[The rider is wearing a bullet-proof vest to prevent being gored to death. What a wuss.]
In "Death in the Afternoon" Ernest Hemingway examines in endless detail the specifics of Spanish bullfighting.
First the bull runs out into the ring, the corrida. Then it is beset by men on horseback armed with lances, in Spanish 'picadors'. The picadors' horses are armored so the bull has no way to defend himself by attacking them in return. The lances have sharp steel blades on the end. The picadors run at the bull, stabbing it in the neck and shoulders, slashing up the muscles with which it can raise its head, weakening its ability to use its horns. And weakening it by blood loss.
Then these Hispanic gentlemen stab it in the shoulders yet again, this time with barbed spears which remain lodged in the bull's shoulder muscles. These are festooned with bright ribbons since this is after all a show. The bright ribbons are to please the eyes of a bullring full of enthusiastic lovers of the public torture and wanton killing of animals. These cultured gentlemen are called 'aficionados'.
Then comes the piece de resistance (I don't know the Spanish equivalent), the "fight" with the matador. The daring matador has as his task to actually outsmart a cow. For people who think torturing and killing an animal is great fun and will pay to see it, this is an impressive display of intellect.
The brave matador is on foot, facing an exhausted injured animal, and armed with only a cape -- and a huge razor sharp steel sword. What a guy! What courage!
The Hispanic gentlemen in the stands applaud each instance of the matador out-witting the dazed injured bleeding bull. "Ole! Ole!", they shout, "Ole! Ole!" Finally when the bull begins to weary and slow down from exhaustion and weaken from blood loss, the show begins to wane. Then the brave matador wantonly kills the animal with the sword.
Whereupon the joy and admiration of the Hispanic gentlemen in the stands knows no limit. The romantic Hispanic ladies in the stands throw roses into the ring in admiration of his prowess in first fooling, then torturing and killing a wounded cow with a sword.
This, we are told in tones of romantic admiration, is the Soul of Spain. I agree, minus the romantic admiration. That the great public spectacle of Spain and Mexico should be so pointless, vulgar, cruel, and cowardly speaks volumes about those peoples.
Because the bull is doomed the moment he is selected to be massacred in front of an appreciative Hispanic audience, the corrida runs through a lot of bulls. Even if simple justice and the bull are lucky enough to gore the matador, the bull is killed anyway.
The details we learn from Hemingway is that the procurers of bulls for the rings have an interest in getting the bulls as cheaply and in large numbers as possible. So when a bullring becomes popular they scour the country for bulls and are soon reduced to smaller bulls, even bulls not full-grown.
Which makes the picadors and matadors even more brave and admirable since they are reduced to torturing and killing a calf. And the shouters of "Ole! Ole!" even more respectable and worthy of our admiration for their deep Hispanic souls.
Then, in a final gesture of good taste and civility, the matador uses the sword to cut off the ears of the dead bull and give them to some lovely senorita in the front row. Now that's class.
The next time I go on a date I plan to give the lucky girl a pair of bloody cow's ears and brag that I cut them off myself, just for her. That ought to go over great. She won't be able to keep her hands off me.
In an even moderately civilized place such as California, children who torture or kill animals are immediately diagnosed under DSM-IV, a catalogue of mental and emotional disorders. They are then subject to the court-ordered ministrations of a social worker in hopes of curbing the behavior before the screwed-up little bastard turns her attentions to the torture or killing of smaller children and eventually of smaller adults.
In Spain and Mexico, people who do that are toasted and become celebrities for it and are paid big pesos. In California people who encourage such behavior are called 'enablers'. They too are generally subject to court-ordered visits to social workers when child welfare is in issue, and Doctor Phil-inspired interventions when they are not.
In America we have bullfights too. In the most popular form of which the bull always wins.
The object in American bullfighting, called bull-riding, is first to stay on the bull for 8 seconds or longer and second not to get killed or injured. The American bullfighter, called a cowboy, is armed with a slender cord that has been put loosely around the bull's shoulders, just behind the front legs.
The cowboy mounts the bull while it is constrained in a narrow chute. To keep it sporting, the cowboy is required to hold onto the cord with only one hand. The bull and rider are then immediately released into the arena.
Whereupon the bull throws the rider off. It does not attempt to throw the rider off. It throws him off. Every time. That is a given. The contest is not about whether the cowboy will be thrown off but whether he can last for 8 seconds before being thrown off.
When the cowboy has been dispatched, the second part of the proceedings is about whether the bull can gore or trample the fallen cowboy, which it is mightily inclined to do. The cowboy's chance of survival depends on gang tactics against the bull.
