Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Record feature mischaracterizes landmark SCOTUS decision freeing Muhammed Ali

During the Vietnam War, a local draft board rejected heavyweight champion boxer Muhammed Ali's application for conscientious objector status, refusing to give a reason.

On this date in 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the United States Army.

Ali was sentenced to federal prison for five years.  His sentence was upheld by the Fifth Circuit.

This photo appears in today's St. Augustine Record, with a cutting cutline calling the Supreme Court's decision vindicating Ali'so constitutional rights based on a "technicality."  

The United States Supreme Court held in 1971 that Ali's conviction was unconstitutional because the draft board refused to give a reason.

Today's St. Augustine Record contains an AP photo of Ali with at the induction center, with an odd cutline on the anniversary, calling the Supreme Court's 8-0 per curiam decision based on a "technicality."

How insulting and utterly unAmerican.  Our Constitution is not a "technicality."  When a government official makes a decision and won't give a reason, that's arbitrary and capricious.

We don't guess people into the penitentiary.

My guess is that some hobbledehoy in AP's or GANNETT's employ needs to study American history.

We need real journalists.  Not future PR men doing a stint at low-paying reporter jobs before selling their souls.

Will those harried "Chain Gang Journalism" goobers at GANNETT and AP please be so kind as to comply with the AP Style manual?

Reporters:  stop editorializing that court decisions are based on "technicalities?"  Quote the decision and let the readers decide.  Thank you.

Judge Andrew Napolitano wrote in The Washington Times in 2016: "Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once wrote that the history of American freedom is, in no small measure, following fair procedures — which means enforcing the guarantee of due process. Without due process for those we hate and fear — even those whose guilt is obvious — we will all lose our freedoms."

For those of us in the reality-based community, facts matter.

On the anniversary of Ali's refusing to be inducted into the Army, here is the decision, followed by Matt Taibbi's 2016 Rolling Stone article at the time of Ali's death:

