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Ryan: The game of politics

Bullfight at the State of the Union Address

Photo by Sean Ryan

Bullfighting is a gruesome art. A hateful, stomach-churning game.

In Spain, bullfighters are called "toreros," and they lead a cuadrilla, or entourage, of assistants and other fighters. Picadors are the men on horses with lances jabbing at the bull strategically, forcing it to keep its head lowered. Banderilleros pace around on foot, and jab decorative barbs into the bull's neck, disabling the muscles so that the bull's head droops and it can't use its horns.

The torero is the star, decked in his garrish traje de luces, an elaborate weave of silk and sequins and pendants of gold and silver.

Toreros are superstitious. They choose their flamboyant outfits' colors with pristine caution. They believe that different colors provoke different reactions from the bulls.

Of course, bulls are colorblind. They do not see red and get pissy. What incites their rage is the torero's sudden, inflammatory movement. Because, let's be real, bullfighting is just the masculine version of flamenco. And this is a parable for politics, as performed by President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at this week's State of the Union Address.

*

A bullfight has three stages.

One: eruption.

Two: disaster.

Three: humiliation, confusion, death, betrayal and/or victory.

*

When bull trots out, he is full of rage and confusion and fear. The torero reads the bull. Taunts it with his capote, the red cape.

This stage of the fight is a dance, as the torero boasts his acuity as a dancer.

Distracted by the cape and the undulating torero, the bull is vulnerable to the surgical jabs and lances from the picadors and the banderilleros.

These cowardly bastards are savage.

For me, it's always been excruciating to watch.

But, at this point, the bull is spirited and fiery, so the cuts have little effect.

*

In the second stage, the torero prances to safety, to a dugout, and the banderilleros sweep in. They face the bull head-on, then lunge a small lance into its back.

The bull shrieks and moans and rattles its eyes with helpless confusion.

At the start of a bullfight, the bull's gaze is aimed downward, but, as the bullfight progresses, the bull's vision sharpens so that, by the end, they're locking eyes with the torero, straining to keep their head lifted. Then, finally, it's nothing but clotted dirt.

*

So. Who's the bull? Depends on your view of the situation and your particular biases. Maybe it's Trump, maybe it's Pelosi. But also maybe we're the bull. That would be awful, wouldn't it?

Just remember that the toreros wear a montera, the sulky astrakhan fur hat with the velvet lining. The bulbous nubs on each side represent bull horns.

Because, although toreros fight the bull, they do so as a symbolic equal. A man so wild and dangerous that he can defeat a monster. A torero is just a bull in some wacky costume.

Or. You can see the mastery and performance of it all. That Trump and Pelosi are engaged in a mesmerizing dance. Above all, a game.

I have exactly one tatoo: "To do a dangerous / thing with style / is what I call art." From the poem "Style" by Charles Bukowski,

Style is the answer to everything.
A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing
To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it
To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art
Bullfighting can be an art
Boxing can be an art
Loving can be an art.
Opening a can of sardines can be an art

*

Also known as the "tercio del momento supremo," the final stage of the fight. When the torero lures the bull closer with each ballerina tilt and side hop.

By now, the bull is panting, coughing gasps, lungs contaminated with fluid, muscles severed, head impossibly heavy.

It moans occasionally, the lonesome bellow of an animal caught in unimaginable betrayal. All alone, facing hate and danger.

From the stands, you can hear its full-bodied exhalations, see the silver piercing quiver in its nasal septum.
The torrero becomes the matador only if he kills the bull.

Matador means "killer," from "matar" to kill and the suffix "-dor," which signifies membership to an occupation.

*

As his final maneuver, the torero takes his greatest risk. He must plunge a sabre into the bull's back, between its shoulders, dealing the fatal wound.

The toreros often fail to kill the bull on the first try. Only managing to deeply wound the animal.

The toreros repeat this dangerous maneuver until they shove the sword in deep enough that it pierces the bull's heart or severes its spinal cord.

As the bull writhes, the torero slits its throat slit, a spray of dark red into the well-lighted dirt.

Then it subsides. Surrenders. Its life vanishes, mostly.

Men on silly horses tie a rope around the bull's hooves and drag it out of the bullring, blood spurting into the chalky dirt.

It no longer matters whether you were even chanting for that bull, as the politician.

Because the bull seems so childlike and limp as men drag it through the dust and the occasional mud. Especially at the end.

If the matador did well, the crowd whistles, they wiggle white handkerchiefs into the air, and the matador is awarded one of the bull's ears. Or both if he performed flawlessly.

But, occasionally, the bull wins.

It may always die, but sometimes it makes sure not to die alone.

I've seen a few bullfights, in Madrid, and on one occasion the bull nearly won. It gored the torero's calf.

The audience gasped, recoiling, then leaned forward.

And the torrero — who was billed as the finest of the night —limped into a wooden crawlspace. He was young, lanky, all jaw and Roman nose like a jagged anchor. And, all decked in blinding pink, he became ladylike and uncertain.

He tiptoed around when he should have kept gliding. He trained his black eyes on floodlights pouring into the ring.

After a ten-minute pause, he returned with a bandage around his pink-and-gold socks, less mobile but still devilish enough to coax the bull into losing.

*

It's no secret that I dislike politics, and that I strive, in my writing, to transcend ideology and tap into the deeper meaning of life, the human enormities we all face, in the hope that I can find an answer.

Despite the fact that I work at a conservative news site, I'm neither conservative nor liberal, not left or right or center, not anything. I'm a journalist. I believe in the old way: Find the truth, tell it clearly and honestly, then let the people decide. Leave the activism out of it, all of which I will cover in an upcoming installment titled "The Fourth Estate."

The night of the disastrous Iowa caucuses, at a fashionably indifferent dive bar in Des Moines, I had a few beers with bleary-eyed caucusers.

"I hate politics," I blurted out at one point, with a mouthful of popcorn.

A guy my age who'd caucused for Bernie asked, "If you don't like politics, why do you write for a political news site?"

It's a question I get asked a lot, something I've spent a lot of time pondering. And next month, I'll run an installment called "Outcast of the media world," which describes my weird journey from fiction writer to English teacher in Spain to academic to music journalist to reporter at a conservative news network with credentials for the White House.

But in the moment, I had no decent answer, thanks to a long day and a row of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans. But the question stuck with me, so here's my answer.

"I write about politics for many reasons," I would like to have said. "Most of all, I want to make people's lives better, or even just a tad brighter, and I've been told by many people over the years that my stories and my words are how I'll accomplish this."

I write about politics because I want to know the world better. And being at political events is so illuminating and electric and surreal. So alive.

I write about politics because I believe that each of our lives matters, and I've worked hard to get here and now I have a platform and, in the words of French philosopher Albert Camus, "Those of us who can speak have a responsibility to say something for those of us who can't."

I write about politics because political writing has gotten so boring and it's time for a fresh voice.

I write about politics because, sometimes, politics is an art, and art is what will save us.

New stories come out every Monday and Thursday. In the next two installations, I'll describe my view of the chaotic night of the Iowa caucuses. Check my Twitter for live updates. Send all notes, tips, corrections, etc. to kryan@blazemedia.com As always, thank you for reading.

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