Let’s Talk About the Butterflies and the Bees

By Selwyn Duke

Last week many were commemorating Muhammad Ali’s sixty-fifth birthday with a zeal reminiscent of Roman pagans cheering a triumphant Caesar. And as I ponder this, I’m reminded of how people are as quick to forget as they are to condemn.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Ali. Although he knocked the veneer of invincibility off Sonny Liston before I was even a twinkle in my father’s eye, I’m a great fan of history and have watched more boxing retrospectives than I care to mention. I’ve probably seen all of Ali’s notable bouts and, although I’m no Burt Sugar (you know, the guy with the hat and cigar), I’m sure I know as much about the sport as anyone else who was a pugilist for only one day in camp when he was seven years old.

Now, apropos to the topic, it’s time for a rhyme, so enough about me and back to Ali. I do think he was the greatest boxer of all time, and I also believe he was intelligent (not well educated, of course), warm-hearted and, obviously, witty. It’s also true that Ali is deeply devoted to his religion at this point in his life, as evidenced by his words, deeds and frequent prayer. And this is to be expected. Someone with such a cross to bear (Parkinson’s) could find solace only in the more ethereal pursuits.

But while all this is true so is something else: The Ali image has been whitewashed by a media mouth that picked up where the “Louisville Lip” left off. For sure, Ali is portrayed not just as a legendary sports figure, not even merely as “The Greatest”; rather, he is cast as a larger-than-life hero for the ages (anyone who loosely tosses around the word “hero” should be boiled in oil). Why, I even heard someone on TV liken him to Einstein in terms of greatness. Einstein! Well, anyone who would draw that comparison is, I dare say, no Einstein.

When dealing with such a colorful, controversial and often polarizing figure, it’s easy to descend into hyperbole. And if I were to hew to human nature – which means being numb to nuance, slapping either a white or black hat on an individual – I suppose I could blind myself to Ali’s humanity and make this piece both more cruel and concise. But I won’t demonize him even as the media canonize him. I’ll simply say, exercising a smidgeon of rhetorical license, that as a young man he was quite flawed and, well, a dumb jock.

We may start by recalling that Muhammad Ali was a useful pawn of the Black Muslims. He was those useful idiots’ useful idiot, and at their behest embraced the darkness and railed against the light. He preached racial separatism and did not eschew the Nation of Islam’s violence and bigotry. Moreover, Ali spewed venom at blacks who didn’t toe the Nation’s line, such as boxing champions Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier, who he showered with racial vitriol and called “Uncle Toms.”

Then, owing to Black Muslim influence, he dispensed with his name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., complaining that he wouldn’t bear the name of someone who owned his ancestors. So he took the name “Cassius X” and then, ultimately, his present appellation. But the irony of this seems to have escaped him. He was rejecting the name of a famous abolitionist (Clay) and embracing that of someone who owned slaves (Muhammad). Not only that, his adopted faith has adherents who enslave black Africans to this day.

And though Ali’s religiosity came to define him, it itself was defined by contradiction. While he expected the deference prescribed by Islam from his wives (he has been married four times and to two women simultaneously), he nevertheless exhibited Clintonesque infidelity.

Perhaps he was almost as unfaithful to his country during the event that temporarily transformed him into a pariah: His draft resistance and acerbic remarks during the Vietnam era. It was at this time that he said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” No doubt true. Of course, no Viet Cong ever paid him millions of dollars, either.

Ali was ultimately convicted of refusing induction into the army, but this was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971, which found that his application for conscientious objector status was wrongly denied. This, despite the fact that Ali did not claim to be opposed to all wars – a prerequisite for conscientious objection – just those not declared by Allah. I also note that he certainly had no compunction about bashing other men in the head for money.

Today, however, many laud Ali’s anti-war stance as the perspicacity of someone ahead of the curve. But they miss the point. Whether or not Vietnam was a just war, the fact remains that we are to be governed by just law. No one is supposed to be above it and, in my estimation, Ali received a free pass only because of his wealth, fame and the changing political climate.

Moreover, the matter of why Ali refused induction into the army is a bit murkier than the myth-makers would have you believe. Aaron Tallent explains this well in his piece A Hard Left Hook to the Ali Myth:

. . . in his autobiography, Sugar Ray Robinson tells the story of visiting a scared Ali in New York in 1967. When Robinson insisted that he had to go to Vietnam, Ali answered, ‘No. [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad told me that I can’t go.’ Despite Robinson’s insistence, Ali tearfully explained that he was afraid. When asked if he was afraid of the Nation of Islam, he refused to answer. Robinson said Ali’s eyes were full of ‘tears of torment, tears of indecision.’

But Ali did have a tough act to follow. As Tallent points out, Elijah Muhammad refused induction into the military himself during WWII. In fact, he preached Japanese superiority and believed and hoped Imperial Japan would “slaughter the white man” in the conflict.

Was Ali evil to have cast his lot with such a demagogue? Well, again, let’s just say he was a dumb jock.

Really, though, anytime people fawn over mere mortals, it’s an indictment of the worshipers, not the idols. And why we exalt celebrity is interesting. First, generally speaking, the more removed a people is from the divine, the more it deifies men.

But then there’s another factor: The left, a set as devoid of the righteous as it is of religion, has to manufacture heroes. So it gives us the affirmative-action of myth-making, which offers up creations such as Michelle Wie the Amazon Golfer, Barack Obama the Great Leader, and Muhammad Ali the Saint. And, hey, schools need something to discuss during Black History Month.

If I seem as contradictory as Ali in my qualified affection for him, be not surprised. I simply sense what Ray Robinson did when he called Ali “one of the most likeable people I’ve ever known.” I also realize that while Ali talked much about people black and white, in reality, only the truth is so; people are shades of gray. You can recognize someone’s flaws without hating him.

So I do like Ali. Just don’t ask me to accept him as a paragon of virtue and font of wisdom. My one day in the ring didn’t make me punchy enough to believe that.

Selwyn Duke can be contacted at SD@SelwynDuke.com.

Copyright Publius Forum 2001