see them grinning, shifting in their seats, and I knew that they too could feel the undeniable power of our boxer, not to mention our country; this display only proved what we were all learning at our Cub Scouts meetings—America truly was number one.
The successful use of force had the power to change people, and change the world. Certainly, that’s what Rocky was demonstrating, and it’s what the president meant when he came on TV—interrupting Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life—to talk about Peace Through Strength. We could overpower our enemies, force them to see things from our point of view. We would win, if we were tough enough.
The nuances of this approach were somewhat lost on me, when I was a kid. When the president used a phrase like “Peace Through Strength” or when Rocky told Rocky Jr. “I fight so that you won’t have to fight,” my young mind seized upon—and became excited by—only certain words. Strength. Fight. These words—and the tough, undeniably masculine ideas they represented—caused me to feel hot, stand a little bit straighter, clench my jaw, and prepare for a throw-down. The cause didn’t matter; the important thing was proving one’s mettle through battle.
So it should probably surprise no one to learn that just a week or so after sitting in that theater watching Rocky cold-cock the Cold War, I found myself standing in my parents’ driveway, surrounded by the neighborhood kids—Billy, Michael, Robert, Robbie, and all the others—punching another kid in the stomach as hard as I could. Once. Twice. Again. Again. Stephen gasped and staggered backward with each body blow. I was careful to stand close to him and jab with quick thrusts of my arm, just like Rocky had. I concentrated on causing as much pain as I could with each punch. I concentrated so hard I didn’t hear my father approach from behind me, or notice the way the crowd stopped shouting encouragement.
And just a few minutes later, sitting in a kitchen chair and crying, I knew I wasn’t as tough as I had thought. I might be able to kick Stephen’s ass, but that was nothing compared to the power my father had over me just by raising his voice or mentioning the word “grounded.” And for all my “strength,” I found myself weakened by the ignorance that made it impossible to answer the question my father kept asking, standing in front of me, face flushed with anger.
“Just what made you think you had the right to hit your brother like that?”
Naturally, Stephen healed, and I was eventually allowed to go outside and play with my friends after school. I think my father even decided that I wasn’t really a bad boy, and that my brother and I had simply been playing too rough. To encourage us to channel our energy into more productive, athletic endeavors, my father bought us each a pair of boxing gloves—red and white, just like Rocky’s—that fit the hands of a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old perfectly.
II. Dangerous Habits
We all know the dangers of smoking—lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema. But still, people don’t quit. If you’ve never been addicted to something, it’s hard to explain why some of us feel like we absolutely need to feel the smoke enter our lungs. It’s a craving that’s hard to deny. Often, I’ll go for long periods of time without a cigarette, only to have the need come up again, unexpectedly, and I find myself standing outside, deeply inhaling the smoke that soothes.
On one Sunday night in the summer of 2001, I found myself once again overwhelmed by the urge as I struggled to pound out a first draft of my master’s thesis. My brother and I were sharing an apartment at the time, so I bummed a cigarette off of him and stepped outside for the sweet relief that only a Marlboro Light can really provide. The apartment, as far as I was concerned, was a non-smoking zone. If I’m going to have a cigarette, I told myself, I must suffer the elements, make it as unpleasant as possible. A way to discipline myself.
So I was standing outside, experiencing the euphoria that any fellow addict would understand, when, from around the corner of my building, two guys appeared. They looked like college athletes, slightly younger than me. The one in the lead was wearing a pair of shorts, and a t-shirt with a slogan on it. “No Fear,” or “Just Do It,” or something to that effect. His friend, walking slightly behind him, was wearing a pair of jeans, plain t-shirt, and a baseball hat, a can of Bud Light in his hand. He was taller, but the first guy was definitely more muscular. Either one would have been right at home in a mosh pit at a Limp Bizkit show.
“How’s it going?” the muscular one asked me.
“Okay,” I replied. “How about you?”
He smiled, shrugging his shoulders slightly. “I’d be a whole lot better if you’d give me a cigarette.”
“Oh, sorry,” I replied, gesturing with the hand that held my own cigarette. “I had to bum this one off someone else myself. I don’t really smoke anymore.”
“Yeah, right,” he said. He was still smiling, but something in his stare looked challenging.
“That’s okay,” his companion said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Yeah, it’s okay,” the muscular guy agreed. “It’s fine. You could give us money. Do you have any money?”
At this point, I began to inch closer to my building’s door, though I was certain I wouldn’t be able to unlock it and get inside fast enough, if the need arose. “No, sorry,” I answered. In truth, I only had a five dollar bill in my wallet, and that was all the money I had until the end of the week.