U.S. Supreme Court

Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971)
Clay v. United States
No. 783
Argued April 19, 1971
Decided June 28, 1971
Petitioner appealed his local draft board's rejection of his application for conscientious objector classification. The Justice Department, in response to the State Appeal Board's referral for an advisory recommendation, concluded, contrary to a hearing officer's recommendation, that petitioner's claim should be denied, and wrote that board that petitioner did not meet any of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status. The Appeal Board then denied petitioner's claim, but without stating its reasons. Petitioner refused to report for induction, for which he was thereafter tried and convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed. In this Court, the Government has rightly conceded the invalidity of two of the grounds for denial of petitioner's claim given in its letter to the Appeal Board, but argues that there was factual support for the third ground.
Held: Since the Appeal Board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, and it is impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department's letter that board relied, petitioner's conviction must be reversed.  Sicurella v. United States, 348 U. S. 385.
430 F.2d 165, reversed.
The petitioner was convicted for willful refusal to submit to induction into the Armed Forces. 62 Stat. 622, as amended, 50 U.S.C.App. § 462(a) (1964 ed., Supp. 
V). The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. [Footnote 1] We granted certiorari, 400 U.S. 990, to consider whether the induction notice was invalid because grounded upon an erroneous denial of the petitioner's claim to be classified as a conscientious objector.
The petitioner's application for classification as a conscientious objector was turned down by his local draft board, and he took an administrative appeal. The State Appeal Board tentatively classified him I-A (eligible for unrestricted military service) and referred his file to the Department of Justice for an advisory recommendation, in accordance with then-applicable procedures. 50 U.S.C.App. § 456(j) (1964 ed., Supp. V). The FBI then conducted an "inquiry" as required by the statute, interviewing some 35 persons, including members of the petitioner's family and many of his friends, neighbors, and business and religious associates.
There followed a hearing on "the character and good faith of the [petitioner's] objections" before a hearing officer appointed by the Department. The hearing officer, a retired judge of many years' experience, [Footnote 2] heard testimony from the petitioner's mother and father, from one of his attorneys, from a minister of his religion, and from the petitioner himself. He also had the benefit of a full report from the FBI. On the basis of this record, the hearing officer concluded that the registrant 
was sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form, and he recommended that the conscientious objector claim be sustained. [Footnote 3]
Notwithstanding this recommendation, the Department of Justice wrote a letter to the Appeal Board, advising it that the petitioner's conscientious objector claim should be denied. Upon receipt of this letter of advice, the Board denied the petitioner's claim without a statement of reasons. After various further proceedings which it is not necessary to recount here, the petitioner was ordered to report for induction. He refused to take the traditional step forward, and this prosecution and conviction followed.
In order to qualify for classification as a conscientious objector, a registrant must satisfy three basic tests. He must show that he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form.  Gillette v. United States, 401 U. S. 437. He must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief, as the term has been construed in our decisions.  United States v. Seeger, 380 U. S. 163Welsh v. United States, 398 U. S. 333. And he must show that this objection is sincere.  Witmer v. United States, 348 U. S. 375. In applying these tests, the Selective Service System must be concerned with the registrant as an individual, not with its own interpretation of the dogma of the religious sect, if any, to which he may belong.  United States v. Seeger, supra; Gillette v. United States, supra; Williams v. United States, 216 F.2d 350, 352. 
