Aug 9, 2016

August 9, 2016: That Little Girl, Dreams are Torn, Youth and Innocence.


“I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from L.A.
I blew that Camero off my back
And drove that little girl away.
But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I come home the house is dark
She  sighs, ‘baby did you make it all right’
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born.
For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands.

Tonight, tonight, the highway’s bright
Out of our way mister you best keep
‘cause summer’s here and the time is right
For racing in the street.”  

                                     ---“Racing in the Street” Bruce Springsteen.

Today is an anniversary of sorts.  Today is my grandson’s birthday.  Happy birthday son. Today also marks the 17th anniversary of my first meeting Katie in Indianapolis, Indiana..It seems like so long ago, and yet like almost yesterday.  Today, for what it is worth, also marks the 42nd anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon. 

While here I pine for love’s labor lost, the nation pines for Nixon.  Only my grandson, insulated by youth and innocence, remains unscathed.  

-------

Springsteen, Bruce.  "Racing in the Street" from the album "Darkness at the Edge of Town"
1978 Columbia Records. 

Jul 25, 2016

July 1, 2016: The Flower of England, Military Mind, Veritable Monument.




“Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries, they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade” (1)

On this date, at the break of dawn precisely one hundred years ago, they went over the top in what became known as the Battle of the Somme. (2)  It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.  As the sun rose, the whistles blew and the men went, in the parlance of the time, “Over the Top”.  By sundown, the British had lost 57,470 men, an estimated 20,000 dead, mostly by noon that day.  It was a killing field.  The army advanced at a cost of 3 men for every foot of ground gained. 
  
It is remembered today largely as the leitmotif of a struggle characterized by what historian Max Hastings has termed the “Blackadder” interpretation of the First World War, after the British Sitcom of that name, which pilloried the struggle, especially the military leadership that led it.  Hastings takes umbrage with the critics, among them Siegfried Sassoon, claiming that they didn’t understand either its necessity nor its tactics. I must take issue with Hastings on both counts.

I don’t think that either Atkinson (“Blackadder”) or Sassoon the poet were critics of the struggle.  I don’t think either one of them, or many of the host of other critics of General Haig and the military chiefs, hold the view that the battle was unnecessary.  Where they take issue is with the strategy and the tactics used, and the continued order of repeated attacks for the next 141 days until the battle subsided due to the onset of winter having achieved not even the first day’s military objectives.  When it ended both sides suffered casualties each estimated at over half million men.

“The Children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation.” (3)

The battle occurred because the French were being decimated at Verdun and to alleviate the pressure and to save the French army, the British were called upon to begin a major offensive.  Its necessity is, therefore, not in dispute.  What is in dispute are the tactics.  

I’ve made the point in previous posts concerning this conflict that I hold the military brass responsible because they had learned nothing from studying war.  One questions the purpose of military academies where lessons from previous conflicts seemingly are at best forgotten and at worst ignored.  All the European powers had observers on both sides during the American Civil War, a war that introduced the devastation of the modern rifle as well as the stalemate of trench warfare.  Nothing had improved since then, the introduction of the Gatling gun, followed in turn by the machine gun, could not auger well for any military offensive.  Nevertheless the military mind, being what it is, refused to come to terms with the evolving technology.  Indeed the French military approached the conflict with a training manual that insisted that the army would do nothing but attack.  Such tactics, given the technology at the time, were breathtakingly uninspired.

Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History’s lesson drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All for a Children’s Crusade” (4)

The bombardment started a week or so before they went over the top.  The British fired an estimated 3 million shells at the German lines but, due to lack of quality control, a third of them were duds.  The purpose was, of course to destroy the enemy’s earthworks; but also to cut the barbed wire to ease the advance.  Ignoring front-line reconnaissance reports back to headquarters that the barbed wire was still in tact; and arming the men with wire cutters that couldn’t cut the much thicker German barbed wire, the men were led ‘over the top’.