“Don’t worry about it,” the tall guy said. “Really, man, let’s go.”
“Tell you what,” the muscular guy said to me, ignoring his friend. “How about if I just fucking pound you?”
“He’s just joking,” his companion said quickly. “We need to go now.”
The muscular guy was still smiling. So I smiled back. This was some kind of joke. As long as I seemed cool, he wouldn’t really do anything, I figured. If I seemed scared or uptight or humorless, he would be offended. Just as long as I stayed cool…
“I’m not looking for any trouble,” I said, holding my hands up and tossing my cigarette butt to the side. “I should probably just go inside.”
“You live in the ghetto, man.” The neighborhood was mostly low-income families and college students. “You gotta expect this.” He was still smiling.
Stay cool, Bradley, I told myself. “No, I really don’t want any trouble.”
I was stumbling backwards before I really had a chance to process the fact that his fist was in the air, that it was connecting with my face. I did not fall down, though; I simply stepped back, into the parking lot, farther away from the door to my building.
He was still smiling as he hit me a second, then a third time. I still could not register that this was happening, that this strange kid with his charming smile and nicely-gelled hair was really attacking me. If he were serious, surely he’d stop smiling. As it was, he was just messing with me.
“Come on, stop,” I said as he paused between punches.
“Let’s go, man,” the tall guy said.
“You live in the fucking ghetto,” he reminded me as he hit me again.
Still, I did not fall down. I kept stumbling backwards, through the parking lot, but I stayed on my feet until I reached the lot’s edge, where I finally tripped and landed in the lawn next to the cement.
When he came down on top of me, still hitting, I finally realized that this was really happening. This was not a drunk’s idea of a joke, humor that I did not understand. This was an attack. And I was not doing anything to defend myself.
Despite my childhood love of violence, I am now a pacifist to the core. It has always been my belief that reason, logic, and a cool head should prevail. I had not raised a hand against a person since the eighth grade, when Chazz Widmer and I got into a rather pathetic, quickly broken-up fight in the hallways of Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School. Even more important than my belief that logic should always win out, though, was my belief that just about everyone was willing to listen to reason; no one really wants to engage in a brawl.
I was wrong.
As he hunched over me, punching my face, I understood that I had to do something. Physically. No amount of wit or rational discussion would end this. So I raised my hands to my face, and, with my legs, I kicked out and pushed him off of me.
He flew backwards and landed on his ass. I hadn’t meant to kick him that hard.
He seemed dazed. “Dude, did you just kick me?”
“No,” I answered. Then, quickly, “I didn’t mean to.”
“You kicked me.”
“I just wanted to get you off of me. If you stay here, I think I can find you a cigarette. Maybe some money.”
“You’re fucking dead,” was his reply as he flew towards me. He was not smiling anymore.
As he pounded me, I realized that, in his own way, he had just been messing with me before. He was not seriously fighting as he punched me across the parking lot; I had not given him reason to. But now, in his mind, I had. I can’t imagine that the kick really hurt; it had just been a surprise, and an embarrassment.
As I felt myself begin to drift into unconsciousness under his assault, I understood that he was not having fun. Now he was angry. And when he told me that I was dead, I’m afraid he meant it literally. When I think back on it, this is what worries me the most—this stranger, this college student, this human being, sincerely wanted to kill me.
I couldn’t force myself to move. So I yelled, to the tall guy in the baseball hat.
“Help me,” I cried. “Stop him.”
I couldn’t see anything, but the punches kept coming. Even if his friend was sympathetic to my plight, he wasn’t about to get his ass kicked too. So I yelled again.
“Somebody, please! Help me!”
More punches came, but then suddenly stopped.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I heard the tall guy say as his more muscular friend scrambled off of me.
I lifted my head up to see that a group of people from the neighborhood had come out and were watching from their porches. They weren’t moving forward to help, though—they were just watching someone get beaten up. But it was enough. There were witnesses now. The two young strangers ran off into the night.
My head fell back to the ground, and once again I felt myself start to fade off. Someone would come to help me, I figured. Someone else would take responsibility for me; I couldn’t be expected to stay awake after all that. But something kept me conscious, though, and it was a good thing—no one was coming near me. I finally managed to stand up. I went to wipe the sweat away from my face, and realized that I wasn’t sweating at all—I was covered in blood. In the houses and apartments around me, people were going back inside. The show was over.
I made my way across the parking lot and over to the door. I don’t recall unlocking the security door, but I must have. All I remember is tripping as I went up the stairs, spilling blood all over the carpets that had been shampooed the previous week.
