Quick: what do former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard Myers and former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali have in common? Hint: it’s not patriotism. But both men will be given the nation’s highest civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom, at a White House ceremony next week.
That the same ceremony will honor not only Myers but a giant like Robert Conquest, a man who labored a lifetime to illuminate the darkness inhabited by fools like Ali, is breathtaking, but not terribly surprising.
The uber-narcissist of a narcissistic generation, Ali has been transformed by his infirmities into a benevolent missionary of peace and wisdom. If Ali had remained healthy, who knows what searching reevaluations he might have become subjected to over the last 20 years. Instead, we get Ali as suffering prophet and wise man, a pugilisitic Gandhi who labored to make us all better people. But of course Ali did not make us better, kinder, or wiser. He only made us louder, fed our already swelling addiction to talking without listening.
Outside of the lonely voice of Mark Kram, whose 2001 book Ghosts of Manila shed harsh light on the real Ali, the culture has given Ali a free pass on his racial fanaticism; ruinous effect on sportsmanship; and scorning of his country when it called on him for service. Is it merely because Ali has become ill that so few critics are willing to go back and examine the outrages he perpetrated on men like Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson (“C’mon Christian!” he hissed while fighting the latter) – or is it something deeper, something having to do with one generation’s ruinous thirst for an outlaw hero? A hero who, against all odds, would age along with them and finally become benign and grandfatherly, and prove that he had suffered at last, just like the generations he dishonored when he was young?