Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Post No. 134: Who is this Muhammad Ali, and Why are So Many Still Saying Things about Him?


© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

A quote from Anne Sexton was featured in a recent post on fatherhood:

“It does not matter who my Father was; it matters who I remember he was.”

If temptation had won out, the title of this piece would have been, “It does not matter who Muhammad Ali is; it matters who we remember he was.”

But it didn’t.

The recognition that Ali transcends time won out. It’s been 42 years since he was convicted in a US court for refusing to be inducted into the Army on religious grounds. (He also claimed he had a right to refuse to go fight Vietnamese who had never called him “the N-word.” In that same era, a visiting U.S.S.R. Premier was barred from visiting Disneyland.)

Thirty-eight years after the US Supreme Court reversed his conviction (and allowed him to return to earning a livelihood through his chosen profession), he continues to embody “something” difficult to define or frame, but which society keeps watching.

Ali’s surprise visit to the Atlanta Olympic Games, as the final torch carrier, represented the best of the American Ideal in a way that Barack Obama had to win the Presidency to trump.

He was loved; respected; magnificent; and he was the best of us, and what we purportedly believe in. At one time, he had the most recognizable face, and name, on this planet.

Despite its sometimes less than savory aspects, pugilism is the art of obtaining respect; of earning it from the audience; and of taking it away from your opponent-by rendering him unwilling or unable to continue.

Ali never rested at demonstrating the supremacy of his skills. (Scroll down, after clicking on the link where his name appears above, to see his long list of fights.) He used them, and his title as World Champion… even the title itself, to call attention to taking pride in who you are, and what you believe in.

In the process of standing up for who he is, even when it pisses off many, he’s become one of the most respected men on the planet… among blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, agnostics and academics, sportsmen and slum dogs… and all the rest of us.

His physical grace transcended his sport, and his mental courage transcends even the ravages of age and infirmity.

The super masculine menials and omnipotent administrators of his youth notwithstanding, Ali is still a man with something to say.

In late August, he flew to the UK to appear in soccer numerous stadiums. During the trip, he visited Ireland, from which one of his ancestors emigrated to the US in the late 1860s. Who would have thunk it?

About his racial make-up you say? No. Rather that in a country which has been fighting over religion (and property) for more than 200 years, this pugilist could motivate an all white group of historical combatants to put down their guns, deck out Ennis in County Clare, Ireland, and welcome a black man, and an Infidel, as one of their own, and one of their idols.

Their pride was just overwhelming.

So is ours.

So should be yours.

He was over there representing us… not a single drop of blood was shed, and the world was suddenly a better place for his being in it.

We humbly suggest that the future of our planet rests on our ability to get along and respect one another, and that personal pride is a function of personal behavior.

We would further suggest that if more people listened to what this man is saying, rather than competing for his autograph, we would be living in a much more peaceful world.

Lest we be misunderstood, this is not to suggest Ali is perfect, and free of flaws. But he always gave us his best, and he always stood up for what he believed. It’s also worth noting that a man associated with a violent sport promoted peace world-wide.

Being fans of TCM, we can’t miss the opportunity to insert some insight provided by the movie, Inherit the Wind.

The wife of the Fredric March character (Matthew Harrison Brady / William Jennings Bryan), who was a figment of his former self by the time that he tried the Monkey Trial against the Spencer Tracy character (Henry Drummond / Clarence Darrow), had an exchange with the fiancée of teacher Bertram Cates (on trial for teaching evolution), who criticized the March character for one of his tactics as the prosecutor:

"Sarah Brady: Youth can be so pure. What do you know of good or evil? What do you understand of the sum of a man's life?

"Rachel Brown: He betrayed me!

"Sarah Brady: You betrayed yourself! You see my husband as a saint, and so he must be right in everything he says and does. And then you see him as a devil, and everything he says and does must be wrong. Well my husband's neither a saint nor a devil. He's just a human being, and he makes mistakes.

"Rachel Brown: How can you defend him?

"Sarah Brady: It's not he I'm defending! I'm defending the forty years I've lived with this man, and watched him carry the burdens of people like you! If he's been wrong, at least he stood for something! What do you stand for? Do you believe in Bertram Cates? I believe in my husband. What do you believe in?"

Ali at least stands for "something," though illusive it may....

16 comments:

  1. I have spent some time today visiting blogs where the topic is President Obama's speech to school age children. Many of the bloggers are scared to death of him, consider him a major threat to the liberty of American citizens, and consider him to be the equivalent of Hitler.

