Heroes? When I was a kid, among my heroes and I was joined in this by so many Americans was Jackie Robinson. Yes, he was the first Black ballplayer to break into the segregated major leagues. But the main thing for me was that he was the stellar second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers and I was a mad Dodgers fan. My dad grew up in Brooklyn, so no surprise there.
But as my favorite sportswriter, TomDispatch's jock culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte, author most recently of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, reminds us today, we now live in a distinctly Jackie Robinson-less world. The splits in a post- (or is it" sigh" pre-Trumpian) America have grown so great that heroes go distinctly unshared among us.
In this century, my own all-American heroes the people who have revealed to us what a national (in)security state we really live in are anything but universally agreed upon. If they were, Edward Snowden, who first gave us a sense of just how far-flung the National Security Agency's spying on Americans was, would still be living here, not in Moscow (of all places). And Daniel Hale, the former Air Force intelligence analyst who revealed to The Intercept information about the devastating U.S. drone-killing programs of our global war on terror, would have been hailed as a hero rather than sentenced to almost four years in jail. ("How could it be considered honorable of me," he said, "to continuously have laid in wait for the next opportunity to kill unsuspecting persons who, more often than not, are posing no danger to me or any other person at the time?") Having watched drone strikes in Afghanistan like the final one of the Afghan War in which a Hellfire missile slaughtered 10 civilians, including seven children, he testified in court: "I believe that it is wrong to kill, but it is especially wrong to kill the defenseless."
I mean, tell me that's not heroic. But I know all too well that he's no hero to so many Americans. As Lipsyte suggests, our last all-American hero may have been Muhammad Ali and that tells us all too much about our riven American world today. Tom
Why Is Ali the Last American Hero?
Who Else Is There?
At least once a week, a stranger writing a book, magazine article, newspaper feature, or blog; representing a documentary film, radio serial, or podcast; researching a paper for middle school, high school, or college asks me for an interview about Muhammad Ali. I'm on the short list of live resources because I began covering him when he was Cassius Clay and I was starting out as a New York Times sports reporter.
Other than, I guess, Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ, the current go-to-guy for a quick symbolic fix of history, spirituality, and spectacle is that heavyweight boxer who called himself The Greatest. Somehow, he's now right up there with two other once super-polarizing figures the greatest American president and the greatest Christian of all time.
I've been wondering lately just how Ali actually reached such heights. There are plenty of people alive today who once hated him and yet, in American popular culture, he's now a secular saint.
He would only have been 80 years old on January 17th. He died in 2016 at 74. While Lincoln and Christ were dramatically killed in their prime, Ali's life began fading away before our eyes while he was still in his thirties. That was when he gradually began losing his voice (and oh, what a voice it was!), his mobility, and his expressive affect, first from the pummeling that boxing gave him and then from Parkinson's Disease.
I rarely refuse interview requests about him. As one of a diminishing group of old, mostly white male journalists who knew Clay before he was champion, I feel an obligation to help set straight a willfully misinterpreted biography. I'm also always curious about why strangers are so fascinated by Ali and who they think he really was.
In recent years, they've ranged from the documentary king Ken Burns to an eighth-grader from California named Harmony. Like most of the scores of others, their questions were remarkably sharp and well-prepared, although most of them lean toward the Ali industry's common image of him as a fiery social warrior who arrived fully formed at a time in need of just such a hero.
That image is easier than dealing with his early espousal of a separatist cult preaching that white people were devils genetically created by an evil scientist. On Allah's chosen day of retribution, went the dogma of the Nation of Islam cult to which he then belonged, the Mother of Planes would bomb all but the righteous, who were to be spirited away. It was also easier than remembering Ali's repudiation of his early mentor, Malcolm X. Ali chose the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad, over him, a betrayal that may have doomed Malcolm to assassination.
Years after leaving the sect and converting to orthodox Islam, Ali offered a far more measured message. While he still gave the Nation of Islam credit for offering him a black-is-beautiful message at a time of low self-esteem and persecution, he also said definitively that "color doesn't make a man a devil. It's the heart and soul and mind that count. What's on the outside is only decoration."
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