Saturday, January 7, 2017

I've been reading the book Paul gave me for Christmas, Blood Brothers, a history of the friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. The authors are not elegant writers, and their past books are mostly biographies of sports figures. Also, they're two white guys, which I find unsettling, though their coverage thus far seems fair.

I've already done a lot of reading about Malcolm X but this is the first book I've read about Ali. So I'm learning a lot about the world of boxing, which I knew nothing about before. I'm also learning a lot about the rise of self-promotion in the nascent age of television. For instance:

When [Cassius Clay and his scheduled opponent, Archie Moore] appeared together on a half-hour television show called The Great Debate, Clay came off not so much as an occasional scene-stealer but as a serial scene-mugger. As soon as Moore said "Good evening," Cassius began a spontaneous filibuster, drowning out virtually everything Archie tried to say. Moore considered himself a thoughtful speaker and conversationalist, but it was difficult to engage a rabble-rouser and a shouter. "Don't humiliate yourself," Moore finally said. "Our country depends on its youth. Really, I don't see how you can stand yourself."

The parallels between this scene and the 2016 presidential debates are notable. Ali has become an icon of the civil rights movement, a progressive hero. Donald Trump is anathema. Nonetheless, their behavior on television was nearly identical.

I now imagine Trump studying tape, the way athletes do when they're preparing for a game. And if Ali's footage was part of that study, then the ironies and complications of his victory are far beyond what I've already recognized. Hitler was an influence we feared. But did we think of the figures we've learned to honor? What does that do to their legacies? To our trust in our own powers of discernment? The poisons run deep.

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