14 June, 2016

America in retrograde: of Ali and the Orlando Massacre

Our currency is flesh and bone. - Pink Floyd, Dogs of War

Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even. -- Muhammad Ali

“All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.”-- Edward Gibbon, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

Burial of the Dead after Wounded Knee, 1890, in South Dakota
One of the wonders of this, our technological age, is that a person doesn't even have to be six feet under before the armchair historians will offer their pronouncements.* Sitting at the neighborhood watering hole I frequent and talking to another one of the regulars, I could barely contain my frustration. Muhammad Ali was dead, his funeral -- which the city of Louisville treated like his last great title fight -- was planned, and local gas stations took the opportunity to raise the price just in time for the influx of people coming into River City to show The Champ their respects. The political and cultural opportunists on all sides had already dug into their positions to lay claim to the dead boxer's voice, legacy, and life.  

Personally, I can think of no worse a fate for a man who spent his life making sure his voice was
clearly understood in spite of his industry's and the media's attempts to handle him.  But that wasn't my frustration, really. While I recognize Ali as a talented boxer and a cultural icon, I don't have the same sort of personal connection that many who are Louisville natives have.

My frustration? Racism masking itself as Patriotic indignation. For every person calling Ali a hero, for every person who signed that impromptu, well-intended, and, I can only assume, ill-thought out petition to replace the University of Louisville's memorial to the Confederate Dead** and erect a Muhammad Ali statue (that I can only assume would resemble slightly the statue of Rocky Balboa*** that still stands in Philadelphia) in it's place, there are, of course, all the angry old (white) guys who insist on calling him a draft dodger and a bigot.

I tried to point out that when Ali refused to present himself for the draft during the Vietnam War, that was he eventually stripped of his title and served four years in prison. His reasons for refusing were moral and ethical ones, and were based on figures that were accurate. There were a large number of blacks serving as canon fodder in the war effort, just as there were a predominately large number of poor people -- black, white, brown, what-have-you -- who were cannon fodder in a misdirected war against global communism.  The regular I was talking to -- someone I usually talk about all the normal things people talk about in bars^ -- pointed out that Ali's tour probably would have not been in the jungle.

"They'd have taken his picture. He'd box a few matches, get his picture taken, and probably would have been stationed in Germany."

"So he would have been a PR tool,"


 "Which probably would have been used to recruit more young black men to serve in far, more dangerous details in a war he was morally and ethically opposed to."

The conversation eventually moved on to how the Roman empire was toppled by sex (his view) and how Democracy, "like Communism, is a good idea on paper." But I'll come back to this conversation at a later date for another blog post.

I will comment on those who called him a bigot, thought. Ali joined the Nation of Islam -- a Black Nationalist religious organization, not to be confused with actual Islam. I don't know if that made him a bigot. The Nation did not, like the KKK (to which some people try and compare it) string people up for sport and take pictures of their burned, eviscerated, raped, and sodomized corpses the way hunters pose with their kills. The Nation probably DID have Malcolm X killed. But he actually did something -- he spoke what he saw as an evolving truth... much in same way Ali did through the course of his life. I don't know if he was a bigot. I don't believe, like some of the more granola loving pundits do, that he "transcended race." To suggest that entirely co-opts his struggles, his mistakes, and his triumphs into a weak and untenable ideological standard -- and in doing so, erases it. Bigotry is as much a response to a situation as it is a learned habit. I really hate idiots. So there. I guess I might be a bigot, too.

In the realm of death manipulated for by political and cultural pundits, the 50 deaths at Pulse in Orlando over the weekend has once again gotten the NRA crowd and those who want to see fewer guns on the street marshaling their forces and organizing full on meme wars for the hearts, minds, and digital device memories of the American people.

The NRA has gotten pretty good at shifting the conversation away from the fact that guns that shoot more bullets faster do, in fact, tend to result in higher casualties. This is the truth of war, and any kid who grew up playing Risk^^ knows that.  There is a faction of the Democratic Party, and liberals^^^ in general, that have gotten pretty good at shifting the conversation away from the fact that the 2nd Amendment can be interpreted a couple different ways depending whether you're a strict constructionist or not, while avoiding the central problem of having the government monitor or limit access to what are arguably unnecessary weapons^^^ -- that such a system would leave all the really dangerous guns in the hands of the people who have racked up more dead bodies than a Death Race 2000 reboot*:

the United States Government.

