Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
They Said It:
Observation fully confirms what reflection teaches us on this subject: Savage man and civilized man differ so much in their innermost heart and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair. The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants only to live and remain idle, and even the Stoic’s ataraxia does not approximate his profound indifference to everything else. By contrast, the Citizen, forever active, sweats and scurries, constantly in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to the death, even rushes toward it in order to be in a position to live, or renounces life in order to acquire immortality. He courts the great whom he hates, and the rich whom he despises; he spares nothing to attain the honor of serving them; he vaingloriously boasts of his baseness and of their protection and, proud of his slavery, he speaks contemptuously of those who have not the honor of sharing it.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, 1755.
SOME THOUGHTS ON “THE GREATEST.”
Muhammad Ali – formerly Cassius Clay – died last Friday evening. He was not only one of the greatest fighters ever, but was also, quite possibly, the most famous person in the world during his heyday. Given this, his passing has been treated everywhere by journalists, entertainers, politicians, and just normal, regular folk as a major historical event. The following, from the Washington Post, gives just a flavor of the magnitude with which Ali’s death has being greeted:
Time zone by time zone, the people of the world awoke Saturday to the cold realization that it would be the first day in 74 years without Muhammad Ali in their midst. Though it could not have been a surprise, the great heavyweight champion’s death Friday night of complications from Parkinson’s disease left a massive void, one that people famous and common tried to fill with words. In many cases, words failed.
“You don’t want to live in a world without Muhammad Ali,” boxer George Foreman said of his former adversary. “It’s horrible.”
On Saturday, Ali’s death was greeted like that of a head of state, which, in a sense, he was. His classic fights in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the Philippines, Japan, England, Malaysia and Germany were global events in the days before the Internet made everything a global event. For a time, he was considered the most famous person in the world. A figure who transcended the boundaries of sport and country, he may have been the greatest ambassador the United States ever employed.
Tributes to Ali came from all over the world, tracing the path of the sun as it rose and revealed the news. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted, “Athlete, civil rights leader, humanitarian, man of faith. Rest in peace.” British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted, “Muhammad Ali was not just a champion in the ring — he was a champion of civil rights, and a role model for so many people.”
In South Africa, many fondly recalled Ali’s visits in the 1990s to see President Nelson Mandela. “Together with Nelson Mandela, Ali was a source of inspiration for those who pursue justice, those seeking equal opportunities, the downtrodden and those seeking fairness in sport and society,” said Danny Jordaan, the head of the country’s soccer federation, in a statement.
The leader of Kenya’s political opposition, Raila Odinga, said in a statement: “Muhammad Ali fought for the emancipation of the black race not only in the U.S. but also in many African nations then under the yoke of colonialism.”
In general, we think it’s kind of sweet that people recognize Ali’s bravery, his skill, and his incredibly engaging personality. At the same time, we think it’s telling – and tellingly ill-informed – that people who might actually be expected to know better, think that Ali’s “role model” status comes from his connection to “civil rights.” We know David Cameron is a bit of a squish, but is he an ignorant squish too?
In reality, Ali’s record on race was not exactly one about which to brag. To call it a mixed bag would be generous. What he did to Joe Frazier was disgraceful. Frazier – the poor, uneducated son of a South Carolina sharecropper, who grew up in very heart of segregated America – was portrayed by Ali as a tool of the white oppressor. Ali called Frazier a race trader, an “uncle Tom,” a gorilla. He did his very best to turn black America against Frazier, and he was undeniably successful. Worse still he did it all for shameful, personal reasons.
Of course, when Americans of a certain age – which is to say liberal Baby Boomers – talk about Ali and civil rights, what they invariably have in mind is Ali’s refusal to enter the draft during the Vietnam War. Ali famously claimed a religious exemption from military service and made his case against the war in blunt and unapologetically racial terms. “My conscience,” Ali declared, “won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. . . Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
This tickled the leftie Boomers to no end, because, in their eyes, it justified their own hatred of both the war in Vietnam and the nation that fought it. To them, Ali’s position on Vietnam is the most important thing about him, largely because it’s the most important thing about them. They hated the war. He hated the war. And he therefore provided them with moral validation. He gave them cover, a rationalization for their hatred of their country. As the gushing and giddy Atlantic put it over the weekend:
Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War transcended not only the ring, which he had dominated as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but also the realms of faith and politics.