The artillery were largely anti-personnel shells (similar to Civil War era grape shot) and, therefore, useless at destroying either trenches or wire, and the enemy was dug in with bunkers 30 to 40 feet underground. The British Infantry, loaded with up to 60 pounds of kit and told to walk across ‘no man’s land’ because the enemy will have been destroyed, went up—‘over the top’ into a perfect killing field.   

Like Viet Nam decades later, a conflict in which American forces would be brought to the battlefield by helicopter and the enemy simply counting the rotors and quickly determining if he would stand and fight or blend back into the jungle, so the Allies would announce the advance by the cessation of the artillery barrage.  A quick silence followed by the blowing of whistles signaling the men to climb out of their trenches and advance on no-man’s land—but also signaling to the enemy to come out of his bunkers and take up position, a strategy that effectively eliminated any purpose or advantage the bombardment was supposed to produce.  With the element of surprise gone, with the relative strength of each army generally understood, it was left to the infantry to slog it out in what quickly became a hell on earth. 

All of this was foreseeable.  As in the American Civil War, one had only to look to Fredericksburg or Antietam for lessons on what not to do at Gettysburg or Kennesaw Mountain; one had look no further than what was going on at Verdun to draw similar simple conclusions.  However, no, the military mind has trouble with universally observable empiricism.

The historian struggles to justify.  Many point to the Battle of the Somme as the first use of tanks and the use of aircraft as offensive weapons in an effort to demonstrate the military’s willingness to embrace new technologies and strategies but, unfortunately, these apologies are not supported by the historical record.  The fact is that tanks, here introduced to warfare, were not the brainchild of the Army’s brass.  Instead, the modern tank is the brainchild of one Winston Churchill who, in a rare moment of prescience and wisdom, insisted as Lord of the Admiralty, to build the tank.  It was the British Navy not the army that developed the modern tank; the army having been presented with the idea quickly dismissed tanks, deriding them as ‘land yachts”.  While taking part in the battle, tanks were, nevertheless ineffective both because they were not present in large enough numbers and because the Army hadn’t developed the tactics for their use.    Indeed the same criticism has been leveled at Haig and the brass concerning the use of flamethrowers, mortars, and other weapons that civilian authorities were to impose upon the military command in an effort to break the stalemate.   Indeed, it was the Canadians, later in the war that introduced the ‘rolling’ artillery”, a strategy of using it during the assault and calibrating their fire to lay down a barrage just ahead of the advancing troops. This to prevent the enemy from taking position—a strategy that more than any other would finally break the stalemate near the end of the war. 

Hastings, unlike Sassoon, did not fight this battle, nor any other in this war.  He is the grandson of one who did, but he wasn’t there.  Sassoon was and, on balance, I’ll take his version of it.

Let us take a moment and pay our respects to the ones who fought and died there, to the ones who fought and were wounded and dismembered in body and soul, to the ones who carried the memories well into my lifetime for while it surely wasn’t in vain it was, however, altogether too great a sacrifice.  The battle remains, however, a veritable monument to the stupidity of leadership and the madness of man.

“Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed” (5)

____

(3)   Op. cit.
(4)   Ibid.
(5)   Ibid.











Jun 12, 2016

June 7, 2016: Requeim For A Heavyweight, The Butterfly and the Bee, Not Again See His Likeness




“The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see
I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”
         ----Muhammad Ali,  Heavyweight Champion of the World.


In the film version of a teleplay written by Rod Serling, Antony Quinn portrays “a once-promising but now washed-up boxer who faces the end of his career after he is savagely defeated” (1) in the opening scene by an up-and-coming younger man.  The film is remarkable not only for the command performance of Antony Quinn as the aging pugilist, but also for the dramatic performances of both Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney as supporting actors.  However, it is, perhaps, most memorable in that the opening scene in which Quinn faces the immanent end of his career finds him receiving a savage beating by none other than a young Cassius Clay.  The drama unfolding in the opening moments of the film would later be repeated in real life when the young Clay would confront two years later a much older Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. 

The story goes that Clay, at the tender age of 12, had gone to a police station in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to report his bicycle stolen.  Telling the officer that he wanted to whup whoever was responsible the policeman suggested he take up boxing.  The rest, as they say, is history.  For the next decade, Clay would hone his skills.

“Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954.[32] He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.[33] Clay's amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. (2)” 

By early 1964, young Cassius would find himself in Miami Florida confronting Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

It proved to be a difficult journey, for unlike virtually every other sport; the boxer is not accountable to a team, nor a team’s management and ownership.  A boxer is, or at least can be, his ‘own man’, a point and a prospect not lost upon the emerging Clay.  Borrowing from the legendary wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner, young Cassius saw how useful ‘flamboyant self-promotion’ could be. 


“A 19-year-old Ali met a 46-year-old George at a Las Vegas radio station. During George's radio interview, the wrestler's promo caught the attention of the future heavyweight champion. If George lost to Classy Freddie Blassie, George exclaimed, "I'll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off! But that's not gonna happen because I'm the greatest wrestler in the world!" Ali, who later echoed that very promo when taunting opponent Sonny Liston, recalled, "I saw 15,000 people comin' to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, 'This is a gooood idea!'" In the locker room afterward, the seasoned wrestler gave the future legend some invaluable advice: "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous."


Accordingly, the brash young pugilist from Louisville, dubbed the “Louisville Lip” by disparaging sportswriters, found it difficult to get a title match with the champion Liston.  Here was a man, and particularly a man of color, who could not be ‘controlled’. 

America had had such an experience in the early years of the last century when the sport produced its first Black Champion.  Jack Johnson (4) proved not only to be a formidable fighter but a clear threat to the white supremacist doctrines of racial superiority and the Jim-Crow segregation that it produced.  Accordingly, a long hunt for a ‘great white hope’ would be undertaken until Johnson, several years later, would finally be vanquished.  The legacy of Jack Johnson made it difficult for black athletes to break the color line and when they did one had to be, in the words of the time, “a credit to your race”. Men like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson who would advance the cause of civil rights by crossing the color line and would make it possible for Larry Doby and a host of others in baseball, and Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and a host of others in boxing, to emerge and even become champions as long as they didn’t make any demands.  What America, it was held, did not want was an athlete who spoke his mind, especially if he were a black man.

Getting a title fight, under these conditions, proved problematic.  So Clay, to create pressure for such a match would take his counsel from “Gorgeous George” and turn spectacle into opportunity.  Appearing and confronting Liston at his training facilities, the young Clay would taunt the champion calling him a “big ugly bear” saying that he was “too ugly to be champion” and promising, after defeating him, to donate him to a zoo.  Finally, the champion relented and a fight was duly arranged. 

The results are, of course, well chronicled.  Clay quickly took control of the match easily outmaneuvering the champion.  In response it is held by many, including longtime boxing expert and commentator Burt Sugar, that Liston, as he allegedly had done several times before, had liniment put on his gloves in order to blind his opponent. For nearly two rounds, Clay dodged and avoided the champion as he struggled to clear his eyes, fighting nearly blind against one of the most powerful punchers in the history of the game.  Finally, his eyes cleared and when they did, the young Cassius went to work on the aging champion until Liston threw in the towel.  In what is regarded as one of the greatest upsets in the sport Cassius Clay became the youngest heavyweight champion in history. 

Within days, Clay announced to the world that he had not only converted to Islam but had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

The search now began in earnest for the ever-elusive new “Great White Hope”.

I am not going to recount the history of his fights but instead I want to bring attention to Ali the Athlete and Ali the Icon.

Ali the Athlete

For those seeking a new “Great White Hope” be he white or black, someone who would, in effect, silence the “Louisville Lip”, the wait would prove to be long and, in the end, futile.  For here stood on the national stage not only the country’s most notorious braggart, but a man who would later be voted the greatest athlete of the twentieth century. 