In asking us to affirm the judgment of conviction, the Government argues that there was a "basis in fact," cf. Estep v. United States, 327 U. S. 114, for.holding that the petitioner is not opposed to "war in any form," but is only selectively opposed to certain wars.  See Gillette v. United States, supra. Counsel for the petitioner, needless to say, takes the opposite position. The issue is one that need not be resolved in this case. For we have concluded that, even if the Government's position on this question is correct, the conviction before us must still be set aside for another quite independent reason.
The petitioner's criminal conviction stemmed from the Selective Service System's denial of his appeal seeking conscientious objector status. That denial, for which no reasons were ever given, was, as we have said, based on a recommendation of the Department of Justice, overruling its hearing officer and advising the Appeal Board that it "finds that the registrant's conscientious objector claim is not sustained and recommends to your Board that he be not [so] classified." This finding was contained in a long letter of explanation, from which it is evident that Selective Service officials were led to believe that the Department had found that the petitioner had failed to satisfy each of the three basic tests for qualification as a conscientious objector.
As to the requirement that a registrant must be opposed to war in any form, the Department letter said that the petitioner's expressed beliefs
"do not appear to preclude military service in any form, but rather are limited to military service in the Armed Forces of the United States. . . . These constitute only objections to certain types of war in certain circumstances, rather than a general scruple against participation in war in any form. However, only a general scruple against participation 
in war in any form can support an exemption as a conscientious objector under the Act.  United States v. Kauten, 133 F.2d 703."
As to the requirement that a registrant's opposition must be based upon religious training and belief, the Department letter said:
"It seems clear that the teachings of the Nation of Islam preclude fighting for the United States not because of objections to participation in war in any form, but rather because of political and racial objections to policies of the United States as interpreted by Elijah Muhammad. . . . It is therefore our conclusion that registrant's claimed objections to participation in war, insofar as they are based upon the teachings of the Nation of Islam, rest on grounds which primarily are political and racial."
As to the requirement that a registrant's opposition to war must be sincere, that part of the letter began by stating that
"the registrant has not consistently manifested his conscientious objector claim. Such a course of overt manifestations is requisite to establishing a subjective state of mind and belief."
There followed several paragraphs reciting the timing and circumstances of the petitioner's conscientious objector claim, and a concluding paragraph seeming to state a rule of law -- that
"a registrant has not shown overt manifestations sufficient to establish his subjective belief where, as here, his conscientious objector claim was not asserted until military service became imminent.  Campbell v. United States, 221 F.2d 454.  United States v. Corliss, 280 F.2d 808, cert. denied, 364 U.S. 884."
In this Court, the Government has now fully conceded that the petitioner's beliefs are based upon "religious training and belief," as defined in United States v. Seeger, supra:
"There is no dispute that petitioner's professed beliefs were founded on basic tenets of the Muslim religion, 
as he understood them, and derived in substantial part from his devotion to Allah as the Supreme Being. Thus, under this Court's decision in United States v. Seeger, 380 U. S. 163, his claim unquestionably was within the 'religious training and belief' clause of the exemption provision. [Footnote 4]"
This concession is clearly correct. For the record shows that the petitioner's beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them. They are surely no less religiously based than those of the three registrants before this Court in Seeger.  See also Welsh v. United States, 398 U. S. 333.