“His biggest win came not in the ring but in our courts in his fight for his beliefs,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general, said Saturday.
On March 9, 1966, at the height of the war, Ali’s draft status was revised to make him eligible to fight in Vietnam, leading him to say that as a black Muslim he was a conscientious objector, and would not enter the U.S. military.
The catch here, the problem with this “Ali as anti-war, civil rights hero” meme, is that it is largely a creation of the same liberal Boomers who created all the other myths of the era. Yes, it is true that Ali opposed the war and sacrificed a great deal to maintain his opposition. And yes, it’s also true that among the things he sacrificed were the peak years of his career. Ali is considered one of the greatest fighters of all time, and he sat out the prime of his fighting life to make a point. Unfortunately, that point wasn’t necessarily his. And it wasn’t exactly in keeping with the spirit of “civil rights.”
You see, in 1966, when he refused induction, Muhammad Ali was not a “Muslim” as we normally think of the term. He was, rather, a member of the Nation of Islam, something completely different. Islam – the religion of more than 1.5 billion people in the world – dates to the 7th century, when it was founded Muhammad in the Arabian Peninsula. The Nation of Islam, by contrast, dates to the 1930s, when it was founded by a guy named Wallace Fard in Detroit. Islam, for all its problems, is considered one of the three “great religions.” The Nation of Islam, by contrast, is a radical, black nationalist cult.
Three years after he started the Nation of Islam, Fard “disappeared,” and was replaced as the head of the cult by a man named Elijah Poole, who had a fourth grade education and no background whatsoever in Islam or Islamic studies. Poole changed his named to Elijah Muhammad, declared that the “disappeared” Fard was, in fact, the son of God, and organized the Nation’s religious doctrines, the most fascinating of which involves a man named Yakub. Mr. Yakub, you see, was a mad scientist. And 6,600 years ago, this mad scientist began creating a race of devils, the white race, including Jews, who would rob the black man of his rightful power. According to Elijah Muhammad the white man was “made by nature a liar and murderer.”
After 600 years, the work begun by Mr. Yakub – who died at the age of 152 – was completed and the white devil took power, which he would hold for 6,000 years. And after those six millennia, the black man would retake his power and destroy the devils. Conveniently enough, those 6,000 years ended in 1914.
Against this backdrop, Ali’s rebellion against the status quo and against military service is not so much principled activism as it is fanatical, cultist crankery. Note that the former Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, praised Ali for fighting “for his beliefs.” And indeed, this is a common theme – the common theme – in the obituaries and other paeans to the late boxer: he fought for his beliefs. What no one ever mentions, however, is that those beliefs were batshit crazy.
In the broader context of his life, Muhammad Ali’s Vietnam activism is a ridiculous and ridiculously minor element. And yet the mainstream media and the liberal Baby Boomers (like Eric Holder) think that it was all that mattered, that it’s the key to understanding the man. This is nuts. More to the point, it’s the usual liberal Baby Boomer kind of nuts. It’s an obsession, an insatiable need to turn their own experiences, their own “lessons,” and their own nostalgia into the most important events in all of history.
But Ali was more than that and he was more than a fighter. And by obsessing over their own anti-Vietnam experiences and extrapolating them onto Ali, the liberal Boomers miss the proverbial forest; they fail to learn what Ali’s life tells us about the country and about the current social and political risks it faces.
The story of Muhammad Ali is the quintessential story of the American dream, American success on a grand and impressive scale. His is the story of redemption, pure and simple.
For starters, Ali was a man of faith and his faith demonstrated both the importance of religion in American civic life and the roll of forgiveness and personal moral growth. Now, before you roll your eyes and think again that we’ve lost it, consider Ali’s path of religious evolution over the course of his public life. As we know, he converted to the Nation of Islam in 1964 (or at least his conversion was publicly announced in 1964). But Ali did not remain a member of Elijah Muhammad’s cult forever. Indeed, in 1975, just months after Elijah Muhammad’s death, Ali freed himself from the cult and became a mainstream Sunni. Ali wrote that his conversion to mainstream Islam was prompted by Elijah Muhammad’s death, and we don’t doubt it. Those who crossed the Nation of Islam cult and tried to leave it – people like Malcolm X, for example – had a nasty habit of dying in a hail of gunfire. And so Ali got out as quickly as he could, but with as few holes in his body as possible. All of which is to say that he abandoned the hate and the anger that, more or less, made him famous and embraced faith for the sake of faith, not for the sake of a political statement.