He had taken from Sugar Ray Robinson the boxing strategy of a much smaller man, defense, movement, and glove speed and by training and sculpting his body brought these skills into the heavyweight arena.  Here was a man who stood six foot four inches and fought with the skills and speed never seen at this level. In his youth, he was always moving, always circling left, counter-clockwise, always the left jab, and the fast left jab that would mask the hard right hand coming behind it.   His hands were said by many to be the fastest ever seen.  In addition, there was power.  Critics claim that he didn’t have the punching power of a Liston or a Foreman or, for that matter, a Frazier, but they are wrong.  All one has to do is watch the films of his fights with Jerry Quarry or George Chuvalo, or Joe Frazier.  One can hear over the crowd the punches being thrown.  You don’t hear his opponent’s blows but you can hear Ali’s punches coming in as they land, such was the power behind those hands. 

He also had the ability to slip punches, often—unheard of in boxing—of leaning back with his chin just an inch or so out of range as he would fall back on his heals as his opponent attempted to land a blow.  In a photo taken of the first Liston match one sees the young fighter leaning back as Liston, arm and glove extended to the maximum falls inches short of Ali’s chin. Liston later claimed that he quit the fight because he had dislocated his shoulder failing to land the blows and hitting only air.  This tactic, often fatal to success because to employ it leaves one prey to a follow up blow or combination, Ali was nevertheless able to execute because of his superior abilities to move on his feet as well as counterpunch as he fell backwards; a skill that left many an opponent weary of closing in for the ‘kill’.  

Here was no muscle-bound Tyson but a finely sculpted and finely tuned athlete with an extraordinary set of skills as the photo of young Ali standing over the vanquished Liston in the re-match in Maine clearly demonstrates.  Delivering a knockout punch thrown with such speed and at such an unorthodox angle as to be nearly unseen, he stands over Liston, his sculpted body with muscles taut, taunting the former champion to get up and fight.  Here is classic Ali in his prime.

Moreover, in his prime he was something indeed to behold.  Fighting every 60 to 90 days he took the “show on the road”, fighting in England, and Germany, fighting the Canadian and the German as well as the European champions. With each battle, America hoped it had found its “hope”; with each battle, Ali prevailed.  

Then called Uncle Sam; he had mired himself in this little squabble called Viet Nam.

                        “Keep asking me,
                        No matter how long,
                        On the war in Vietnam
                        I sing this song:
                        I ain’t got no quarrel
                        With no Viet Cong.”

“Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger, or raped or killed my mother or father,” said the champion.  An unsettling truth blown back into the face of America.  Martin Luther King, himself struggling with the morality of our war in Southeast Asia and counseled against taking a stand lest so doing jeopardize the civil rights movement, would later in 1967 turn to Ali “the renegade lyrical poet from the ring, to justify his position: ‘Like Muhammad Ali puts it’”, said King, “’we are all—black, brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression”’ (5)


Citing his defiance as a criminal act, the boxing commissions throughout the U.S. quickly stripped him of his title and revoked his boxing license making it impossible for the Champion to practice his trade despite sanctioning the likes of Liston and others who had criminal records as long as their arms.  For over three years, the Champ would struggle both financially and through the legal system in an effort to appeal his conviction, his fines and his pending prison term. 

It was during this time that the late-great sportscaster Howard Cosell would come to his aid, inviting the Champion to appear on his weekly television sports show and comment on both his legal struggles and on the boxing scene as the various boxing confederations held a series of  contests to decide who would be the next champion.  During this process and afterward when others—former Ali sparring partner Jimmy Ellis and later Joe Frazier would emerge as the duly anointed heavyweight champion—Cosell would have Ali appear with him to analyze their skills during which the show’s host would convey a strong suggestion that these men were mere imposters to the throne, that they weren’t real champions because the genuine article was sitting next to him in the studio. 

Cosell was the thinking man’s sportsman, bringing to everything he covered an analysis of the strategies employed and an evaluation of the relative level of execution.  He also was the first national spokesperson to recognize the legitimacy of Ali’s name change something that, for instance, it took the Los Angeles Times and other national media years to do.  In one particular program on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”  Cosell, showing his audience how he wanted to demonstrate the intelligence that Ali brought into the ring had the Champion review video footage of the great fighters of the twentieth century.  “You say you are the Greatest”, intoned Cosell, “Tell the audience how you would defeat the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and several others”.  As the tapes were played Ali calmly explained how he would prepare for each of these men, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they could and would be beaten.