People are understandably outraged. We should always be outraged when violence rips apart people's lives.  What we need to be careful of, however, is falling back on simple solutions for what are complex issues. Everyone having a gun all the time is not a solution. No one having any is not one either.

Violence is a part of human nature. The earliest examples of law was meant to restrict and penalize this impulse. Law -- new laws, old laws -- will only do so much, and I am unconvinced that a change in law will bring forth the necessary change in our cultural consciousness.  Denying that we have the capacity for violence by claiming we have evolved because we have cell phones and electric cars and don't have to eat meat if we don't want to is delusional. Denying that we will never cease being violent creatures driven by our most basic needs and therefore need a tighter yoke to keep us in line is where totalitarianism finds root and grows, using whatever ism happens to be in vogue at the time.

How we respond to this violence will determine how future violence plays out -- because we are far from that utopian dream of a peaceful world. Besides the fact that humans are violent by nature -- or we still wouldn't be here -- the other fact at play is that as long as violence pays out in money and in power, we will never come to terms with our violent nature.

As it's an election year, of course all politicians of note are laying claim to the narrative being spun around the death of 50 people who only wanted to have a good time in a place they felt safe enough to be themselves. Ever the astute showman and salesman, Generalissimo Trump had to step his fat foot in it early:

Of course, the other megalomaniac got hers in, too, now that she conveniently supports marriage equity.

As I write, they are still identifying the dead. Their families are being notified. The carnage is far from cleaned up, although the larger narrative, with all of it's plot twists and Choose-Your-Own* Moral of the story is being polished to a shit shine that might even inspire Gov. Matt Bevin like plain old chihuahua shit apparently does.

And even as public officials and families work to identify the victims of this massacre, their deaths are being used by both sides to scare their armies into one battle or another.  Flags are at half mast again. We are mourning our fallen brothers and sisters in live CNN time... until the next tragedy.

At some point we will realize our entire lives are being filled with death, with violence, with fear. At some point we will decide to move beyond all of this and advance. At some point we will let our dead be dead.

Or, the tyrants will take over. And then it won't matter because we'll be too tired, too exhausted, too demoralized to notice that there aren't any flags anymore, and that the number of dead is too high to be accurately counted.
*Armchair Historians: those who, based solely on their life experience, act as if they understand all of human history. I suppose Google (or Bing) helps, too.
** See here, on UofL's own page about it. As a student of history, I think it's important to remember all of it. All I seem to hear from the apologists for leaving this statue where is, however, are cries and denouncements that liberals are trying to erase history -- usually spoken within the same two or three breaths that compare indentured servitude to chattel slavery, followed by the statement that African tribes often raided and sold neighboring and enemy tribes to sell them into slavery -- while conveniently letting the white slaver traders and the American economic system that depended on slave labor off the hook. After all, they were just trying to earn a living... and it wasn't ILLEGAL... right? Were American History taught as it actually happened, these apologists would not be so fired up about not revising it. The truth is they want the sanitized version we were taught to be the story -- not the blood, the bones, and the crimes against humanity, upon which all civilizations are built.
*** Proof that movie studios need to pay more for garbage pick up, and Philadelphia needs a better relationship with the Teamsters.
^ Sports, Politics, and the Downfall of Western Civilization. Not always in that order. 
^^For those who were born after the technological age: Risk was a kick ass board game in which you learned world domination.
^^^ Clintonian "New Democrats", or Republican Lite. Neoliberal (Friedman economics) sensibilities spiced up with JFK, MLK, and Gandhi quotes. Think of it as grand larceny, but they say please and thank you. And SMILE, BITCH, SMILE.
*With any luck, this won't happen. But then again... Amazon Prime needs a new show.
** There used to be a series of what would now be called YA books called "Choose Your Own Adventure." You read up to a plot point, and then were given a series of options with corresponding page numbers to turn to.  Sort of like Mad Libs*** for fiction.
*** Ah, forget about it. Google it if you want to know. 

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