FIVE MINUTES INTO THE QUESTION-AND-ANSWER segment of his appearance at Beyond Baroque, Robert Fisk nodded toward the raised hand of the man sitting directly in front of me, a portly man in a gray ponytail and a black pro-Palestinian T-shirt. The man stood up, and introduced himself as a Chicano and descendant of the dispossessed Indian tribes indigenous to California -- people corralled, killed and run off their land by the Europeans who colonized this continent. "Soy Palestino," he declared. He turned to face the audience and said it again: "Soy Palestino, okay?" He then launched into a meandering harangue that, whatever its historical merits, was increasingly less relevant to the occasion. There were grumbles, murmured objections, barely audible demands to sit down, but the man just went on, every sentence a little bit louder and a little bit worse.
Fisk, the man who managed to sympathize with impoverished Afghans even as a mob of refugees in Pakistan was beating him up, seemed flummoxed. "Question, please!" he demanded, his already ruddy complexion reddening. But none came. "Question, please!" This only made the non-questioner's rage less abstract, and more focused on Fisk. The man began to shout, his rant laced with epithets about Fisk the Anglo (which, technically, I suppose, he is).
It's long been the bane of the public speaker that audience members exploit question-and-answer periods less to satisfy genuine curiosity than to air their own ideological grievances, however loosely related to the subject at hand. But lately the practice seems to have spun out of control. At a conference on computer security recently in the Bay Area, panel moderators routinely reminded participants to refrain from making statements, a directive hardly anyone recognized as legitimate: Like the followers of frustrated political movements, the pundits of Silicon Valley don't so much need to ask as to respond.And respond this ponytailed man did, at an increasingly furious pitch, until Fisk, at the end of his famously tolerant tether, summoned "Uncle Fred." The literary center's director, Fred Dewey, stepped in and ever so gently shut the man up.
The incident might have ended there, except that a few more questions (and, alas, statements) into the proceedings -- after the progressive Jewish woman had asked what Jews in the United States can do to promote peace, after a young man in a hat had quizzed Fisk about 9/11 conspiracy theories (they're bunk) -- Fisk called on the man sitting next to the man in the gray ponytail, the first man's doppelgÃ¤nger but 10 or 15 years younger, a man with a black ponytail corkscrewing at the same angle on his neck, a similar build, and an unmistakably similar political sympathy. The man stood, cleared his throat. "I want you to answer my friend here," he said. "I want you to speak to the parallels between the European occupation of this land in 1848 and the Israeli occupation of Palestine."
One theory of the evening is that Fisk was exhausted, absent-minded, and just didn't size up the second man well enough before he acknowledged him. But another says he knew what he was in for, knew the first man's diatribe was still lingering poisonously in the air, knew he'd responded too quickly and emotionally the first time. Having regained his composure, he realized the Chicanos in the audience had to be heard. If nothing else, it would look bad for a reporter who's built his career on unflagging fairness to have silenced an outspoken and frustrated member of a local political movement.
Fisk was not available at press time for comment, but thinking back on his answer, I've become convinced he knew what he was doing -- that he was acting out of tenacious decency, not forgetfulness. "I am a Middle East reporter," Fisk calmly reminded the younger man, "not a scholar of American history. And while you may have a legitimate point, were I to speak to it, I would be, as the English say, talking out of my hat." The man sat down. "Next question?"
THREE MEN HAVE FALLEN BY THE wayside. First, Rick "Laser" Levitz, a Hollywood agent with one loss to his credit, bowed out. Then Jeff "Cool" Lippa, a former actor, tore a tendon in his bicep. Finally, screenwriter George Richards, nicknamed "The Spaniard" in a nod to Russell Crowe's role in Gladiator, canceled for mysterious reasons. The Spaniard possesses a formidable uppercut; he once brutalized my ribs, knocking the wind out of me in a training session. I have made strides since then, sparred with former WBA lightweight champ Ray Mancini, and gained a bit of muscle. I am ready for my first official amateur bout.
Four days before the big event, I learn that my opponent will be the man with the "beautiful mind." No, not John Nash, but a fellow Princeton graduate, a Phi Beta Kappa celebrated for his paranoid/paranormal delusions: David Duchovny -- Mulder -- known around the gym as "Double D" and "Big Daddy." Maybe I am the one hallucinating.
Modest and famously laconic like his X-Files character, Double D complimented me on my fighting after one workout and noted that my body had "redistributed" since our first encounter in October 2000 when I joined Ruby's gym.