    Although not exactly on point, I could not help but think of our embattled President as I read your piece on Muhammad Ali.

    While I disagree with much of what he is doing, and his policies in general, I find it hard to believe that he is anywhere close to Hitler in terms of malicious motives. What is going on?

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  2. Anonymous, blogs are prone to hyperbole. In a similar vein, the opponents are not mind-numbed robots manipulated and programmed by Big [insert boogeyman of the day] either. We must think for ourselves and form our own opinions.

    Ali was, in my opinion, the greatest boxer ever. I admit that my knowledge of boxing is limited, however, so others might differ. On the subject of his draft evasion, I have mixed feelings. He did evade it. His motives may not have been as pure as claimed. I suspect they were not. Still, I admire his talent in the ring and his wit outside of it.

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  3. Douglas--
    You don't understand Ali. His talent in the ring, while considerable, is almost beside the point with reference to his enduring legend.
    As a boxer, he must be ranked among the best in the heavyweight division. Certainly, he was the flashiest, the best showman, and unafraid of the fearsome Sonny Liston, or the huge George Foreman. But that's not "it."
    He was also unafraid of public opinion; unafraid of losing everything he had worked for; unafraid of going to prison; unafraid to stand with the Nation of Islam when to do so was a slap in the face of the prevailing power structure that had provided him with wealth and fame. In short, he was as brave outside of the ring as he was inside of it.
    You can question his motives, if you like. I'd be interested to hear you express the bases of that questioning. What is there that you don't understand about the phrase: "No Vietcong ever called me 'nigger.'?

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  4. rodak, the phrase is fine and conveys a noble thought. It's maybe a bit contrived. Especially after learning he flunked his GCT well before that remark was made. Yes, he made an effort to "fly below the radar" before making his "brave" stand in opposition to the Vietnam War. One wonders whether it was because he was in a position to make millions that spurred him to resist the draft that wouldn't have, at that point in the war, sent him into any combat position (no non-volunteers were sent to Nam at that time). And, for that matter, the military was not stupid enough to put him at risk, he'd have spent a couple of years as a "showpiece". You are right about the legend. But legends are embellishments of the truth, buffed and shined up versions of the reality.

    He was a dancing, floating, boxing athlete in an tier of boxing that was full of sluggers. His talents in the ring rival that of the lighter divisions' best. He showed that you could be a heavyweight and still practice the art of boxing rather than just stand toe to toe and pummel your opponent while taking a battering. Yet, he also showing he could do that too when needed (the 'thrilla in Manila'). His charm and wit outside the ring entertained and endeared him to a public that needed heroes and wanted ones that were anti-establishment.

    You see, I enlisted in 1965. I have a different perspective on the draft and that war than you do. I also know the reality of the military rather than just the perception from outside.

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  5. I have a different perspective on the draft and that war than you do.

    You certainly have that.

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  6. Thanks Douglas for providing your thoughts. With respect to Anonymous' comment regarding the fear expressed by some bloggers, and the comparison of President Obama to Hitler, are you suggesting that their positions are simply hyperbole, and that their sentiments are not heartfelt? Or, are you suggesting that they represent a very small segment of the population? Or something else?

    One thing's for sure: they sure are vocal.

    As for your mixed feelings about his particular instance of draft evasion, we'd be curious to know whether, in your view, during the Vietnam Conflict, when there was a draft, whether anyone justifiably and legitimately could have been opposed to service, and chose not to serve in the war because they disagreed with it?

    Is that a decision which an individual, living in a land of freedom and liberty, could ever justifiably make?

    In a volunteer army, we imagine that if one signs up, one has to go fight any war which the leaders direct him or her to go fight. Is that different in the case of the draft?

    Assume that the leaders of our country got us involved in a war, opposed by 20%, or 40%, or 60%, or 80% of the general population, or perhaps the voting public. Assume a draft in one instance, and assume a volunteer force in another. Are there any scenarios where someone might justifiably avoid service?

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  7. Rodak: Very nice job of articulating what Ali's conduct stood for, whether one agreed or disagreed with his position. In a previous post, we referred to an article on the potential downside to conformity, and we were actually surprised that so few commented on it. Those who missed it previously, need only click here. Interesting stuff.

