Theodore Roosevelt got to his hotel late at night and reluctantly headed to the bar. After spending several days riding through the tall grass prairies, he had arrived in the small town of Mingusville, Montana, now known as Wibaux. It was likely the summer of 1884, historians believe, meaning that the future president would have been 25 years old.
A shabby-looking man was walking around with a gun. The man greeted Roosevelt as “Four Eyes,” referring to his round glasses, and suggested that Roosevelt would pay for drinks that night.
“I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice,” Roosevelt recalled in his 1913 autobiography. “He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language.”
Roosevelt, then a wealthy member of the New York state Assembly, got up and punched the man in the jaw. The stranger fell, hitting his head against the corner of the bar and landing unconscious on the floor. When Roosevelt woke up the next morning, the man had left town on a freight train, or so Teddy would later claim.
It was neither the first nor the last time that an American political figure would wind up in a bar fight. But we’re no longer living in the era of the Wild West. Now, drunken brawls are seen as either an obnoxious display of frat boy entitlement, or, to some conservative commentators, normal behavior for red-blooded American men. Like most topics these days, it depends on who you ask.
On Monday, The New York Times first reported that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh had been involved in an altercation at a bar in New Haven, Connecticut, while he was an undergraduate at Yale. According to the police report, Kavanaugh, who was not arrested, was accused of throwing ice at a 21-year-old man “for some unknown reason,” which resulted in a minor scuffle.
The news prompted several conservative commentators to declare that they, too, had been in bar fights. Ross Douthat of The New York Times noted that he had been involved in two altercations, but one was technically at a pizza parlor. Charles Gasparino, a Fox Business Network correspondent, added, “I’ve been in dozens of bar fights (ask the guys I grew up with) nearly lost an eye in one and that’s just one of the injuries (I have the scarred stitch marks to prove the rest) never been blackout drunk but I have had to defend myself, which I am still perfectly capable of doing.”
“I don’t know one guy, including myself, who wasn’t in a bar fight,” Newsmax host John Cardillo wrote on Twitter. “Not a single one.”
The bragging produced a New York magazine headline: “Kavanaugh Supporters Have #MeToo Moment, But for Bar-Fighting.” Jonathan Chait wrote:
“The conservative community has leapt to Kavanaugh’s defense. Their defense does not focus on the truthfulness issue, but instead on the legitimacy of bar-fighting, which they apparently see as a cherished way of life now under threat by the liberal elite.”
Critics were quick to announce that they had not, in fact, engaged in bar fights. Getting into a drunken spat doesn’t prove anything, they argued — except for how obnoxious you are. (It should also be noted that bar fights frequently result in injuries, and sometimes even death.)
Kyle Wolfmanderson tweeted “Wanna know why I’ve never been in a bar fight? Because I’ve spent my adult life walking away from situations where I’d be around the kind of guys who get into bar fights.”
Charlotte Clymer tweeted “Raised in the South by alcoholics. Six years in the Army partying with even more alcoholics. Never once been in a bar fight.
“I have, however, been in a number of dance-offs.”
Jen Gerson tweeted “My position on bar fights: A relatively small number of men possess the temperamental bent to engage in a bar fight. These men can be problems.
“But you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a zombie apocalypse without such men. They are problems we are stuck with.”
Historians haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact date of the first bar fight, but it’s safe to say that the custom goes back thousands of years: A fresco found on a bar wall in Pompeii shows a fight breaking out between two men playing an illicit game of dice. Since then, countless men (and a somewhat smaller number of women) have gotten in fistfights at their local drinking establishments.
For hundreds of years, men would resolve conflicts and respond to insults by engaging in duels. But starting in the early 1800s, the concept gradually fell out of favor, Jonathan Gottschall wrote in “The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch.” By the end of World War I, he explained, men were no longer solely responsible for defending their families and their property, because the police state had taken over that role. Defending one’s honor no longer served a practical purpose.
But in some senses, nothing has changed, Gottschall wrote.
“If you don’t believe it, go to a bar and start banging shoulders with the guys you pass, muttering, ‘Watch it, [expletive]!’” he suggested. Keep the insults going, and “see how long it takes to get pounded by a man who feels — whether he would put it this way or not — that he would be dishonored and diminished if he allowed your insults to go unpunished.”
Alcohol-fueled violence hasn’t always been about displaying masculinity. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City thought of as a watershed moment for gay liberation, began as a bar fight sparked by frustrations over frequent police raids, Christine Sismondo wrote in “America Walks into a Bar.” But research bears out the widely-held perception that today’s bar fights are largely a way for men to try to impress other men.
In a 2013 study in Psychology of Violence, researchers from the University of Toronto found that women who got in fights were often responding to unwanted sexual advances from men, and were more likely to be motivated by a sense of grievance or a feeling that other people weren’t complying with their wishes. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to get in fights for the excitement of it. They were also more likely to be motivated by what the researchers described as “social identity concerns,” meaning that they wanted to either save face or to assert themselves by bullying.
In the same study, researchers confirmed what most people already knew instinctively: Men are responsible for instigating the vast majority of aggressive incidents at late-night drinking venues. A team of observers made 1,334 visits to bars in Toronto and recorded 1,057 acts of aggression, more than 77 percent of which were initiated by men.
Bar brawlers have been broken down into three main categories, outlined in a 2003 study in the British Journal of Criminology that drew on interviews with men between the ages of 20 and 24. “Necessary evil” fighters got involved in fights when they felt they had to — fighting a man who had hit a woman, for instance. “Grievance fighters” saw fighting as a way to address conflicts or punish people who they felt had wronged them. And “recreational fighters” got into fights with no hesitation at all, often to back up friends or simply because they thought they could win.
For men who reject what’s become known as “toxic masculinity,” the idea of asserting dominance by trading blows feels problematic. But some admit that the idea holds a certain appeal. In a 2017 essay published in the Guardian, writer Scott Atkinson admitted that he had mixed feelings about the fact that he had never been in a real fight, and occasionally felt like had missed out on a necessary rite of passage.
“Modern men, especially liberal ones, are not supposed to feel this way, and so we experience a double shame,” he wrote. “The first comes from a small voice deep in our caveman brains, the one questioning our manhood if we back down from physical confrontation. We feel the second shame immediately after because manhood (and its arbitrary markers) is something we’re not supposed to be worried about any more — certainly not the more base aspects of it, like violence.”
But there’s a reason bar fights are such a staple of popular culture, from Western films to WorldStarHipHop: People like to watch them. In a 2013 essay in Men’s Journal, writer Jonathan Miles compared the best barroom brawls to ballet and opera. Without bar fights, he wrote, “history of the American west would be one very long episode of Little House on the Prairie.”
“The spectacle of a good bar fight, properly executed and healthily ended, is not merely annoying boorishness,” he concluded. “The best of them — an admittedly minor slice — are shaded with the elements of high art.”
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