For over three years, during the prime of his physical skills, Ali was barred from the ring.  When he returned he was not the same fighter.  Gone were some of the speed, and the ability to consistently stay up on his toes and circle his opponent.  Other stratagems were in order.

The “Rumble in the Jungle”

His second career is memorable for the trilogy of fights with then heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and his single fight with then champion George Foreman.   He challenged Frazier losing the first bout in part, because it was only his third fight since returning to the ring and he clearly wasn’t prepared.  Nevertheless, the fight went the distance and Ali lost on points.  He fought Frazier a second time after Joe had lost the championship to George Foreman and won that fight on points, evening the score.  Both of these battles went the distance, both were bruising Battles.  This set the stage for the “Rumble in the Jungle” a battle with then heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire, now the Republic of the Congo.

Foreman was then considered one of the most intimidating and vicious punchers in the history of the game.  He won his crown by flooring the formidable Joe Frazier.  Many, even in Ali’s own entourage thought that Ali—several years older—and now much slower, would be injured, perhaps seriously if he took on Foreman.  Some even feared for his life. 

However, Ali, as always, assumed a posture of confidence.  Studying a film of Foreman’s fights Ali saw a weakness.  George had won almost all of his fights by knockout in the early rounds and he had not gone deep into a fight for a long time.  Watching the films, he noticed that as he flogged one of his opponents his arms appeared to get heavy.  He would tire and as he did his hands would come down.  From this, Ali devised a strategy—dubbed by the pugilist poet—“Rope-a-Dope” in which he would lie against the ropes and let the Champion flail away until he tired and then put him away.

Norman Mailer would describe what he saw at ringside and the genius of the tactic.  In the heat of Africa as Foreman would flail away, Ali would lie back against the ropes absorbing the heavy blows in his ribcage.  The entire ring would shake as the ropes and posts absorbed the blows.  Had Ali taken these blows standing in the center of the ring, Mailer noted, his skeleton would have had to absorb all that energy and it would have crushed him.  Nevertheless, noted the novelist, one noticed that much of the energy Foreman was expending was passing through Ali’s body and was taken up by the ropes and posts and passing down into the very floor of the ring itself. Ali had made the ring into one giant shock absorber.

It was a dangerous strategy for in order to succeed Ali not only had to absorb the punishment administered to his body by Foreman but he had to, at all costs, avoid a direct blow to the head for Foreman was allowed in at close range.

Ali would retreat from the center of the ring and lie against the ropes and motion for Foreman to come on and attack him.  In a “peek-a-boo” posture in which he would shield his face and head behind his gloves and ‘peeking’ through is upheld hands, Ali would taunt his foe.  “You hit like a woman, George” he would taunt, “is that all you got, George?” he would ask.  Enraged, Foreman would flail away as Ali’s trainer and manager Angelo Dundee would scream at his man to get off the ropes knowing how dangerous this was.

And, danger was ever present, at each moment, with each blow, as Ali would bob back and forth moving his head to avoid the headshots.  Watching film of the fight you can see the peril as Foreman’s forearms, particularly the right one pass by Ali’s moving head all the way to the elbow.  A direct hit under such circumstances could be devastating, even fatal. 

Finally, as Ali had foreseen, Foreman began to tire, he began to flag, his arms began to drop and Ali saw his opportunity quickly coming off the ropes and delivering several blows in rapid succession dropping the champion to the floor.  It was over.  An elated Ali then went to the edge of the ring where the press had set up shop and shouted down at the assembled “I told you I am the Greatest”.

Foreman would later say of the fight that as Ali taunted him, yelling “is that all you got, George?” he began to realize that yes this is all I have and his confidence began to ebb away.  Ali would attack not only your body but also your mind.  It would take George Foreman years to recover, eventually reclaiming his crown in his 40’s and becoming the oldest man to win the heavyweight championship.

