I Am The Greatest!

Young Muhammad Ali

“I Ain’t Got No Quarrel With The VietCong… No VietCong Ever Called Me Nigger” — Muhammad Ali, 1966.

Political courage blazed in Ali at one of America’s most turbulent times. When he had everything to lose, including his life. He was as charming as he was physically beautiful. Yet, few spit truth into the face of power with the same fierceness. 

In 1966, with Jim Crow still very much the law of the land, the Olympic gold medalist and recently crowned heavyweight champ defied the white establishment by refusing to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the war. This descendant of slaves was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles.

Fifty years after Ali’s fearless heroism, even with a black president, the putrid stench of racism still assaults us daily … via insidious voter suppression laws, ubiquitous gun violence and educational inequality. 

Trump Fascist

Who among us has Ali’s backbone to push daggers into the hearts of the shameless? And to call out the disgusting lies repeated enough times by the Roves and Trumps and NRA lackeys to convince large swaths of our fellow citizens that up is down and bad is good?

“I said I was ‘The Greatest,’ I never said I was the smartest!”

Though only a high school grad, Ali was smart, alright. More importantly, he was wise. And, in spite of his justified fury, he extolled America as “the greatest country in the world.” We are the greatest, but our greatness is bleeding out from repeated self-inflicted gunshot wounds: failed economic Trickle Down nonsense and short-sighted unwillingness to invest in our crumbling infrastructure (read schools, roads, bridges, waterworks, etc) that would instantly create badly needed good jobs. How I wish The Champ was punching his way through the melee of stupidity and inequity that surrounds us RIGHT NOW. Butterflies and bees don’t give a fuck about political gain. They just seek out flowers where everybody wins.

Here are a few of The Greatest’s insights about many of the existential crises we currently face.  

muhammad-ali-training

Education

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'”

Stupid is Out. Wisdom is In. Contrary to one of the current false narratives rightwing hacks have proffered, there is nothing patriotic in being uneducated. Stupidity breeds violent behavior and prejudice, and only ruin awaits a society where science is mocked, or worse, muted. Still, political charlatans have convinced a great many that those with higher education are sinister “elites,” as if knowledge is cancer. What do ignorant people get for their fealty? Murderous, profit-motivated fear-mongers like NRA leader, Wayne LaPierre, who, in the face of the mass murdering of twenty first-graders, advocated arming elementary school teachers and flooding the country with more weapons. Destroyers like this must be silenced and even jailed. In my secret fantasy, Mr. LaPierre would be shot. 
Ali-holding-up-three-fingers-while-reciting-poem-predicting-that-opponent-Charlie-Powell-will-fall-in-third

“If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”

A recent WSJ article reported that “only 37% of American 12th-graders were academically prepared for college math and reading in 2015, a slight dip from two years earlier.” We’re failing 2/3 of our kids, from preschool straight through college. And anointing dumb-as-a-box-of-hammers “leaders” like Sarah Palin, who not only stain the nation’s integrity but endanger our health and economic well-being. And here’s the punchline – while we get dumber, fatter and more intransigent, the U.S. is making 2457 F35 fighter jets at $170 million each, with the jury very much out on whether they even work or not. Talk about stupid! A helmet for one of these costs $400,000. How about we make only 2450 broken jets and invest every penny of the extra $1.2 billion dollars to rebuild every crumbling school and see to it that every zip code has proper, well paid teachers and a robust curriculum. The rants of ignorant demagogues can find no purchase in the nourished minds of the well informed. 

Voter Supression = Oh so clever Racism

“White people just don’t want their slaves to be free. That’s the whole thing.”

Texas Voter Supression

Democracy isn’t complicated. Everybody votes and we add up the totals to see what the people want. The NYT reported that “Within hours of the Supreme Courts gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Texas officials began enforcing a strict photo identification requirement for voters, which had been blocked by a federal court on the ground that it would disproportionately affect black and Hispanic voters. Chief Justice Roberts’s notion that prejudice in the South is gone would be laughable were it not so horrific. Within months, over a dozen states raced to change voting laws that make it harder for minorities (read Democrats) to vote. Why? Because America is getting organically darker and old white guys don’t want to lose the power they’ve had for centuries. In 1950, whites made up 90% of the U.S. population. Today, that number is 70% and dropping fast. When Trump says, “Make America Great Again,” he’s really saying, keep America white and keep women or, to use his words, “young and beautiful pieces of ass,” at home cooking and waiting to service their white supremacists. We each (that means YOU) must work to elect officials who will restore the Voting Rights Act, so that it has teeth again. Of course, it’s a headache to write, email and call your legislators. But better a headache than a terminal illness. 

