Yet another hole has been punched in our firmament, yet another star fell out. The hole and the rest of our universe have been filled with hysterical panegyrics and never-ending chants of quasi-religious worship.
In fact, Ali symbolised much of what’s worst in America specifically and the modern world generally. He doubtless earned his pugilistic fame, but outside the ring he only earned infamy. Or rather that’s what he would have earned had the world remained sane. As it was, the world was willing to issue him a line of credit, as unlimited as it was unearned.
Even his crude doggerel was hailed as displaying a “talent for verse” (The Times obituary), whereas it fell short of even competence. To wit: “Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing,// And raises the Bear straight out of the ring…”
Such praises were reverse racism: had a white schoolboy written something like that, he would have been told never to rhyme words again. But for a black man such helpless versification was seen as an achievement: to paraphrase, it’s not how well he did it that was amazing, but that he did it at all.
Similarly, Ali’s cracker-barrel philosophy was praised even by those who ought to have known a vulgar platitude when they heard one. Yet they kept hailing Ali’s aphorisms the way they never hailed, say, La Rochefoucauld’s. And the aphorisms kept coming: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life…” “A man who has no imagination has no wings…” And so on.
Most of us would be embarrassed to utter such adages, but Ali had a great talent for self-promotion. He knew white ‘liberals’ would swallow anything he threw their way because they detected a kindred soul, someone as consumed by hatred of the traditional West as they were.
If anything gives the lie to the American term ‘liberal’, it’s the leftwing adulation of Muhammad Ali, whose views couldn’t possibly be covered by the notion, no matter how far stretched. In fact, his beliefs were as illiberal as anything ever proclaimed by a Jim Crow enthusiast.
Imagine a white conscientious objector saying “My enemy is the black people, not the Viet Cong.” He would have been tarred and feathered, if he was lucky. Yet, replacing ‘black’ with ‘white’, this is exactly what Ali said when refusing to fight in Vietnam.
Admittedly the parallel isn’t quite exact, for the blacks were indeed victims of shameful discrimination, a blotch on American history that has never quite been expunged. Action causes counteraction, which is why black racism can be understood, if not vindicated. Yet racism it is, and describing it as something consonant with liberal ‘values’ is pathetic. It jibes not with the ‘values’ but with the underlying hatred.
Ali claimed he couldn’t serve in the US army because of the pacifist nature of his religion, Islam. The poor man was obviously unfamiliar with the scripture and history of his new creed. Suffice it to say that pacifism isn’t high on the list of Muslim tenets.
It was even lower on the list of the tenets preached by Elijah Muhammad, the extremist who founded the Nation of Islam sect, the one Ali joined under the influence of another extremist, Malcolm X. In fact, the ‘Black Muslims’, as they were called, openly preached violence as a means of ending racial discrimination.
Ali said, “You want me to go somewhere and fight when you won’t even stand up for my religious beliefs at home.” What did he expect? That Americans, many of whom are white Christians, would stand up for Islam at its most radical, that is at its most violent towards Christians and, in this case, whites in general?
Ali’s conversion to Islam was quite ridiculous. He refused to be called Cassius Clay, which he described as a ‘slave name’. In fact, Muhammad Ali was more of a ‘slave name’ than Clay, for few Africans had ever espoused Islam until forcibly converted to it by Muslim slave traders.
Ali had Irish roots on his mother’s side, but of course that prevented neither him nor his ‘liberal’ admirers from regarding him as fully black. If Obama’s white mother is ignored, then why not the Gradys of Western Ireland, one of whom married a freed American slave? Curiously, the ‘liberals’ seem to subscribe to the same philosophy that the worst racists encapsulate in the rant ‘a drop of tar, all nigger’.
When I first moved from the US to England, a middle-class gentleman suggested that people like Ali were mostly leftwing because they were black. “It’s the other way around,” I replied. “They are black because they are leftwing.”
Indeed, negritude has become more of a political statement than a race. And few things are worse than a race or a religion being used as a veil for political resentments – a tendency Ali personified most vividly.
One hopes that the hysterical adulation will abate in a day or two, and Ali will be remembered for what he was, a great boxer, and not for what he wasn’t, a great man. He was, however, a man for our time – but that’s the time’s fault, not his.