The Government in this Court has also made clear that it no longer questions the sincerity of the petitioner's beliefs. [Footnote 5] This concession is also correct. The Department hearing officer--the only person at the administrative appeal level who carefully examined the petitioner and other witnesses in person and who had the benefit of the full FBI file -- found "that the registrant is sincere in his objection." The Department of Justice was wrong in advising the Board in terms of a purported rule of law that it should disregard this finding simply because of the circumstances and timing of the petitioner's claim.  See Ehlert v. United States, 402 U. S. 99,  402 U. S. 103-104; United States ex rel. Lehman v. Laird, 430 F.2d 96, 99; United States v. Abbott, 425 F.2d 910, 915; United States ex rel. Tobias v. Laird, 413 F.2d 936, 939-940; Cohen v. Laird,315 F. Supp. 1265, 1277-1278.
Since the Appeal Board gave no reasons for its denial of the petitioner's claim, there is absolutely no way of knowing upon which of the three grounds offered in the Department's letter it relied. Yet the Government now acknowledges that two of those grounds were not valid. 
And, the Government's concession aside, it is indisputably clear, for the reasons stated, that the Department was simply wrong as a matter of law in advising that the petitioner's beliefs were not religiously based and were not sincerely held.
This case, therefore, falls squarely within the four corners of this Court's decision in Sicurella v. United States,348 U. S. 385. There, as here, the Court was asked to hold that an error in an advice letter prepared by the Department of Justice did not require reversal of a criminal conviction because there was a ground on which the Appeal Board might properly have denied a conscientious objector classification. This Court refused to consider the proffered alternative ground:
"[W]e feel that this error of law by the Department, to which the Appeal Board might naturally look for guidance on such questions, must vitiate the entire proceedings, at least where it is not clear that the Board relied on some legitimate ground. Here, where it is impossible to determine on exactly which grounds the Appeal Board decided, the integrity of the Selective Service System demands, at least, that the Government not recommend illegal grounds. There is an impressive body of lower court cases taking this position, and we believe that they state the correct rule."
Id. at  348 U. S. 392.
The doctrine thus articulated 16 years ago in Sicurella was hardly new. It was long ago established as essential to the administration of criminal justice.  Stromberg v. California, 283 U. S. 359. In Stromberg, the Court reversed a conviction for violation of a California statute containing three separate clauses, finding one of the three clauses constitutionally invalid. As Chief Justice Hughes put the matter, "[I]t is impossible to say under which clause of the statute the conviction was obtained." Thus, "if any of the clauses in question is invalid under the 
Federal Constitution, the conviction cannot be upheld."  Id. at  283 U. S. 368.
The application of this doctrine in the area of Selective Service law goes back at least to 1945, and Judge Learned Hand's opinion for the Second Circuit in United States v. Cain, 149 F.2d 338. It is a doctrine that has been consistently and repeatedly followed by the federal courts in dealing with the criminal sanctions of the selective service laws.  See, e.g., United States v. Lemmens, 430 F.2d 619, 623-624 (CA7 1970); United States v. Broyles, 423 F.2d 1299, 1303-1304 (CA4 1970); United States v. Haughton, 413 F.2d 736 (CA9 1969); United States v. Jakobson, 325 F.2d 409, 416-417 (CA2 1963), aff'd sub nom. United States v. Seeger, 380 U. S. 163Kretchet v. United States, 284 F.2d 561, 565-566 (CA9 1960); Ypparila v. United States, 219 F.2d 465, 469 (CA10 1954); United States v. Englander, 271 F. Supp. 182 (SDNY 1967); United States v. Erikson, 149 F. Supp. 576, 578-579 (SDNY 1957). In every one of the above cases, the defendant was acquitted or the conviction set aside under the Sicurella application of the Stromberg doctrine.
The long established rule of law embodied in these settled precedents thus clearly requires that the judgment before us be reversed.
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
The original judgment of affirmance, 397 F.2d 901, was set aside by this Court on a ground wholly unrelated to the issues now before us, sub nom. Giordano v. United States, 394 U. S. 310. Upon remand, the Court of Appeals again affirmed the conviction. 430 F.2d 165.
The hearing officer was Judge Lawrence Grauman, who had served on a Kentucky circuit court for some 25 years.
Applicable regulations, 32 CFR § 1626.25 (1967 ed.), did not require that the hearing officer's report be transmitted to the Appeal Board, and the Government declined to disclose it to the petitioner. The statements in text are taken from the description of that report in the letter of advice from the Department of Justice, recommending denial of the petitioner's claim.
