Paul Newman’s 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, the apex of journeyman Stuart Rosenberg’s directorial career, imbued popular culture with many iconic scenes and memorable lines. (“What we have here – is failure to communicate.” “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”) Among the famous scenes is that of the prison camp boxing match between George Kennedy’s alpha prisoner (the role that won him an Oscar and made him famous) and Newman’s smaller Luke.
As expected, Kennedy’s “Dragline” beats Luke good. But Luke will not stay down. He is woozily staggering with every blow, even knocked down by some of the head shots, but each time, against cries from his fellow prisoners and advice from Dragline to finally stay down and put an end to his whupping, the unconquerably recalcitrant Luke keeps rising up for more. Finally, Dragline just walks away, defeated in victory, and Luke has earned the heroic worship of all.
In addition to its inherent quality as a film and the quintessential, natural, non-hipster cool of its leading man, Cool Hand Luke was a film for its time. In an age of defining cultural rebellion, the film exalted the spirit of resistance against crushing, inhuman authority – in the film itself, the sadistic authority of a chain gang, for the culture that received it, any presiding force that would quash individual autonomy and personality.
The valorization of resistance as a human attribute is longstanding. From the slave rebellion of Spartacus and Masada to democracy creating revolutions and the Warsaw uprisings, the human spirit is stirred and encouraged to persist by the spirit of resistance. Most commonly since the Enlightenment, we see an ultimate expression of human nature in the natural uprising against oppressive forces.
In the United States, on Thanksgiving, we celebrate a story of resistance. That is not how most people think of the day, but that is one perspective on the story. We say we honor some congenial meal in which surviving Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony feasted with Massasoit and his men. But celebrations of survival, too, are testaments to resistance – resistance to the elements, to the forces of nature and circumstance, to those who may be aligned against us. We resist defeat in many ways.
Native America has a different perspective on the Thanksgiving holiday. That attendee of the first Thanksgiving Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, engaged in his own resistance. He resisted over his lifetime as best he could the encroachment of the colonists on Wampanoag land and attempts to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity. Massasoit and all those who came after him lost in their resistance.
A lesson in this is that resistance, for all we exalt its spirit, neither endows any instance of it with justice, nor ennobles the goal in the service of which it stands its ground and refuses to bend. Neither victory nor loss are determinants of justice. The spirit may be willing, but the cause is weak. In the United States, the Mafia has resisted American law and its enforcement. In Mexico, drug cartels resist even the government’s militarized effort to stamp them out. During the Iraq War, there was an Iraqi insurgency – a resistance movement – and those even who claim to promote social justice who supported it and cheered the idea of it.
In the world today, many of the values of the international regime of laws, of human rights evaluation and critique, and of ideological sympathy are misguided by just such a disjunction between the spirit and the flesh – the actual substance of justice. The rules of a legal and human rights superstructure – the products of millennia of moral development – are abstracted from their substantial existence in the free, democratic nations that haltingly advance them and, in reality, often used as weapons against these very embodiments of the spirit.
Even honesty in itself is an empty shade if it is not in the service of a good. Shall we honestly express every critical and even accurate opinion of every potentially hurtful kind to those around us whom we love?
Resistance in itself is nothing. In the name of what – what ideas, what dream of human relationship – do we resist? Against what do we resist?
No honest consideration of ongoing conflict between Hamas controlled Gaza and Israel, between any anti-Semitic or Islamist culture and Israel, can take place without addressing these questions.
Just over ten years ago, I was present at a large show and party at my wife Julia’s relatively new gallery – before, after that night, we both understood that security would always be necessary. I was alerted midway through the evening that a man none of our friends knew had been obnoxious to several women. None of the women had complained or made a scene, however, and there seemed no overt basis on which to take any action.
At the end of the evening, while saying goodbye near the door to some last visitors, I was told by a good friend that back in Julia’s office, where a few close friends were gathered privately, this man was present and refusing to leave. I went back to speak to him. He was beside Julia. I politely, regretfully advised him that the show was over and that we needed visitors to leave. He ignored me, asked a personal question of Julia, who uncomfortably declined to answer it, and when I saw that, though I was standing right in front of him, the man would not even look at me, I told him, at the point that he reached for Julia’s arm, that if he did not leave, I would have to call the police.
“How fast can you get to the phone?” the man replied, and lunged at me.
Taken by surprise, I was backed against a wall, where I began to struggle with the man. Two male friends quickly jumped in and the four of us tumbled to the floor in a heap of grappling bodies.
We have probably all seen video of men apparently very high on a drug who display extraordinary strength and require multiple police officers after very great effort and struggle, to restrain them. This man was such a man. He seemed high and irrational. One person who vaguely knew him thought, on the contrary, that he might actually be off his meds. Regardless, though all four of us were of roughly equal size, it took all the effort that three of us could muster to gain control of the man and restrain him on the floor, where he never ceased his resistance. Any let up by any one of us saw the serious attempt by the man to throw that person off him. Any one of us would have been beaten by him. Even two of us would not have been able to control him.
Others present called the police. In the meantime, for the twenty minutes it took the police to arrive, there was no let up for the three of us in exerting ourselves to retain control. We told the man many times that if he calmed down, we would let up on him. He only fought back harder in response. Sometimes one of us might feel exceptionally angered by the man’s ferocity and exert himself, arguably, too forcefully, and the other two would check him. The man all this time, whenever his face was positioned to do it, would spit on us, until we had to expend ourselves to assert even more control and hold his face pressed to the ground so that he could no longer reach us with his spit.
More naturally violent people than we, of whom there are many, would not have been satisfied with controlling the man’s violence and would have brutally ended the conflict with what would necessarily have been a very violent beating. Indeed, were there no police to come to the rescue, there would have been no alternative to that violent beating, and there would have been much bodily and other physical damage all around.
When the police finally did arrive, the scene they found was one of four bodies so entwined on the ground that in taking control of the situation they had actually to touch arms and legs and ask to whom each one belonged. Certainly, the entangled circumstance into which they walked told no obvious story, though it would have been easy to conclude that three men had ganged up on a fourth.
Everyone present confirmed the same account, however, and our troubled gallery goer was escorted to a cell.
That’s my account anyway, the only one you have. You have to believe me, and if you think you have some reason to mistrust me, perhaps some ideological dispute, you may think I have slanted or even entirely misrepresented elements of the story. I think I am a fairly swell guy, but wouldn’t you know that there are people out there who, on the basis of things I have written, have had some not very nice things to say to me?
Of course, there are some events and histories that have considerably greater public and evidentiary records than my wrestling match just off the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Oddly, for some people, that does not make a difference.
People resist the truth, too.