We’re Not Popeye, Y’all

violence isn't the answer
The real American Way?

I wish I could say we all agree that violence is bad no matter where it comes from, but everyone knows that’s not true. For many people, violence is not only acceptable, it’s the preferred option. And, I’m not talking about Muslims, either: I’m talking about us. Our foreign policy, our obsession with guns and the prevalence of violent acts in entertainment media all point to the fact that Americans love violence. Well, it’s more accurate to say we love violence that we control. Violence from other quarters? Not so much. That violence is evil and, along with the people who perpetrate it, must be met with derision, disdain and, most importantly, a superior violence of our own. Where has that gotten us? A strategically important region (the Middle East) that is critically destabilized, two wars that helped crash our economy and a reputation as a world bully. If Dr. Phil were to ask us, “How’s that working out for you?” the answer wouldn’t good.

Americans are in love with the idea of “redemptive violence”, of which Rob Bell says, “The myth of redemptive violence – Caesar, peace, and victory – is in people’s bones so deeply, we aren’t even aware of it. You crush the opposition; that’s how we bring peace.” I think this is right on the money except for one thing: the idea that “we aren’t even aware of it.” I believe the only thing we’re not of aware of is the “myth” aspect.

Why is that? Why do people who consistently swear and affirm that they are Christians and the United States is a Christian nation think/act/behave in such an unChrist-like manner? Because, when it comes to violence, we learned our lessons from fucking Popeye cartoons instead of Jesus.

In his essay, “The Myth of Redemptive Violence“, Walter Wink wrote

“Few cartoons have run longer or been more influential than Popeye and Bluto. In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming and kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth. Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honour Olive Oyl’s humanity, and repeated pummelings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.”

Makes things a lot clearer, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I like Popeye. As a child of the 60’s, I love cartoons and still watch them every chance I get. But, I don’t think Popeye (which isn’t the most well made or thought out cartoon) should form the basis of our approach to violence. Popeye works because it appeals to our love of the triumphant underdog and seeing the bad guy get what’s coming to him. But, as Wink points out, no one ever learns anything from the violence. Not even Popeye; who you’d think, in addition to learning to eat the god-damned spinach before the fight, would figure out that jumping on someone who’s so much bigger will probably lead to an ass-kicking.

Unfortunately, Americans are just as clueless as any character in a Popeye cartoon. We continue to meet other’s violence with our own, thinking that either it will somehow “fix” things or it’s “the only thing those bastards understand”. Sometimes, both. But, here’s something no one in this country seems to get: in this scenario, we’re not Popeye, we’re Bluto.

I know that might be a little hard to take, especially for people of my generation who’ve had this myth pouned into them from birth.  But, think about it for a minute: Popeye is the smaller, weaker underdog while Bluto is the bigger stronger favorite who takes whatever he wants. A quick look at history will show that we haven’t been the smaller, weaker party in a fight since The War of 1812. And, since the end of World War II, we’ve pretty much been taking whatever we wanted. If the Popeye scenario holds true, one of these days, some little guy we’ve been pushing around is going to eat his spinach and kick the shit out of us.

So, how do we prevent this (admittedly deserved) nightmare from happening? Maybe we could start acting like that Christian nation some people like to claim we are, turning the other cheek and loving our enemies instead of grinding them into the dust. I know that’s a lot to ask, but it’s not like what we’re doing is working all that well.