Sunday, June 5, 2016

On Muhammad Ali and the Importance of Sacrifice

     Ali's incredible physical prowess in the ring combined with his ability to predict what round he would K.O. his opponents allowed him to transcend the sport in such a way that even a nonathletic nerd like myself knows his story.  I had his poster on my wall when I was in college, and I loved reading about his fights with George Foreman and Joe Frazier.  As humans, I think we have a natural desire to see the absolute peak of human potential, and Muhammad Ali showed us that every time he stepped in the ring.  To be honest, I've never been a huge boxing fan.  Even as a kid, the idea of two men standing in a ring, and beating each other senseless for the entertainment of howling, blood-thirsty fans always seemed kind of wrong to me.  That being said, you don't need to be a boxing fan in order to know that normal people can't do stuff like this or this.

     For me, however, his greatest moment came when he was standing outside of the boxing ring on April 28th, 1967.  On that day, Muhammad Ali stood in front of the draft board, and refused induction into the Army on the grounds of being a conscientious objector.  At the time, the Vietnam war was in full swing, and he explained his refusal to fight by saying:

My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. ... Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail!
     There is so much to unpack in this quote that it is hard to know where to start.  Remember, this was happening during a time when politicians were still standing in door ways to keep schools from being integrated and many establishments had only recently removed the "Whites Only" signs from their restroom doors.  Ali was stating, quite reasonably, that he didn't want to assist the U.S. government in it's oppression of people of color in Vietnam when it was actively oppressing people of color in America.  That's all well and good, but what really gets me is the last line where he tells his detractors, "Just take me to jail!"  Here is a man who had everything to lose: his money, his freedom, and his title as the heavyweight champion of the world.  But he didn't care.  He was willing to sacrifice everything in order to stand up for his beliefs. 

     As a former Marine who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm not sure what I would have done in Ali's position.  But I respect the fact that he was willing to put it all on the line.  Some people would call him a draft dodger for what he did, but I don't think that's accurate.  Muhammad Ali dodged a lot of punches in his lifetime, but he didn't dodge the draft.  Instead, he walked in front of the draft board with the same confidence and wit that he'd used against Sonny Liston, and told them that not only was we not going to play their game, but that he was willing to pay the consequences of his actions.  Unfortunately, it seems like that kind of resolve is missing in the environmental movement.

     We want to save the whales, but not if we have to stop eating fish.  We want to end climate change, but not if we have to stop driving cars.  In other words, we want to save the planet, but we don't want to be inconvenienced.  And that needs to change.  If we are serious about saving the world, then we need to follow Ali's example.  We need to be willing to do what's right... even if it's not easy.  We need to be willing to sacrifice.  On April 28th, 1967 Muhammad Ali showed us how to do that.  May we never forget

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