Brief for the United States 12.
"We do not here seek to support the denial of petitioner's claim on the ground of insincerity. . . ."  Id. at 33.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, concurring.
I would reverse this judgment of conviction and set the petitioner free.
In Sicurella v. United States, 348 U. S. 385, [Footnote 2/1] the wars 
that the applicant would fight were not "carnal," but those "in defense of Kingdom interests."  Id. at  348 U. S. 389. Since it was impossible to determine on exactly which grounds the Appeal Board had based its decision, we reversed the decision sustaining the judgment of conviction. We said:
"It is difficult for us to believe that the Congress had in mind this type of activity when it said the thrust of conscientious objection must go to 'participation in war in any form.'"
Id. at  348 U. S. 390.
In the present case, there is no line between "carnal" war and "spiritual" or symbolic wars. Those who know the history of the Mediterranean littoral know that the jihad of the Moslem was a bloody war.
This case is very close in its essentials to Negre v. Larsen, 401 U. S. 437, decided March 8, 1971. The church to which that registrant belonged favored "just" wars, and provided guidelines to define them. The church did not oppose the war in Vietnam, but the registrant refused to comply with an order to go to Vietnam because participating in that conflict would violate his conscience. The Court refused to grant him relief as a conscientious objector, overruling his constitutional claim.
The case of Clay is somewhat different, though analogous. While there are some bits of evidence showing conscientious objection to the Vietnam conflict, the basic objection was based on the teachings of his religion. He testified that he was
"sincere in every bit of what the Holy Qur'an and 
the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad tell us, and it is that we are not to participate in wars on the side of nobody who -- on the side of nonbelievers, and this is a Christian country, and this is not a Muslim country, and the Government and the history and the facts shows that every move toward the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is made to distort and is made to ridicule him and is made to condemn him and the Government has admitted that the police of Los Angeles were wrong about attacking and killing our brothers and sisters and they were wrong in Newark, New Jersey, and they were wrong in Louisiana, and the outright, everyday oppressors and enemies are the people as a whole, the whites of this nation. So, we are not, according to the Holy Qur'an, to even as much as aid in passing a cup of water to the even a wounded. I mean, this is in the Holy Qur'an, and as I said earlier, this is not me talking to get the draft board -- or to dodge nothing. This is there before I was borned, and it will be there when I'm dead, but we believe in not only that part of it, but all of it."
At another point, he testified:
"[T]he Holy Qur'an do teach us that we do not take part of -- in any part of war unless declared by Allah himself, or unless it's an Islamic World War, or a Holy War, and it goes as far -- the Holy Qur'an is talking still, and saying we are not to even as much as aid the infidels or the nonbelievers in Islam, even to as much as handing them a cup of water during battle."
"So, this is the teachings of the Holy Qur'an before I was born, and the Qur'an, we follow not only that part of it, but every part. "
The Koran defines jihad as an injunction to the believers to war against nonbelievers: [Footnote 2/2]
"O ye who believe! Shall I guide you to a gainful trade which will save you from painful punishment? Believe in Allah and His Apostle and carry on warfare (jihad) in the path of Allah with your possessions and your persons. That is better for you. If ye have knowledge, He will forgive your sins, and will place you in the Gardens beneath which the streams flow, and in fine houses in the Gardens of Eden: that is the great gain."
M. Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam 55-56 (1955).
The Sale edition of the Koran, which first appeared in England in 1734, gives the following translation at 410-411 (9th ed.1923):
