21 Sep

The first time I took a course of action suggested by a political philosopher I’d just turned 16. The lesson was a good one, the philosopher was Ghandi. The reason the lesson was good was that it proved the philosophy didn’t work.

The background’s important. Some 6 months before, I’d gotten into a fight in the bush out back of our neighborhood. He was a large lad, bigger than me, older; large belly and muscles I didn’t have yet. I’ve always been a shy kinda lad but red hair compensates for that when the time comes.This time I was more effective than I realized I could be. He went down. I left. A week later, a girl from the neighborhood told me I’d busted three of his ribs.

I do not now, nor have I ever, enjoyed fighting. Win or lose I’ve always had a sunken feeling in the guts. Except now that was accompanied by the horror that comes of realizing how ferocious you can be. And how near deadly – I broke his ribs. There were no parental reprisals. I’ve no idea to this day if his parents ever knew I did it. We never discussed it. By the end of the year we’d become friends, partners in the petty crimes of adolescence. Boys!

‘Round this time I had a decent history teacher for a change and we were learning about India and Pakistan. The push for independence, the partition into two countries, sundry hostilities that explained a fleeting memory of mine. I was inspired by Ghandi’s creed of non-violent resistance. What guts? To stand and face bullets, to just take it. How clear the injustice, how well embossed a line dividing right and wrong.

Ghandi inspired me and God tested me thus: sometime about halfway thru the tenth grade I got picked. The challenger? Well if you wanted to cast the part of In-Bred Brother #2 for Louisiana Swamp Psycho Zombies III, he’d do. He came over, punched me in the guts, and grinned like a donkey. I managed to postpone it ’til after school.

All afternoon, adrenaline waves. Adrenaline is physical fear. Courage is the capacity to subject this intense feeling to reason. I was afraid of this guy. And I was enraged at him too. I didn’t want it, didn’t have it coming. Fuck him, how dare he! I considered running, wagging the home-room mark-off. I thought about what it would take to win. He was bigger than me, stronger than me. I couldn’t match that. But he was stone-cold stupid… And the Ghandi thing wove all the way thru it. I kept shoving it to the side, it’s crazy. I knew this guy would not stop. That he would get me down and belt me senseless. But would the inevitable crowd intervene if they saw that I was not fighting back?

If there’s some image in your heads of a noble young fella puffin’ up his chest carrying a cross down to the oval to get his head punched in for Ghandi forget it. I went to the home-room mark-off and sincerely hoped he’d forgotten. But no. There he was running up to my home room door like a frisky puppy with its tongue dragging along the ground. He had a few other frisky puppies in tow: all good fun. He’d been looking forward to this all day. So down we went and as we went I checked him out and decided to go for his solar plexus. Stay out of his way until I could land an elbow there. Male fantasy, understand. We got down and there was a crowd. It started.

He hit me, I let him. It usually looks far worse than it feels and this wasn’t different. I stood up, he hit me again. It took longer to stand up this time and doing so I realized I was doing the Ghandi thing. He hit me again three, four times and then it was over. Even now I can’t remember his name. He was one of the genetic lottery’s losers. A lurching, ungainly kid, ill-washed, always near the bottom of every bell curve bar PE where he was merely average. Ugly. I don’t remember any hatred coming from him. And thinking on him so many years later I understand that that was all he had.. He wasn’t even that good at fighting. And he felt so good. He’d won. Something.

And the crowd? The aftermath lasted a semester and it manifested most intensely in Speech and Drama class where two boys thought it open season on me three days a week. Nothing physical, just intense humiliation. No-one protested.

Well I didn’t have to take it but I’m stubborn. It took me years to admit I was wrong. That Ghandi was wrong. It’s clear to me now that Ghandi’s philosophy is indeed guilty of the errors George Orwell saw. The crowd will take your side only if it’s an enlightened crowd. The old maxim holds: if you want peace you have to prepare for war. By not fighting I invited aggression. It’s an animal thing. The herd sides with the victor. But was Ghandi wrong? I haven’t hit anyone since I broke that guys ribs. There’ve been occasions but I won’t hit anyone unless I really have to, even if they’ve hit me. I haven’t had to.

I’ve known people who’re accustomed to solving problems with violence. I know that, collectively, all governed places solve their problems with violence (the professional, authorized type). It’s not as simple as just saying ”no’. No doesn’t work. But we get better, we bonehead apes, slowly. The pack of us cheer for physical victory. But one by one there’s something that goes in the opposite direction. This big loser who bashed sense into me, I was wrong about him. He never hit me when I was down.


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