It has been a harrowing few weeks in America as our government is making the case that the United States needs to declare war on Syria. The US Government was content to let Bashar al-Assad’s regime butcher thousands of Syria’s civilians by conventional means, but the use of chemical weapons apparently represents a casus belli from the world community.
Not that the United Nations will become involved. America’s representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Samantha Power, has declared that the United States will likely eschew the backing of the international governing body once again, because the U.N. Security Council has got Russians and Chinese people on it, so it’s complicated. But America must act!
You can read the rest of her argument here.
I could rehash the strategic catastrophe that is the last decade of US wars in the Middle East, and shred all of the paltry arguments I have heard in favorite of bombing Syria for peace. Instead, I’m going to suggest that before we decide on any more wars in Arab nations, every American should sit down and watch Rocky.
Not Rocky 3, where Mr. T kills Mickey. Not Rocky 4, the one where we proxy-kick the Russians’ ass by beating Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren in front of Danish actress Brigitte Nielsen. No, I’m talking “Rocky,” the Best Picture Academy Award winner of 1976 , written by and starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Avildsen. That film is the key to getting America’s soul back.
Rocky: America in the dog days of survival
Rocky is a film about American losers.
The backdrop for the film is South Philadephia, Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s. Everything you see sucks, and everybody you meet is a complete and total, sad sack loser. Rocky, Paulie, Mickey, Adrian, the entire city of Philly – maybe the entire American way of life – is dirty, smelly, and has seen better days.
Rocky Balboa is a boxer, but as the film opens, he’s doing illegal fights in a nasty beer hall. He is not a champion – he’s a guy who makes ends meet by working at a meat packing plant and serving as muscle for a pathetic, small time gangster. And even that guy doesn’t have any respect for him.
The dull and venal Rocky has a friend, Paulie, a colleague from the meat packing plant who is somehow a bigger loser than he is. Paulie is trying to set Rocky up with his sister, Adrian, who is also a loser.
The plot turns quickly when Apollo Creed finds himself in need of a boxing opponent for a promotional match scheduled for America’s Bicentennial. He wants to give some total loser an undeserved chance at winning the title – because America is a place where even losers have a chance. His managers find Rocky, and Apollo immediately loves the notion of giving an Italian a chance at greatness in a place named for Amerigo Vespucci. (Note: Remember how recent Black Power, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King would have been at the time of the film’s release. The reversal of racial power in such a film would have been shocking to many audiences.)
Now, Rocky is getting locally famous as a soon-to-be-pummeled chump, which attracts the attention of Mickey, a boxing trainer who has done nothing but call Rocky a bum for years. But now that Rocky has a chance, Mickey comes to the boxer’s apartment and confesses the he too is a loser looking for some release from the smelly, Sartresque hellhole that is Philly in 1976. Rocky takes pity on Mickey, and the whole bunch of losers train and train and train so that at the very end of the film…
…Apollo Creed realizes that he has underestimated the loser, but still wins. Because at the end of the day, the guy with more power and resources and talent usually beats you in this world. But you can stand bloody and beaten and know that you’ve done your best.
This was the uplifting tale that became an iconic American film.
America becomes awesome winners! (at a cost)
In an indirect way, the film Rocky led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union.
The United States that serves as Rocky‘s backdrop is one in which every American myth has been shredded.
- America’s war in Vietnam is over, and the only winner was grief
- The leaders of the civil rights movement have been assassinated, and city centers are being abandoned through white flight
- Nixon has been deposed for criminality, shaming American democracy
- The U.S. has ceased exporting oil, and is now sitting in gas lines
- Japanese cars rush into the world’s biggest auto market market faster than GM, Ford or Chrysler can figure out how to stop the damage to their profits
Basically everything sucked, and Americans had nowhere to hide from it.
This ended up being the springboard for Ronald Reagan and 12 years of Republican presidents. Reagan knew that Americans hated feeling this way, and his political message was: That’s not you, all this failure. You are great and this country is great. Let’s make some money, celebrate winners and kick some Communist ass! Who’s with me!!!
How well did it work? Reagan even won Vermont‘s electoral votes in 1984.
The whole political sea change is mirrored in the culture. Almost every film is about the little guy winning against all odds – Karate Kid, Red Dawn and the new Rocky films, among many, many others. America stops navel-gazing and starts kicking Communist ass through Capitalism and Atari and skateboarding and Huey Lewis and the Stock Market…
…and the Communists gave up in the face of what awesome winners we were!
We’ve been winners ever since.
A nation with America’s power needs humility, not triumphalism
Modern day America has been about being a winner. We’ve had a good run at it. But we have lost something precious, something that made up our soul and helped America make good decisions. We had a basic sense of humility stemming from the fact that we were a nation comprised of losers.
The film Rocky actually cut through all of the depression of the 1970s by highlighting one last myth about America – that it is where the downtrodden go for refuge. We are the children of losers who survived.
At the end of the day, nobody emigrated to America because everything was going great. Nobody ever said “Here I am all rich and powerful in Milan or Berlin – I think I’ll go to Pittsburgh and work in a factory while my kids learn English!” They left Ireland or Bavaria or Southern Italy because life was kicking their ass. The ruling class hated people from their region and they didn’t have enough to eat. Getting on a leaky boat and going to Ohio to live among God-knows-who was actually better than what they had in their homelands.
This is the culture that gave us a moral compass when we did finally attain power. In 1945, America had the military might to conquer the rest of the world – but didn’t. We could have dominated the planet with our tanks and bombers, but the children of those immigrants took another path. America did the right things back then on a grand scale. It rebuilt its enemies and constructed new institutions for an enduring peace.
Has America strayed from that path when it comes to military actions, especially in the past twenty years? Undoubtedly. Now we think of wars as winnable, of the suffering of others as forgettable. We ignore our failures and call our mediocrities grand success.
America has become intoxicated with the power of winning for too long. It needs to remember where it came from. It needs to remember the hearts and minds of its ancestors who were content to survive, thrive and raise their children. We are the descendents of people who knew what an ass kicking felt like. We had a deep empathy that came from our families, our neighbors who just wanted peace and an honest day’s work.
How do we get something like that back? I don’t know.
I think we could start by watching Rocky, and quietly contemplating this point before starting any more wars.