Stick and Move
Stick and Move, acrylic on paper, 36×24″ 2016, Stuart Sheldon

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”

Like a fine wine, Ali mellowed with age. Yet his heart and his message never softened. He recognized the arc of his life when he said, “I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others.” 
Ali 2015

“A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

I watched virtually every Ali fight as a boy. And reveled in his smack talking tirades. Like the Champ said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Ali backed it up every time. He taught me to use my voice for righteousness. And to punch hard early. At 52, I view the world far differently than I did at 22. I recognize that if not me, who? Let’s honor this great man’s struggle by fighting the destructive forces in our country and beating them “so bad they’ll need a shoehorn to put their hats on.”

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14 thoughts on “I Am The Greatest!

  1. Another moving post Stu…this one makes one feel uncomfortable and it should…we are in turbulent and divided times. Many if not most people are really only listening to messages that comfirm their biases instead of asking lots of questions with an intent to be informed and make sound decisions.

    Most of the major issues of the day are complex and nuanced problems that need calm thoughtful discourse and a desire to take in as much information as possible, hear opposing points of view and then move to action. This method has been lost on most of our leaders and our populous. Sadly much our populous is easily manipulated and ill informed. They like sound bites and take then hook, line and sinker. It always blows my mind that the people who support some of our worst leaders are actually the ones who are hurt the most by their policies and actions. These supporters are easily fooled and short on fact checking what they hear from “their” leaders. Trump is a prime example…Mark

  2. Follow on from my comment above and stretching a bit to speak my truth. Some of what is written is hard to hear because I am one of those white men and have profited from my privilege and appreciate my privilege. That said, I am certainly for equality. However, I actually agree with the voter ID issue because I believe if you don’t have it together enough to get an ID then you probably aren’t qualified to vote in my view. I don’t say this as an “elitist”, but someone who believes to govern you must be a thinker, ask questions, and most importantly listen to the answers. Voting is a form of governance.

    Respectfully.…mark

    1. I admire your candor and courage in speaking here. The facts are clear, voter fraud is effectively non-existent. And it goes much further than IDs. Polling places have been shut, giving us situations like AZ where folks had to wait all day, only to be told the polls were closed when they got to the front. Early voting was cut back. Same day registration was eliminated. There are a litany of clever tools used by those who want to legally game the system to keep the majority’s voice from being heard. Your suggestion that someone who can’t get an ID doesn’t “have it together” misses the poor rural worker who can’t and/or can’t afford to travel across state to the DMV to get a license renewed and other such legit reasons. We should be making it easier to vote. NOT HARDER. Motor voter laws are an obvious solution, where you get registered when you get a license. The Voting Rights Act was a fine tool, which BOTH HOUSES of Congress renewed with great majorities in 2006. The Supreme Court should be ashamed. As am I. And now I am turning my shame into action.

  3. Wow, who knew there was a comment section to these “breathtakingly” [fill in blank] and occasional missives; life just got that much better.

    I’m Ali obsessed in this moment of his passage. He is/was a giant, speaking truth to power, literally, and being wiling to pay the price for his actions. And when you compare him to the cretins actually on the national stage at the moment – you mention Pallin – Ali seems more an alien, utterly and entirely different. (NB: Pallin’s preferred sobriquet/handle is “Dumber than a box of rocks.”)

    Mostly, thanks for mentioning the F35 boondoggle…the military budget MUST BECOME AN ISSUE over the next four/eight years. It is a black hole of waste, and the entire enterprise has gotten a pass since Reagan and Bush’s Iraq adventure. The non-productive nature of this capital expenditure – no one benefits from the use of a bullet like they a nail, or a jet fighter like a jet frig – is something like taking a fiver out of every Franklin and lighting the bitch on fire. Enough already!!

  4. Right on, Stu. One of your best posts ever. It makes us think as well as feel uncomfortable for the privilege we have and so many don’t

    Every day I am in the office I look at a photo of Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) and have always admired him. Ali…RIP

  5. Love this post … ALL your work is insightful and inspiring. By the way there’s a free screening of a new Ali documentary tomorrow (Sat 6/11) at 2pm at the Gables Art Cinema.
    Alden

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