With Muhammad Ali’s funeral this week, our country has just finished a week-long commemoration of mythological proportions.
The nation’s news media and cultural elite spoke with one voice in proclaiming Ali “the Greatest,” and anyone who questions that title runs the risk of being called racist or worst.
But can we take a timeout from the politically correct mythmaking and look at the real Muhammad Ali? Before adopting him as the universal role model, can we stop and ask, role model for what?
In our 21st century celebrity culture, we seem to demand an all-or-nothing verdict on any departing figure of public stature. If we ask for a more balanced judgment, we can get trampled by the stampede toward secular sainthood or demonization.
Muhammad Ali was unquestionably one of the greatest boxers of the 20th century and a sincere advocate for his religious beliefs. In his life, he defeated the best professional boxers of his era, some of them more than once, which meant he was easily forgiven the excesses of his ringside braggadocio.
But let’s be clear: the rapid canonization of this colorful character is due as much to his progressive “anti-military” political commitments as to his athletic prowess. His battles outside the ring are now being heralded as even more courageous and significant than his unparalleled performance inside the ring.
But, wait a minute: he was wrong about a few important things, not the least of which was the escape of the black race from slavery. Isn’t it important to get that right?
No, Islam did not free African-Americans from slavery, not in Africa and not in Europe or America. Evangelical Christianity did that.
No, Islam did not lift American blacks out of poverty; capitalism did that.
And, no, the white race was never Muhammad Ali’s enemy; it was and remains his friend and ally against the deceptions of the mythmakers.
It may be dangerous to ask, but — what is the truth of the matter?
History — real history, the history not taught in American schools in California any longer — tells us that William Wilberforce, the British politician who led the abolitionist movement in England that succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in 1807, did not take up the slavery issue until after his conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1785, after he was already an elected member of Parliament.
The abolitionist movement in the United States was led by Christian leaders, while the slave trade in Africa continued under the control of African tribes who profited from it. Historians estimate that 90 percent of the slaves captured and shipped across the Atlantic were the victims of a commercial partnership involving African tribes who had been in that business for centuries.
When the young, successful boxer Cassius Clay converted to Islam, he was given the name Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, a religion which teaches that the white race is evil. It teaches as a tenet of faith that all Muslims must hate Christianity and hate the white race as the enemy of black people.
Wow, now there’s a recipe for peace and progress!
The fact that it was Christianity that led the movement to abolish the slave trade, not Islam, was lost in translation in Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam. Correction: it was not lost, it was discarded.
Yet, progressive politics being what it is, Muhammad Ali was never called a racist for espousing such racist claptrap. To Hollywood, Big Media and the commercial kingdom of professional sports, it was and is acceptable to speak in such terms. And unfortunately, Muhammad Ali was a pioneer in making such hypocrisy not only acceptable but fashionable.
Muhammad Ali’s refusal to report to his draft board for induction into the U.S. Army is well known, but his stated reasons for that refusal have been glossed over in the rush to make him an anti-war hero. Yet, by his own words, he was not “anti-war.” He was against any war not declared by Allah and endorsed by Nation of Islam prophet Elijah Muhammad.
That declaration was not the protest of a sincere pacifist or conscientious objector, and Islam is about as far from a pacifist religion as an iceberg is from a lava flow. In fact, Ali’s refusal to be drafted on supposed “religious grounds” was not upheld by the courts. He won his three-year battle with the draft board on a technicality, not because the courts accepted his claims of a religious exemption derived from Muslim beliefs.
Muhammad Ali’s long personal battle against Parkinson’s was indeed heroic, and he was an inspiration to many in that struggle and in his many charitable works, especially with youth. He became a role model that somehow transcended both religion and politics. We can acknowledge that in many ways, he was a courageous human being. He was sincere in his beliefs and he fought for them, but that does not mean we should agree with him or adopt those beliefs.
That is what makes the orgy of political correctness surrounding his death and funeral so distasteful: the politicization of our natural empathy for the man’s personal triumphs into a political statement that demeans and slanders all who took a different path — that vulgar spectacle is reprehensible.
We have no military draft today, and no one is required to join the military to fight in a war they think immoral. But it is nonetheless dangerous to suggest that Muhammad Ali was engaging in some heroic act when he declined to be drafted because Allah would not approve of that particular war.
It is sad that Ali’s passing in the middle of a presidential election year provoked in our cultural elites an orgy of political correctness and emotional manipulation seldom seen outside the modern university campus. Americans are being asked not only to admire and celebrate a life of great personal achievements, we are also being asked to accept and admire all of the political causes associated with that remarkable career.
Such is how cultural icons are created in our modern popular culture. Many Americans are disgusted and repelled by the spectacle, but alas, for the vast majority of citizens, challenging the myth-making is akin to swimming against the tide.