Thursday, February 14, 2008

Eugene Robinson Interview: Part II

We continue our compelling discussion with author Eugene Robinson on the topic of fighting and its consequences.


TSS: These kinds of behaviors are not uniquely human, at least in terms of the violence itself…

ER: I disagree, but go ahead.

TSS: Oh, really?

ER: Yeah, I think the violence part is uniquely human. David Grossman writes that the way humans employ violence to solve their problems is markedly different than the way animals do it.

TSS: It is, but violence in and of itself is not uniquely human however our ways of intellectualizing it are, and providing meaning and context to it. At any point in researching for the book did you find yourself disagreeing with the way some of these guys were intellectualizing their violent proclivities?

ER: Prior to meeting him, I had the hardest time with Kevin Weeks (Weeks was a lieutenant in James “Whitey” Bulger’s Boston mob set, the Mafioso that provided the basis for Martin Scorcese’s crime film The Departed –ed.). In terms of the story arc I had a hard time making sense of why I would want to put what I thought might be a convicted murderer in the book. What he has done in his life far exceeds any meditation on interpersonal combat. After reading his book I thought he might have an important perspective on the Irish immigrant experience and the urban experience, plus he had 70+ fights with only two losses. He was nothing if not a competitor and I found myself running out of reasons to exclude him.

It got really confusing because I liked the guy, but I wanted to ensure that I didn’t end up lionizing what I believe to be substandard behaviors. I grew to understand that in the context of his universe, his oath of service was much like a soldier’s. I’m still trying to make sense of it and so is he, which is what makes him such an interesting character study. How he’s attempted to square himself with his past I think is honorable. Less interesting to me is how he’s trying to fashion a future out of it. It’s the whole lion in winter syndrome, you know…what happens to the aging tough guy? Which interests me because I’m an aging tough guy (laughs).

TSS: As you get older do you struggle with your past behaviors, which at the time were necessity but are now a commodity you're selling?

ER: I don’t really know if they were ever necessity. There’s not a single fight that I’ve had that I couldn’t have walked away from. The thing is that this stuff is in your blood. Just like the example of the guy talking too loud in the next booth, I’m telling him to shut up 100% of the time. I am constitutionally disinclined to let that kind of behavior slide because it’s a subtle form of bullying. He’s breaking the social contract, which is in place everywhere at all times. All of these other people are modulating their voices…if they were at home, they’d probably be louder. They’re adhering to the social contract. I'm not remorseful about my past choices and I'm using them to tell a story.

TSS: Do you see these lines as universal and immutable, or do they vary from person to person?

ER: I see them as universal and immutable. It’s just like good art or pornography…I know it when I see it. This is when our animal natures actively and healthily come into play. Everyone can feel that temperature change when you know you’re in the presence of a bully. When someone is violating the social contract, we all know it and have our choice of response.

TSS: We all have those lines, whether we draw them intuitively or they are universal. In Chapter 13, titled “I Killed a Man,” we get a glimpse of what happens when that ultimate line is crossed and a fight ends in a fatality. The rest of the book is a fun ride filled with knife-wielding commandos, bar fighters, etc. and then you throw this curve ball in there…

ER: Yeah, I wanted a chapter that would make people stop laughing for 5 seconds. I wanted the reader to know that I know what the logical extension of all this stuff is, you know, sh*t like this…that a daughter’s father is dead on the sidewalk at 3 in the morning because of some stupid sh*t.

TSS: What are the lessons from that chapter?

ER: It’s really not so much about a lesson but rather a depiction of people that are driven by issues of the blood. It’s like Sylvester in the Cat in those cartoons. I know the bird is not that tasty, but I’ve gotta go after it, you know. You can see from this guy’s story that he’s just incapable of doing it any other way. He sees a guy beating his wife, stealing a purse, or whatever then that Superman complex is going to kick in. I wanted to touch on one of those characters that took fighting beyond sport, recreation, or whatever. He said he felt bad looking across the courtroom at the guy’s daughter but I have a suspicion that if that night were to repeat itself 1000 times, he would do it the same way. There’s something about the unrepentant nature of extremely dire circumstances that I found compelling.

TSS: After hearing his story, have you thought about the possibility of this happening to you, given the situations you encounter with Oxbow shows, etc?

ER: Well, when you train and you get skilled enough you can make healthy decisions much longer into the process of a fight. When I have an encounter I can modulate how much of a beating will be dished out and meet the situation with an appropriate level of response.

The guy in Chapter 13 had only been training about a year, and I’ve learned that in the life of a martial artist those early months and first year are the most dangerous times for you and everyone around you. People often know just enough to be dangerous; they don’t back down from confrontations that perhaps they should, or even seek them out as a way to test what they’ve learned, etc. If he had trained longer he may have been able to better control the moment and not cross the line.

Stories like this are why I favor the grappling arts because grappling is about control, whereas striking is about chaos. There are so many variables when you hit someone. How hard do I have to hit him to stop him? I don’t want to seriously hurt him, but if I don’t hit him hard enough I’ll have to hit him again, you know. That’s why I usually use strikes only to setup the grappling so I can control the situation.

To Be Continued…

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