Over the next thirty years, Ali served, variously, as a goodwill ambassador, as a hostage negotiator (for Americans in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran), and as the operator of charitable organizations that fed the world’s poorest of the poor and provided medical relief and supplies. He used his fame and his fight schedule to raise awareness of the poverty and desperate need in developing countries and, after his diagnosis in 1984, he spent the remainder of his life raising awareness of Parkinson’s disease. He strongly advocated for faith in public life and encouraged people all over the world, and especially at home, to embrace God. In 1984, this liberal Baby Boomer hero endorsed Ronald Reagan for re-election, declaring that “He’s keeping God in schools and that’s enough.” We’ll spare you our rant on religion and its importance in our civic culture (for now), but clearly, Ali saw God and religion as critical to a healthy nation and a healthy world.
In 2005, four years after his co-religionists – i.e. 19 other Sunni Muslims – attacked the United States, killing more than 3,000 people, Ali took another step in his religious evolution, one which is rarely, if ever discussed. Ali was horrified at the violence and barbarism that become synonymous with Sunni Islam and he very peacefully and quietly addressed the issue. He converted again, this time to Sufi Islam. Now, some will question the peacefulness of Sufism. And it is true that not all Sufis are peaceful (contrary to Stephen Schwartz’s assertions), but this sect of Islam is generally considered the most realistically moderate and spiritual. And Ali embraced it in the last decade of his life. All of which means that once again, we see in Ali the value of personal moral growth and a rejection of anger and hatred in one’s life. To him, to follow God was to be Godly, and he pursued that end relentlessly.
Now, while we’re sparing you our dissertation on religion (for now!), we will nevertheless note that faith – in God, in life, in country, in one’s fellow man, in anything – is a sign of a healthy culture. Cultures that lack faith, that believe in nothing, are both decadent and dying. They are not creative. They are not life-affirming. And they tend toward slow but inevitable decay. Most of Muhammad Ali’s leftist fans long ago abandoned faith, not just in God but in their fellow man and in civilization more generally. And as they promised, they have taken over and have changed the ruling institutions of American culture. In so doing, they evangelized their own sense of despair and pointlessness and turned the institutions they captured into the instruments of nihilism. Judging from their embrace of Ali in recent days, they seem to think that Ali was one of them, that he shared their world view, their pointlessness, their actions and beliefs (or lack thereof). But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he stood apart from them, from their destruction and abdication of responsibility.
As we have noted countless times in these pages, the spread of leftist ideology throughout Western Civilization during the 19th century brought with it the nihilism that Nietzsche predicted would destroy all religious and metaphysical principles and bring on the greatest crisis in mankind’s existence. And lo, nihilism begat postmodernism, which begat a culture devoid of anything substantive, even notions of truth, reality, and right and wrong. While the liberal Boomers in the media have spent the last several days prattling on about Muhammad Ali’s “bravery” and extremism in the face of a war he didn’t understand and didn’t want to fight, the more important lessons of his struggle – including his belief that belief itself is a critical component of the good life – are ignored. And not without reason. The Left chooses to define Ali by his youth. But his life in full is defined almost exclusively by his faith, faith which they detest in anyone else, in any other circumstances.
All of which brings us to one final point about Muhammad Ali that is – for obvious reasons – being given short shrift. Muhammad Ali did not just “have” Parkinson’s. He did not just “die” of Parkinson’s. He suffered from Parkinson’s. And he suffered profoundly. He suffered for more than three decades. Indeed, he suffered for a majority of his public life.
In the days since his passing, we have seen and read countless articles about Muhammad Ali and about his greatness and his bravery. Very few, though, mention the fact that his bravest fight was against both the disease that debilitated and killed him and against the suffering he would endure. Prior to his diagnosis in 1984, Ali was a happy warrior, a joyful man with a joyful spirit. The amazing thing is that he remained so after his diagnosis as well, right up to his death.