He is assisted by men who invariably have forgotten to bring their armored horses and their steel lances. They are on foot and armed only with silly costumes, greasepainted faces, and large colorful hats. They use the costumes to amuse the patrons and the hats to distract the bull long enough for the fallen and occasionally dazed cowboy to escape. They are called rodeo clowns.
Their tactic when chased by the bull is, not surprisingly, to run away. But they have the presence of mind to run in a zig-zag which is hard for the bull to follow. As a last ditch effort they toss the hat in hopes the bull will follow it. Their protection is a heavy wooden barrier with a gap behind it too small for the bull to get into.
The economics also favor the bull. The organizers of the rodeo only have to pay the cowboy the prize money if he wins, if he stays on longer than 8 seconds. So they breed and buy utterly gigantic, mindlessly violent bulls so as to make it unlikely the cowboy will win.
So far from being killed, the bull is no more than annoyed and exercised by his few seconds of throwing off and trying to kill the cowboy and the rodeo clowns. He is ready to go next week too and the week after for a long and productive career of attempted homicide.
So far from being used up or killed, a successful bull, in his dotage is put out to stud, capping a rich full life of sex and violence.
The bulls have names and are as much celebrities as the cowboys, or more so. They have names like "Thunderfoot" and whimsical ones like "Daisy".
The only limit placed on the bull is that the tips of his horns are docked. Which means that instead of sharp points which would kill the cowboy every single time, they are blunted to knobs about the size of the end of a broom handle. Imagine the end of a broom handle thrust at your body at high speed and with limitless force. Repeatedly. Internal injuries and broken ribs. There are also occasional broken limbs from falling and from trampling. These bulls weigh in excess of a ton and they are not stepping on the cowboys, they are jumping on them.
American bullfighting is culturally worthwhile too. So far from the crudities of Spanish and Mexican bull-baiting, American bullfighting is memorialized in Aaron Copland's beautiful and touching ballet, "Rodeo". Which I heartily recommend. The music is well worth hearing even without the ballet, just as an orchestral suite. The piece would be inconceivable if it had the public slaughter of animals embedded in it.
Compare and Contrast
So the Hispanic spectacle is of cowardly armed men, some on horseback, sadistically torturing and killing an animal in front of an appreciative cheering crowd of cruel bloodthirsty swine.
The American spectacle is of an unarmed man trying to stay on the back of a gigantic violent animal and not succeeding. Whether the man is brave or foolhardy to try, is for him to work out with his parents, his girlfriend, and his insurance agent. But it is certain that the bull is in no danger and no harm comes to it.
It is a contest of skill in which, with luck, no drop of blood is shed. The crowd, so far from sadistic, admire the bull's power and ferocity and wish him long life and many happy returns to the bullring. They also admire the cowboy's daring in attempting the thing at all, and if he should be so lucky and able, his skill in staying on the beast. And his and the clowns' nimbleness in escaping from the bull's gentle attentions.
Some root for the cowboy, some root for the bull, and everyone roots for the rodeo clowns. And the cowboys and cowgirls in the crowd are just generally rootin'-tootin' kind of folk. An argument can be made, based in part on intuition and in part on Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, that the rodeo is the Soul of America.
I find it hard not to admire the bravery and/or craziness of the American bull-riders and the rodeo clowns. It is driven by a striving for glory and money. The man wins the prize if he succeeds, nothing if he doesn't. He is also far more likely to get picked up in a bar afterward and get laid than if he loses. He knows this.
The bull competes for the sheer joy of an opportunity to kill someone who has annoyed him. And if he doesn't succeed this week, there is always next week.
The matador is guaranteed his blood-money whether he tortures and kills the bull to the satisfaction of the mob or not. It is hard not to believe that the sadism and cruelty of Hispanic culture evidenced by these primitive spectacles does not bespeak some of the static and corrupt nature of Hispanic society.
Franco did not impose fascism on Spain single handedly nor maintain it for decades without the acquiescence of the majority of the Spanish people. In "Homage to Catalonia" Orwell writes feelingly about the betrayal of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's. It was betrayed by some of the parties within it, and for the most corrupt and bloody-minded of reasons. In the end, fascism was imposed on Spain by the Spanish.
The same can be said for the decades of institutional corruption that was the PRI government in Mexico. The people weren't corrupt because the government was. The government was corrupt because the people were corrupt. There was corruption at every level of Mexican society when I was there during the long PRI period.
Bank clerks wouldn't do their jobs without a bribe. Tax drivers played games with their meters. Police ran shakedowns on tourists. Even young boys demanded protection money not to vandalize parked cars. My experience of Mexico not having been a good one, I have not been back for many years. One can hope that things have improved. I doubt it, but it is not impossible.
As between those societies and ours, give me the cowboys and clowns every time.