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  8. I strongly suspect that there are many in any society who would have liked to rebel, would have liked to have been a non-conformist, and who for whatever reason chose not to rebel or speak up, or who were suppressed in some manner, and are therefore angry or resentful of those, like many in the Hollywood community, who have the "whatever" to be themselves without worrying about the opinions of others.

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  9. "Lest we be misunderstood, this is not to suggest Ali is perfect, and free of flaws. But he always gave us his best, and he always stood up for what he believed. It’s also worth noting that a man associated with a violent sport promoted peace world-wide."

    This pretty much sums up how I personally felt then and feel now about Ali. He always gave his best and stood up for what he believe in regardless of public opinion. This then is the "best" any of us can ever hope to do, and if we succeed in this lifetime then it will be with a clear conscience when meeting Him on the other side. BB

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  10. There is always a price to be paid for opposition to power.

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  11. Douglas:

    You raise an interesting point about military service. In a previous post about torture, we mentioned that all of the Fellows associated with the Institute for Applied Common Sense served in the military. Our view of the world, and particularly the use of military force, has been profoundly affected by those experiences.

    We would dare say that those soldiers who felt an obligation to serve, or who perhaps served out of "obedience," or "duty," despite their reservations about the purpose of the Vietnam mission, might have legitimately questioned the motives of Ali at the time. At the same time, he definitely lost his livelihood for several years, and faced potential imprisonment, which were serious consequences stemming from his position.

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  12. Many people opposed the Vietnam war on moral principles. Many, many more opposed being drafted for personal reasons. It is difficult, at this point in time, to discern who were the former and who were the latter. Ali first chose to avoid being drafted by faking a lack of intelligence. he did not announce this, he did not stand on principle. It was only later that he took a public stance and it may have been the result of being counseled to do so. I do not know, I can only speculate. I cannot know what was in his heart or his mind. Nor can anyone else. Instead, we project our own feelings and our own self interests and view history though them.

    Ali was a great fighter and a great entertainer. He was witty, he was smart, and he was charming. I loved watching the films of his fights. But he was no wiser than many men I have known who never achieved his fame or his notoriety. Celebrity does not bestow wisdom, it is something you have or attain through the experiences of life coupled with the power of intellect.
    I am not suggesting that all those who write the blogs in question are engaged in hyperbole and are insincere (they may be, they may not be, that judgment is up to those who read them).

    If you wish to know my personal feelings about that war at that time, my view of it now, my view of people opposing it, opposing the draft, opposing all war or certain wars, and all the other questions you asked or implied, there isn't enough room in this blog to answer it all. Some of the questions you have I have answered in my blog (if you read carefully), some will be answered as time goes on (again, by reading carefully).

    rodak, you have no idea what my perspectives are about that war or about the issues and please do not presume that you do.

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  13. Douglas:

    Nice itemization of the potential issues. And particularly nice that you refrained from speculation, although that is definitely a natural, human tendency.

    What Joe Biden has to say frequently gets him into trouble; however, he is full of wisdom acquired from his experiences. Anytime an ardent segregationist like Strom Thurmond requests that an ardent liberal like Joe Biden deliver the eulogy at his funeral, there has to be something there.

    When Biden first entered the Senate, he criticized a fellow Senator's motives for taking a particular stance, and suggested that the motives were less than honorable. One of the more senior Senators pulled him aside and suggested that he avoid questioning someone's motives again.

    He said that each one of the elected Senators had been sent to Washington to best represent the interests of their constituents to the best of their ability, and that questioning their motives did not advance any interests of long term value.

    It's always easy to speculate about someone's motives, or values, or priorities. It is far more difficult to avoid doing so. Thanks for the restraint.

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  14. I strongly suspect that there are many in any society who would have liked to rebel, would have liked to have been a non-conformist, and who for whatever reason chose not to rebel or speak up, or who were suppressed in some manner, and are therefore angry or resentful of those, like many in the Hollywood community, who have the "whatever" to be themselves without worrying about the opinions of others.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I have spent some time today visiting blogs where the topic is President Obama's speech to school age children. Many of the bloggers are scared to death of him, consider him a major threat to the liberty of American citizens, and consider him to be the equivalent of Hitler.

    Although not exactly on point, I could not help but think of our embattled President as I read your piece on Muhammad Ali.

    While I disagree with much of what he is doing, and his policies in general, I find it hard to believe that he is anywhere close to Hitler in terms of malicious motives. What is going on?

    ReplyDelete

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