The “Thrilla in Manila”

This set the stage for the final bout with Ali’s arch nemesis Joe Frazier; once again, for the heavyweight championship of the world only this time the roles were reversed.  Ali was now the champion and Frazier the challenger. 

The final bout, the last in his trilogy with “Smokin Joe Frazier” as he was known, proved to be a bruising battle, after which both fighters were never the same.  The pre-fight build up to the “Thrilla in Manila”, as ever the poet Ali described it, was as bruising for Frazier as the fight itself.  Always, as with every opponent, Ali would cast his adversary as the great white hope, only this time adding insult to injury by dubbing Frazier the “Gorilla” and appearing on camera with a stuffed toy gorilla saying:

            “I’ll be a-punchin’ and a-pokin’
            Pouring water on your smokin'”

After a bit of clowning, Ali quickly took control of the fight in the early rounds, much as he had against Liston years earlier.  However, the middle rounds belonged to Frazier as the two giants of the sport battled in the heat of the tropics.

Ali later said that as the fight wore on it was the closest he would ever come to death itself.  It is not generally understood but an athlete can expend an awful lot under such circumstances.  A major league pitcher can lose five to ten pounds during a game a prizefighter can expend much more than that. In fact, under severe circumstances such as these a fighter can lose so much by way of sweating out electrolytes and other substances as to risk internal organ failure. 
Nevertheless, the two fought it out.  In the middle of the thirteenth round, as Ali is now in the center of the ring, winning by most accounts on points but narrowly, he circles Frazier.  Always moving left, his back to the camera, Frazier’s face directly in front suddenly Ali delivers a hard right to Frazier’s jaw.  It happens so fast that the ringside announcer’s don’t notice it until after the round is over and one of them comments that Frazier has lost his mouthpiece, that piece of plastic that fighters put in their mouth to protect their teeth and jaw.  If you watch closely, you can see the blow land flush on Frazier’s jaw, as the white piece of plastic is jettisoned.  So hard is Frazier hit that the mouthpiece doesn’t fall out unto the floor but rather sails out of his mouth parallel to the floor with such force that it lands nine rows back into the crowd.  And Frazier simply looks back at Ali, and doesn’t go down.   The round winds down, and both fighters collapse in their respective corners.  When the bell is about to be sounded to begin round fourteen, Frazier’s manager throws in the towel.  The fight is over; Ali is declared the winner by technical knockout.  Frazier sits crushed on his stool, Ali collapses on the floor.  Later that evening Frazier would be taken back to his lodgings to begin a long recuperation; Ali would be taken to the hospital. 

Neither would ever be the same.  Ali would later lose then regain his crown for an unprecedented third time against Leon Spinks but in Manila, he left his best in the ring. 

He was an anomaly in his sport.  A heavyweight who fought with the speed and grace of a middleweight; a fighter that could counterpunch while back on his heels and deliver telling punches while backpedaling; a boxer who talked while fighting, always dangerous since one risks, by so doing, a broken jaw, (as when Ken Norton caught Ali with a right hand while he was mid sentence breaking his jaw in the second round.  Ali finished the fight.); a poetic pugilist who spoke his mind.

Ali the Icon

Many today that were not yet born when Ali emerged upon the national consciousness do not understand that as was the case with Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali was greeted with near universal derision. 

“Almost from the beginning of his career, when he was still called Cassius Clay, his rhymed couplets, like his punches, were brutal and blunt.  And his poems, like his opponents, suffered a beating.  When in the history of boxing [asks Henry Louise Gates] have critics been so irked by a fighter’s use of language?  A.J. Liebling called him “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet,” while John Ahern, writing in the Boston Globe in 1964, mocked his “Vaudeville” verse as “homespun doggerel.”  Time magazine, in a particularly nasty triple dig in 1967 over Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his embrace of Islam and name change, called him “Gaseous Cassius”.  (6)


What irritated the press was that it was always Ali who stamped his own imprimatur on the event.  Describing a blow he would deliver to Liston in a pre-fight build up he would quip:

                        “Now Liston disappears from view
                        The crowd is getting frantic.
                        But our radar stations have picked him up
                        He’s somewhere over the Atlantic.” 