We have no desire whatsoever to disparage or belittle other celebrities struggling with Parkinson’s, but unlike some others, Muhammad Ali did not take his suffering and use it as a club to make and score political points. He did not use his suffering as the means to disparage public policy dedicated to and based on strict moral principles. He did not, in short, make the eminently understandable and logical case that his suffering was purely personal. Rather, he made his suffering an example to others.
As we have said, we have scoured the internet over the last few days, and thus far we’ve seen no mention of the similarities between Muhammad Ali and another deeply religious man who suffered equally and from the same affliction, Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul, obviously, made a far more serious and far more spiritual expression of his suffering, but he and Ali nevertheless shared a mutual willingness to endure their burden – to carry their cross, if you will – for a larger purpose. For Ali, the suffering was the means by which he encouraged others who were suffering to appreciate and to relish life nonetheless. For Pope John Paul, his suffering was the embodiment of God’s love, of God’s willingness to redeem us, a connection to the sacrifice of Jesus. By his own suffering, Pope John Paul reminded us all that suffering is what binds us to God, what makes Him a necessary and fundamental part of aspirational civilization and human life. Suffering, in other words, is what reminds us that there is something more, something bigger than ourselves. It combats the emptiness of nihilism. Chesteron put it this way:
But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt . . . In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God . . . Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point and does not break.
If you have read anything that we have written over the last, say, twenty years, then you’re aware that we believe that a battle rages in Western Civilization between two opposite and inimical factions. We have characterized those factions in various ways, but one of the most important is that which focuses on the differing conceptions between the two factions with respect to the nature and purpose of government.
In brief, one side believes that government exists explicitly and exclusively to ensure the rights with which all men have been endowed by their creator, including the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The other believes that government exists to guarantee the liberty expressed by the “collective will,” which is to say the liberty granted by and enforced by the sovereign and his state. Among the keys to understanding and accepting this latter vision are two interconnected beliefs. The first of these is that man was, once upon a time, a happy and perfect creature, a “noble savage,” free from worries, fears, and want; and the second stipulates that original sin is myth, a bald faced lie told to justify the existence of such abominations as private property.
As Pope John Paull II made clear, human suffering – the kind that both he and Muhammad Ali endured – serves as a purpose. It is a powerful refutation of this notion of human perfection and happiness on earth in the absence of God. Yet, if one looks around at the American and broader Western cultural milieu today, it is clear that this notion that suffering is important, that it proves the imperfectability of human society, has been completely lost, as has the corollary assumption that complete redemption is only possible with the help of the Creator.
This is confirmed by the campus crybullies who demand never to be confronted with ideas, thoughts, or people who might disrupt their intellectual cocoons; by the newly ascendant young socialists who believe that man’s society can be perfected if only the right people are forced to give that which they have accumulated beyond their need; by a President who negotiates for peace with a regime dedicated to war and to the complete destruction of its enemies; by various governmental and extra-governmental institutions that seek to perfect the planet’s climate through the implementation of public policy. In fact, the loudest and the most prominent voices in our culture and our politics today are those who see man’s powers as limitless and who base their courses of action on nothing so much as the vaunted “Golden Age Myth,” the idea that civilization can be perfected, if only the institutions of civilization can be changed appropriately.
That’s not going to happen, of course. Man’s civilization is never going to be perfected. But you can’t tell them that. You can’t tell the Gnostic dreamers of the Left that their vision of society is one that leads to nothing but despair and desolation. And so they will continue to pursue their mythical beast, intending to prove, once and for all, that the past is not prologue and that this time, it will be different.
You would think, with the death this past week of one of the Left’s heroes, that some of the them would stop and think about this, that some of them would sit and ponder the nature of their hero’s suffering and the lessons that his grace in that suffering conveyed.
But they won’t. They can’t. They cannot help but draw the wrong lessons. It’s what they do. It’s what they’ve always done. They project their own experiences onto those of others and usurp those experiences for themselves and for their purposes. They’ve done it for decades with the Vietnam War. And now they’re doing it again with the man whose life was dedicated principally to his redemption from the anger and hatred he felt as a result of that same war.
As another one of their heroes once asked, when will they ever learn?
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