I made my way down the hall, toward our apartment. I knew, once I was inside, that I’d be able to pull things together, think straight, and do whatever needed to be done. Steve would be there to help me, too. I’d assess the damage, I’d seek medical treatment, I’d contact the police. I would be okay.
But at the same time, I knew I’d learned something. My idealistic belief that no one really liked to see other people in pain, that violence and misfortune were born out of dire circumstances, that the essential goodness of human beings could be counted on, was gone. These were not inner-city kids lashing out at a perceived oppressor. These were not society’s unfortunate victims, latching onto whatever power they could claim. And even if they were, the reaction that this attack solicited from my neighbors—those fine specimens who stood on their porches, smoking their own cigarettes and drinking their own beers—proved in general: it’s not a good idea to rely on a theory of fundamental decency.
III. Land of the Free
I moved to the midwest to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in Columbia the summer that Toby Keith released his hit song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” wherein he growled to the world’s foreign wretches, “We’ll put a boot in yer ass—it’s the American way.” I found Missourians to be deceptively charming; for a brief time, I thought myself lucky to live in a community with relatively little crime and where people made eye contact when they asked a stranger, “How are you today?” But as the violence in Afghanistan was winding down and the blustery rhetoric defending military action against Iraq began heating up, I started having my doubts about my new home. The following March, in response to a letter of concern I had sent to him, Missouri’s popular senator Kit Bond wrote to me. “By preempting Saddam,” his form letter reply claimed, “I am assured we may be saving the lives of countless Americans.” That Saddam had never attacked America before was not mentioned, nor was the fact that inspectors had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Someone felt that America might potentially be threatened someday, maybe, and the rush to war had begun.
It turned out we liberal types were right. Just as I had no cigarette to give the kid who mugged me, Iraq had no chemical or biological weapons to justify our attack on them. No nuclear program, either. Still, people continued to support the war. They attached American flags and magnetic ribbon to their vehicles, not just to support war, they insisted, but also to Support the Troops in their battle overseas.
Funny thing, though. On one unusually warm November afternoon, I found myself late for class because I stopped to watch a fight in the middle of the “Speaker’s Circle,” the designated “free speech area” on campus for demonstrations and public addresses. It was normally occupied by fire-and-brimstone preachers who told young women that they dressed like whores and young men that their penises would lead them to an eternity in flames, but on this day, the Thursday after the one-thousandth U.S. soldier died in Iraq, a young woman in Birkenstocks and a long, flowing skirt sat on a metal chair in the center of the Circle with a megaphone to her lips, reading from a list.
“Ludlam, Jason C. Lugo, Jacob R….”
By the time I arrived on the scene, she was right around the halfway mark. A gathering of onlookers surrounded her—supporters, the kids with hemp necklaces and hackysacks, or professors in sports coats who still felt that radical twinge, and others, not there to show solidarity. Kids with arms folded across their chests, rolling their eyes with cynical exasperation. Stupid hippie, their look seemed to say. Stupid, stupid hippie. But one of them—a heavy-set guy in a loud shirt featuring various shades of blue swirling into each other—was more than exasperated. He was angry.
“Fuck you,” he screamed at her as he entered the center of the Circle with her. “You traitor!”
She continued to read. “MacDonald, Gregory E. Machado-Olmos, Cesar F….”
“Shut up,” he yelled, standing right beside her chair, leaning forward to get in close. “What makes you think you have the right?” he demanded. “What gives you the right to exploit those people?”
She hesitated, then continued reading. “Mack, Vorn J. Maher, William J….”
“Those people didn’t die so that you could use their names in your propaganda.”
“It’s not propaganda,” she replied, not turning the megaphone off. It didn’t matter, though. Between her own soft voice and her opponent’s shouting, I had to strain to hear her.
“You want to hate America, that’s fine. But go somewhere else. We don’t want or need you here.” He was obviously deeply committed to his position, as he was turning bright red, this frat boy in his party shirt, as he loomed over her. Like a cartoon version of angry, where the villain turns crimson and bares his teeth in his fury. “And stop exploiting our troops,” he added.
For a moment, I was afraid he was going to hit her, but a couple of young guys with long hair and thin, wispy beards stepped up. “Back the fuck off,” one of the hippie kids said, puffing out his chest and trying—against his better nature—to appear menacing. For their part, the friends of Party Shirt stayed back. They might be for the war, but they clearly weren’t interested in engaging in violence against another American simply because she disagreed with them.