"Thus, God propoundeth unto men their examples. When ye encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, until ye have made a great slaughter among them; and bind them in bonds; and either give them a free dismission afterwards, or exact a ransom; until the war shall have laid down its arms. This shall ye do. Verily if God pleased he could take vengeance on them, without your assistance; but he commandeth you to fight his battles, that he may prove the one of you by the other. And as to those who fight in defence of God's true religion, God will not suffer their works to perish: he will guide them, and will dispose their heart aright; and 
he will lead them into paradise, of which he hath told them. O true believers, if ye assist God, by fighting for his religion, he will assist you against your enemies; and will set your feet fast. . . ."
War is not the exclusive type of jihad; there is action by the believer's heart, by his tongue, by his hands, as well as by the sword. War and Peace in the Law of Islam 56. As respects the military aspects, it is written:
"The jihad, in other words, is a sanction against polytheism, and must be suffered by all non-Muslims who reject Islam, or, in the case of the dhimmis (Scripturaries), refuse to pay the poll tax. The jihad, therefore, may be defined as the litigation between Islam and polytheism; it is also a form of punishment to be inflicted upon Islam's enemies and the renegades from the faith. Thus, in Islam, as in Western Christendom, the jihad is the bellum justum."
Id. at 59.
The jihad is the Moslem's counterpart of the "just" war as it has been known in the West. [Footnote 2/3] Neither Clay nor Negre should be subject to punishment because he will not renounce the "truth" of the teaching of his respective church that wars indeed may exist which are just wars in which a Moslem or Catholic has a respective duty to participate.
What Clay's testimony adds up to is that he believes only in war as sanctioned by the Koran, that is to say, a religious war against nonbelievers. All other wars are unjust.
That is a matter of belief, of conscience, of religious principle. Both Clay and Negre were, "by reason of religious 
training and belief" conscientiously opposed to participation in war of the character proscribed by their respective religions. That belief is a matter of conscience protected by the First Amendment which Congress has no power to qualify or dilute as it did in § 6(j) of the Military Selective Service Act of 1967, 50 U.S.C.App. § 456(j) (1964 ed., Supp. V) when it restricted the exemption to those "conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form." For the reasons I stated in Negre and in Gillette v. United States, 401 U. S. 437,  401 U. S. 463 and  401 U. S. 470, that construction puts Clay in a class honored by the First Amendment, even though those schooled in a different conception of "just" wars may find it quite irrational.
I would reverse the judgment below.
As to the Court's analysis of Sicurella v. United States, 348 U. S. 385, and its application of Stromberg v. California, 283 U. S. 359, little need be said. The Court is, of course, quite accurate if opposition to "war in any form" as explained in Gillette v. United States, and Negre v. Larsen, 401 U. S. 437, is the law. But, in my view, the ruling in Gillette and Negre was unconstitutional. Hence, of the three possible grounds on which the Board denied conscientious objector status, none was valid.
Koran 61:10-13.
"War, then, is here an integral part of the legal system; for in accordance with the doctrine of the jihad,which is recognized as 'the peak of religion,' the Islamic commonwealth must be expanding relentlessly, like a caravan continuously on the move, until it becomes coterminous with humanity, at which time war will have been transposed into universal peace."
A. Bozeman, The Future of Law in a Multicultural World 81-82 (1971).
The last attempt to use the jihad as a significant force was made in 1914 by the Ottoman sultan; but it failed, and the jihad has fallen into disuse.  See 1 A. Toynbee, Survey of International Affairs, 1925, p. 43 et seq.(1927); 8 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences 401-403 (1932).
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, concurring in the result.
I concur in the result on the following ground. The Department of Justice advice letter was at least susceptible of the reading that petitioner's proof of sincerity was insufficient as a matter of law because his conscientious objector claim had not been timely asserted. This would have been erroneous advice had the Department's letter been so read. Since the Appeals Board might have acted on such an interpretation of the letter, reversal is required under Sicurella v. United States, 348 U. S. 385 (1955).

