Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Why 'Polarizing' Is Misleadingly Used To Describe Ali

I was struck by a headline on a NY Times article printed in the Alaska Dispatch on Saturday, "Polarizing boxing legend Ali dies at 74."  Why'd they use the word 'polarizing' in the title?  Reading the article, I found that writer Robert Lipsyte, used it in the article.
"Ali was as polarizing a superstar as the sports world has ever produced — both admired and vilified in the 1960s and ’70s for his religious, political and social stances. His refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War, his rejection of racial integration at the height of the civil rights movement, his conversion from Christianity to Islam and the changing of his “slave” name, Cassius Clay, to one bestowed by the separatist black sect he joined, the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, were perceived as serious threats by the conservative establishment and noble acts of defiance by the liberal opposition." [emphasis added]
I guess my question is who, exactly, was polarizing?  Was it Ali, who simply wanted to claim his rights as an American citizen to choose his own religion and to be able to oppose his government's war policy?

Or was it the American media and the people it panders to who didn't like the idea of a big, strong, handsome, black male claiming his freedom to not take crap from white Christians?  Blacks then (and to some extent today still) were expected to be humble and thankful for every crumb they got from white America.

I would argue that Ali wasn't polarizing.  America's economic, social, and political culture was polarizing for anyone who didn't agree with it.  As a black man in 1960s USA, claiming his full rights as an American citizen was particularly unacceptable to those in power.

And today, that's exactly why Mohammad Ali is so revered by so many around the world.  He stood up to the man, without apology, but with lots of good humor.

Was Ali perfect?  That's a dumb question.  Sure he had flaws, but without an amazing amount of self-confidence he would not be remembered this week the way he is.  And, of course, the obvious follow up questions are:  Am I perfect?  Are you perfect?  Is anyone perfect?

I wonder how different the world would be today if Americans had been more thoughtful when Cassius Clay became Mohammad Ali and when Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If Americans had paid more attention, listened to the stories of these men and why they converted to Islam, respected their decisions and had learned more about Islam, and been less condescending of Islam and other non-Christian religions, we might live in a very different world today.

And as I think about Ali, and how he has evolved from 'polarizing'  to greatest American sports  hero,  I also think about Bernie Sanders.  Whom, it seems, the establishment Democratic politicians and the establishment media wish would sit down and shut up.  As they did with Ali.   But Sanders is 74 years old.  It's his time.  When I talked to Jane Sanders here in Anchorage last March, she told me that Sanders was campaigning to create a movement that, whether he won the nomination or the election or not, the movement was the most important thing.

A movement that would bring out people to vote and pressure their legislators to fight the corruption of money and the favoring of Wall Street and other big corporations.  That would fight for greater income equity in the US.  That would fight for acceptance of all the various people who make up the USA.

Like Ali, Sanders doesn't have to apologize to anyone.  He doesn't have to listen to the establishment when they condescendingly tell him, "OK, you surprised us, but you're not really one of us, not our calibre, so just enjoy your momentary glory and sit down and shut up."

The issues he's raising about Clinton - her war record, her connections with Wall Street, her personal wealth - are all issues that reflect the path the Clintons took.  They are all pretty consistent with all politicians who have been able to position themselves for a chance at the White House.  That is to say, Hillary Clinton isn't that different - other than gender and a more impressive resume than most - from most other presidential contenders.

Except that her opponent is Bernie Sanders whose stand on most issues has been pretty consistent over the years.  And when he calls her out on these things, he is simply distinguishing himself from her.   Will that hurt her after the convention?  One can argue it's made her stronger by forcing her to debate these issues and develop strategies to counteract them.  And they are moving her somewhat to the left, that political area that was inhabited by Republicans like Richard Nixon 40 years ago.  When the mainstream Democrats were even more to the left.  Bernie's campaign has resonated because the American people have finally become weary of politics as usual as witnessed by the success of the alleged Republican nominee and of Bernie Sanders.

Sanders isn't stupid.  He knows that Clinton is a much better choice than Trump, and he'll support Clinton and do everything he can to get his supporters to vote her.  But he wants to demonstrate the power of this new movement and use the primaries like a surfer uses the waves - to take this new movement as far as he can while the surf's up.  And he wants his supporters to have time to get over their letdown.  To understand that the movement will continue, but that Trump will set it back much more than Clinton would.  And to give Clinton time to show she understands their pain and their passion and will embrace their ideals.

And like Mohammad Ali, Sanders doesn't need to apologize.  And I'm guessing that 20 years out, his name will be associated with massive change in American politics.  I also am sure that, if that happens, inevitably, forces will build up to find new ways to exploit the system.  Free people have to constantly fight to maintain their freedom and to keep moving  in the direction of a more fair and equitable country and world.


  1. Yes, I agree. Years ago, I worked for Rep. Bella Abzug in D.C., who was fiercely anti-war. Friends are shocked that I support Bernie. Bella said, "We don't need any female Henry Kissingers." It's not like voting against the Iraq War was a lone wolf position: Obama did it, Sanders did it. Hillary didn't. Yes, I will support her against Trump, but I'm glad that I had the opportunity to see a principled person raise the important issues to national attention ... and get so much support.


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