The screaming continued, between the pro-war guy and the young neo-radicals. The woman went back to reading from her list. Campus police showed up and Party Shirt lost his bluster almost immediately, stepping away from the circle and answering their questions in a lower tone that I could not make out. But I could hear the, “Yes sir, okay,” that ended the conversation and sent the young neocon back towards the student union, away from the demonstration.
I was five minutes late to class, so I jogged, bag slung over my shoulder, wondering just when I’d fallen through the looking glass, to a world where the public acknowledgement of a dead soldier’s humanity was inarguably an act of political subversion. Part of me wondered how much further we could fall, but most of me was afraid to find out, certain that the center could not possibly hold for much longer.
IV. Hopeless and Decadent
After the 2004 election—much like after a bad break-up—I took comfort in sad songs. John Cale and Morrissey would accompany me on my morning walk, each singing haunting melodies of alienation and loss. Cale’s “Set Me Free” sounded like it might have been written for America in 2004, with its ending refrain of “You don’t want to be free/ You don’t want to be free…” And had Morrissey’s mournful cry for rebellion and the power of the individual “Irish Blood, English Heart” been called “Irish Blood, American Heart,” it would have been my theme song.
After the walk, I would spend the rest of the morning sitting in my office, reading the essays of old, bitter dead people. Sei Shonagon, who wrote, “A newcomer pushes ahead of the other members in a group; with a knowing look, this person starts laying down the law and forcing advice upon everyone—most hateful.” Or William Hazlitt, who asked, “[H]ave I not reason to hate and to despise myself?” and answered his own question, “Indeed I do; chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.” I don’t think I really understood these essays when I read them for the first time; it’s only the last five years or so that I feel the weight and relevance of what they have to say.
That’s not to say that I spent the end of 2004 and beyond in a constant state of anxiety, trying to match the anger of long-dead essayists to my own, taking comfort in depressing melodies. I got married in January of 2005, and found myself completely unable to remain vigilantly outraged at a time when things were going so well in my personal life, though there was, of course, still plenty to be angry about.
In the months that surrounded our wedding, we learned that the administration had “fixed” intelligence in order to justify their war, that the government was illegally eavesdropping on our phone calls, and that our leaders had approved a plan of “extraordinary rendition” that basically outsourced prisoner interrogations to countries that don’t hesitate to use brutal—often sexual—violence in order to coerce information from prisoners. I confess, with each revelation I was of two minds. On the one hand, my sensitive side responded with dismay—so many innocent people, hurt by our government’s disregard for ethics and decency. But the more pragmatic, political side of my personality would rub its hands together. “Ah-ha,” my darker nature seemed to say, “finally, they’ve taken things too far—the people surely will not stand for this.”
But stand for it they did. In fact, they chose to ignore evidence of their leader’s wrongdoing, focusing instead on the frivolous “news stories” concerned with a make-believe “War on Christmas,” or the feud between Brooke Shields and Tom Cruise, or—worst of all, if you ask me—the growing “threat” of Mexicans coming into our country and not immediately learning English. “I’m proud of my country” became the new “I’m proud of the glorious white race” in the vocabularies of racists everywhere.
If I sound sanctimonious, it’s because I am. I’m quite good at pointing out the flaws in other people, but not nearly as good at acknowledging the same flaws in myself. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’m at least as guilty as my fellow Americans when it comes to laziness and apathy. Some Americans spent the Bush years distracted with the nonsense spewed on Fox News; I distracted myself with champagne and sex and dinner parties and candle light. At least the Fox News viewer who didn’t rise up to fight the power had an excuse; he didn’t necessarily know how bad things really were in 2004, because he received his information from a source that reassured him that the country was on the right track and that his complacency was perfectly acceptable. I, on the other hand, knew that I disapproved of my country and my president, as well as the slaughter happening in my name, and yet I found myself enjoying life and its romantic distractions anyway. So my smugness should be understood to be completely unjustified.
V. Free to Hate
My attacker, as it turned out, was often a very nice boy. He had a history of mental problems and was on antipsychotic medications that, unfortunately, lost their effectiveness when mixed with alcohol. So try as I may, I can’t totally blame him for the scar I now have in my right eyebrow, from where his class ring ripped apart my flesh. It was not something he could control, and the pacifist in me understands—most of the time. What I do not understand, and what I will never understand, is the reaction of those who lived in my neighborhood when they heard my cries for help. Come out, watch, then shrug. “Not my problem,” they must have thought. Or, “Someone fucked someone else’s girlfriend, or stole his bike, or did something. He must have deserved it.” Here’s a comforting lie we can tell ourselves: the target of violence must have deserved it. Further, if we knew the whole story, we’d understand why there’s suffering in the world, and we’d be okay with it, so we might as well resign ourselves to it now and not try to prevent suffering. So we’ll make excuses for thugs from all walks of life—from muggers to senators—and train our children to fight as well, to inflict suffering before it is inflicted upon them. We’ll even make boxing gloves in children’s sizes, to drive the point home.