Muhammad Ali Was a Hero, But His Enemies Have a Legacy Too

Pentagon learned from the epic mistake of making a martyr of the world’s most gifted and famous athlete

Volume 90%

When I was growing up, it was impossible to imagine anyone cooler than Muhammad Ali. He had the perfect looks of a rock star, was hilariously funny, and was beautiful to watch in the ring. My friends and I used to pop in tapes of his fights and double over laughing watching his opponents flail about in search of that infuriatingly pretty face of his.
As is the case with many people who are reflecting on Ali’s legacy right now, Ali for me later in life also defined what it meant to stand on a principle. The story of how he defied the government and risked jail because he refused to kill on command was easy even for a young person to understand.
So I was saddened to hear of his death earlier this weekend. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see anyone like Ali again, and not just because he was a billions-to-one marvel of physical and mental gifts.
It’s also because his enemies learned from the mistake they made, and spent a generation making sure that the next of his ilk, in the unlikely event that he or she ever comes along, won’t become so powerful a dissenting influence.
Ali was famously a person who could make a stage out of anything. Even his weigh-ins turned into acts worthy of Carnegie Hall. But on April 28, 1967, the U.S. government handed him the biggest stage of his life.
At an armed forces examining station in Houston, he refused to step forward to a white line when his name was called. That one step would have signified his willingness to be drafted.
The awesome drama of that moment made Ali hated at the time, but also turned him into a martyr to history. The symbolism of a man who made his living fighting refusing to fight was extraordinarily powerful.
Ali furthermore brilliantly used the moment to link America’s bloody quagmire overseas to the domestic warfare that had broken out in places like Watts, Rochester, Newark, Cleveland, Detroit, and Division Street, Chicago.
“My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother or some darker people,” Ali said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger.”
Asking Ali to step forward that day in Houston was an epic strategic blunder. The last thing Lyndon Johnson or his successor Richard Nixon needed was to have Americans of any age, but particularly young people, making a connection between racism at home and wars of colonial domination abroad.
But by demanding that a man as prideful and magnetic as Ali submit to becoming a cheerleader for the bloodshed in Vietnam, that’s exactly what they did.
Even stripped of his title, Ali had enormous influence. He grew up in the dawn of the television age, for which his outsized personality was perfectly suited. He was one of the first people to understand the power of celebrity in the mass-media age, and became one of the first truly international media icons, more famous than JFK, Elvis, Khrushchev or the pope.
After refusing induction, Ali used that celebrity to become a dangerous and persuasive critic of the American state. Right away, he received public statements of support from people like Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Russell and Martin Luther King, instantly giving him credibility with young people, particularly nonwhite young people.
Ali; Army; Induction; Draft
King, incidentally, had pivoted toward criticism of the war right around the same time that Ali was refusing induction. He gave a speech in 1967 called “Beyond Vietnam” that made a lot of the same points Ali did.
“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society,” King saidat Riverside Church in New York on April 4th of that year, “and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
A year after that, unrest over the war essentially cost Lyndon Johnson his presidency. Abroad, the Tet Offensive sent American troops reeling toward a crushing defeat.
And later on, media efforts like the horrific “running girl” photo and the documentary Hearts and Minds helped confirm in the minds of large numbers of Americans a previously unthinkable idea: that the United States, savior of the world in the war against Nazism, was now the bad guy in the movie, a villain state that had murdered hundreds of thousands or even millions of poor civilian farmers for the sake of — what exactly?
The lesson the government should have learned from this disastrous episode was not to try to project power and influence by military occupation. Instead, the Pentagon saw Vietnam as a public relations failure. What military leaders thought they learned from the Indochinese fiasco is that wars are won on the airwaves as much as on the battlefield.
It’s not a terribly well-advertised fact, but the Pentagon has the single largest public relations budget in the world, annually spending billions to make sure that what happened in the Sixties does not happen again.
It’s being said a lot in the wake of Ali’s death that his counterparts today would never make the sacrifices he made. “Today’s transcendent athletes are too busy protecting their bank statements to make a political statement,” is how Christopher Gasper of the Boston Globe put it.
That might be true, but it’s also true that today’s athletes haven’t been asked to do what Ali was asked to do. Nobody is asking LeBron James to step forward to any white line. Nobody tried to draft Randy Moss or Albert Pujols to fight in Iraq. Who knows what might have happened if someone had?
The government eliminated that variable decades ago. In 1971, just as a comebacking Ali was preparing for the “fight of the century” against Joe Frazier, Richard Nixon signed a new selective service law that led to the end of the draft and the volunteer army. No more Ivy Leaguers or mouthy celebrities would be sent off to fight. It would be mostly poor kids from farms and inner cities on the front lines from now on.
Later on, the military instituted a series of new rules governing the behavior of the press in war zones, of which the ban on photographing military coffins was only the most famous. The Pentagon tightly controlled the imagery that was sent home, making sure that our living rooms weren’t filled with footage of young Americans, to say nothing of foreign civilians, being shot and mutilated.
The all-volunteer army, coupled with the new media rules, allowed America to go to war in Iraq without the same level of virulent dissent it felt during Vietnam. One of the particular successes of the new PR strategy was the near-total lack of outrage or empathy over the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
Muhammad Ali in the Sixties easily penetrated Pentagon propaganda about the enemy in the jungle by pointing out that he personally had no quarrel with the Vietnamese. He forced Americans to think about the moral consequences of killing other human beings half a world away who really had nothing to do with us, until we started herding them into “strategic hamlets.”
But a generation later, we Americans mostly lack the instinct to even ponder those questions. We sit through movies like American Sniper that tell us that Iraqis are villains because they shoot at our soldiers. The question of why we were ever there in the first place to shoot or be shot at is not talked about as much.
In large part that’s because the government has successfully sanitized the use of force. The brutality and ugliness of war is mostly kept separate from pop culture. Wars look like video games to young people today. This isn’t an accident. It’s the result of billions of dollars of research and propaganda devoted to the problem of preventing the wholesale attacks of conscience that broke out during the Sixties.
Ali wasn’t a perfect person. His cruel treatment of Joe Frazier in the runup to their three epic fights is a particular stain on his legacy. That Ali himself came to understand this only slightly diminishes the fact.
But he was still a hero, flaws and all. He would have been larger than life anyway, but his defiant stand against his own government amplified his legend as a fighter of bottomless will and courage, and made him a towering figure in our history.
When he’s laid to rest later this week, most people will remember how much he was beloved for those qualities. But let’s not forget that not everyone loved him, or found him and his defiance so charming. His detractors have a legacy as well, one that sadly enough might outlast his.

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