Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.
--Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scivener: A Story of Wall-Street"
The quote from Melville ties in at the bottom, but first, thanks to my friend JDG, I've been thinking about the Drunken Fist style of fighting as an explanation for pretty much everything happening in the 21st Century. The Drunken Fist totally explains the eel-like slipperiness of Donald J. Trump along with the Democrats' earnest inability to grab him and hold on.
His hallmark has been getting away with outrageous breaches of decorum -- “Do you believe in Santa Claus? I know it’s marginal at seven.” The artlessness of saying such a thing to a seven-year-old is beyond parody, as is “Look at my African American.” To criticize such is to get sucked into a whole different energy, where you'll always look like a pursed-lip librarian.
Trump’s not the first American president who could disarm his opponents by being willing to play the fool. On camera once, George W. Bush, on the golf course, talking about the Middle East -- "We've got to stop the terror" -- then ending with, “Watch this drive,” and hitting a good line shot. “See ya in church,” he says, and drives off in his electric cart. We all know it’s somehow wrong behavior or silly tone-deafness for a president, but trying to explain why it’s wrong only comes across as a fuddy-duddy's self-parody.
Abbie Hoffman – he nominated a pig for president, he levitated the Pentagon, and when our elders brought him up as an example of godless unAmericanism, didn't they all sound like impossibly square citizens who didn't even recognize that the joke's on them.
That’s the heart of it. That's the secret of the drunken fist.
"Drunken Fist" as Kung-Fu Style
I'm aware there's a bunch of movies exploring the drunken Kung-Fu fighter, but I haven't seen them and clearly I need to. Drunken Fist, I found out, is considered a "bona fide style" in the Kung-Fu schools and uses footwork and surprise strikes "developed out of the stumbling gait of a drunken fool." It's a technique used by the accomplished kung fu master when trying to confuse and trick his opponents "into thinking he is incapacitated, insignificant, and unworthy of attention."
Recently (if you'll indulge me), I was socially incapacitated, like by a drunken fist, when the energy I was exhibiting met a totally different wave. Here's the story: I heard while deep inside my house a loud banging somewhere out in our front yard, which was shielded by plantings of shrubs and trees. So I walked out there and came on a scene on the very grass that I mow, an employee of the DOT pounding into the turf, on my property (the state owns zero right of way on Old 421), a big steel post for a highway sign.
The man's wearing ear plugs, because the work is loud. He can't hear me at first, sees me gesticulating behind him, jerks out the earplugs, and I repeat, "We own this property, all the way to the pavement."
That tickled him. "You probably own to the center of the pavement." He said it in the best good humor, and I knew he was right, for when the old 421 was built in the early '30s, the state retained no right of way. We learned that when they wanted to put a gasline through our yard and take out three 70-year-old shade trees. The man from DOT was laughing at the obviousness of it.
I countered with, "We didn't get any notification that this was happening." And that tickled him even more. "Oh, we never do that!" like I'm an idiot for thinking such a thing. The state doesn't need right of way to regulate the road, obviously, or there'd be no signage at all on Old 421. And in that moment, I'm completely defeated. After a little more apologetic fact-finding by me, I slink off back to the house and report to higher authorities. Embarassing.
When I tell this story, laughing at my own weakness, JDG says, "You got drunken-fisted." Thereby launching a discussion that's been going on now for days.
It's all about energy, cooling or confusing an opponent's own aggressive energy or his assumed social dominance. And then Pow! the uppercut you didn't see coming. It's Donald Trump when he tries "dancing" on stage, his little hands in fists and his arms pulled up like chicken legs, and those little dainty steps. Then a minute later he's stirring up people to look forward to a day of violence and vengeance on his enemies.
How do you counter the politician who would be King, if he's playing the fool?
Bartleby the Scivener as Model Drunken-Fister
JDG reminded me of Bartleby, the Herman Melville character who works at a Wall Street law office as a hand copier of legal documents, a well paid job in the 1850s (waaay before typewriters and copier machines), and who one day begins refusing certain tasks. "I would prefer not to." That line from that story became a knowing joke in my day, when many of the anti-war university crowd that I was adjacent to quoted it as comeuppance for the establishment, especially, say, the Selective Service.
"I would prefer not to" -- its mysterious politeness mixed with brazen affrontery has puzzled generations of readers and spawned multiple high falutin interpretations about the meaning of Bartleby's placid (and ultimately self-destructive) stubbornness. As the story progresses, Bartleby's Wall Street employer -- who's actually telling this story -- is totally disarmed and defeated as an employer. Bartleby unaccountably remains in the office all the time, day and night, and prefers not to do any number of things including eventually refusing to recognize his own dismissal from the firm. Ultimately, and to the employer's actual guilty regret, he's physically removed from the premises but remains perched on the stairs outside until he's carted off to an asylum where he dies, still preferring not to.
Here's the first appearance of "I would prefer not to" in the story:
Imagine my surprise … when … Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied,"I would prefer not to."
"Prefer not to," echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride, "What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here--take it," and I thrust it towards him.
"I would prefer not to," said he.
I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.
"Had there been any thing ordinarily human about him." I can't but flash on the Trump we know, and I feel like I understand the principle that playing the fool can be an almost infallible first step to turning the tables.