My wife and I live in Florida now, professors in the English Department at a research university. We like the sun and the beach and our colleagues. We like sitting on the porch at midnight, drinking wine and feeling warm, even though it’s late September and our history tells us that this is the time of year we should be breaking out our light jackets. We like to wake up next to each other and talk about what we’d just been dreaming (Accusatory: “I dreamed you were cheating on me.” Bewildered: “I dreamed that we lived in a tree house with a talking zebra.”). We like working together, and we like the discussions and even the disagreements that arise between us as two people who do very similar—though not exactly the same—jobs. In short, we both like life.
However, we do not like the arrogant posturing of young men who drive massive pick-up trucks with Confederate flag novelty plates and “Terrorist Hunting License” window stickers. We don’t like the middle-aged women in Donna Karan suits who walk through the mall with sneers on their face as they pass the Emo kids who shop at Hot Topic. We don’t like that someone—presumably, a student at our university—walked into a lecture hall last week, sat down in the back, and began announcing loudly to the professor all the way at the front of the room, “I’m trying to disrupt your class. I’m trying to disrupt your class.” We don’t like the knowledge that, for many people, aggressive ignorance is confused with virtue.
We certainly don’t like the racism that exists just below the surface in our community, which manifests itself on the online messageboards of our local newspaper. One recent article, concerned with rising crime rates in the area, elicited particularly nasty responses. “What do you expect?” one reader wrote. “More blacks come here than any other place in America.” And another: “young black men dont want to work cause they can sit on their ass and collect welfare instead i see it every single day when i go into appartment buildings to work they are LAZY and UNCIVILIZED they piss in hallways too.” And, perhaps the best, “Lay off the blacks (unless you’re talking about haitians).”
I would like to be a force for positive change, to become someone who is ethical, intelligent, and humane. But sometimes, I find myself getting bitter, and sometimes I find that hatred can be contagious—it can be hard to resist the temptation to tell the sneering rich mall shopper to wipe that ugly look off her face, or invite aggressive college students to bite me, or point out that the reason some people have the free time to post hate speech on the World Wide Web is precisely because they are even lazier than the ethnic minorities they like to hate so much.
Often, I just want to leave. I fantasize about sitting down for a few weeks and writing a romance novel according to some publisher’s formula. Or perhaps learning just enough about forensic pathology to fake my way through writing a bad mystery novel. Do something, anything, to make a little bit of money, and run away with my wife and all the stuff we can fit into our suitcases.
“Where do you want to go?” I’ve asked Emily many Friday nights once we’ve started our second bottle of wine. “Paris? We could do Paris.”
“Prague,” Emily will answer. Or sometimes, “London.” Or, once, “Venice.”
It’s just a fantasy, though. We’ll never go. And not just because it’s completely unrealistic to expect that I could learn how to write a trashy genre novel well enough to make money at it—even the worst genre writers know things about their genre that I never will. And not because we’re so committed to our ideals that we’ve pledged to stay in our country and continue fighting the good fight, no matter the cost. I wish we were that good. But we are not.
The truth is, we are afraid to go. We could get by in a foreign culture easily enough; the real concern comes from the fear that the culture might not be foreign enough. We might discover that there’s nowhere on earth where human life is valued, that indifference to suffering is always a given, that the symptoms manifesting in America indicate a more widespread, global epidemic. The problem, I fear, isn’t Americans, so much as the human condition in the 21st century. Hatred doesn’t exist in just one ideology after all; if it did, I wouldn’t be so shamefully hateful myself.
Have faith though, I think, as I struggle to silence these thoughts and go to sleep at the end of a frustrating day. People will come around. I’m trying to believe that our natural inclination is towards enlightened thought. In my more honest, less arrogant moments, I don’t think I’m particularly smart or empathetic, but I can recognize injustice, and—if I can avoid distraction—fight against it without going insane from anger, others will do so too. It’s what this country was founded upon, after all. These truths are self-evident; we don’t even have to think about them too hard. We’ll get better. And if I force myself, I can sometimes overcome my own hatred and almost believe in fundamental decency again.
William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He lives in Murfreesboro, NC, where he and his wife teach English at Chowan University.