Ever the showman, it was Ali, never the press that defined the event and, in the end, that defined Ali. 

Nevertheless, he was more, much more than mere sport and spectacle, mere showmanship.  Ali fused sport, spectacle, and showmanship into cause and purpose and meaning.  Clowning before the camera he would appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show or with Howard Cosell and would stop mid sentence and ask “Ain’t I pretty?” and motion for the camera, Gorgeous George style, to zoom in for a close up.  “Prettiest face in the human race” he would tell his audience.  Often, and almost universally in the early days, the audience response would be one of nervous laughter at his braggadocio. Partly because the audience was unaccustomed to such talk; partly because when he said he was “the greatest” or that he had “the prettiest face in the human race”, the audience sensed that perhaps it was true.

Out of this came black pride.  Blacks stopped referring to themselves as Negroes, stopped using hair straightener and stopped bleaching their skin.  “Black is beautiful” was born and a new sense of ethnic pride, a result of the emergent civil rights movement and more than spurred on by the image of Ali.  For in his form one sees not simply a black man, but the facial features of an Asian, an African, a Latino, perhaps Caucasian as well.  One sees in the features a certain femininity, especially in the young Ali, as well as a strong masculine form.  If one were to condense the best features of the human species down into one person it would be Ali in his prime. 

And so Ali not only gave doggerel poetic meaning and gave grace and beauty to an ugly sport but in the process became a citizen of the world, an Icon, the most recognizable face on the planet. 

We will not again see his likeness.

____
(1). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Requiem_for_a_Heavyweight
(2). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_Ali
(5). Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Muhammad Ali, the Political Poet” New York Times op-ed June 9,
            2016. page A-21
(6). Ibid






May 31, 2016

May 31, 2016: The Death of Hope, Fear and Loathing, The Genuine Article


 
“The political process is about the business of assassinating hope and aspiration and replacing them with fear and loathing” ----from “The Quotations of Chairman Joe”

For over a year now I have in these columns and on Facebook been arguing that if the Democratic Party were to nominate Hillary Clinton it thereby forfeits any claim to either progressive reform or representation of the working Middle Class.  It becomes, on the contrary, the modern equivalent of the Wall Street political hacks that heretofore had been the backbone of the old main-line Republican Party; the much-despised ‘Eastern Establishment’ controlling the party of Warren Harding, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.  Presented now with the likelihood of a Clinton-Trump contest in the national election the Middle Class looks now in vain for a dog in the hunt.

This matchup assassinates hope and aspiration substituting fear and loathing. Presented with two steaming piles of crap ensures a low turnout favoring Trump. All Trump has to do is venture into the old industrial heartland, long disparaged as the 'rustbelt' and promise to tear up the trade agreements. Note he got more primary votes in Indiana than Clinton and Sanders combined and with nearly 100 million in combined attack ads directed at him he still crushed his opposition. Assuming his demise is dangerous. Hillary may tout experience but what have the politically experienced done for the other 80 percent?

Additionally, let's look at the singularly tone deaf and inept campaign Hillary has run to date. Her campaign, for instance, has been whining about losing in unrepresentative caucuses as if the Sanders people are guilty of some foul play.

Charles M. Blow, writing last month in the op-ed page of the New York Times, wrote:

 “There are two prominent features of the Democratic Party’s presidential selection process that are thoroughly undemocratic and undermine faith in the party: super-delegates (which favor Hillary Clinton) and caucuses (which favor Bernie Sanders)". (1)

 Citing the fact that Sanders had by then won 10 of the first 14 contests which were decided via caucus, Blow is here trumpeting a complaint heard throughout the Clinton camp that somehow these ‘unrepresentative’ conclaves are needlessly prolonging the coronation and restoration.  They’ve got it dead wrong.

While the first proposition in his blanket statement is true enough, the ‘insurmountable’ delegate lead that Clinton through media coverage of the ‘horse race’ has adroitly used to dampen the enthusiasm driving the insurgency, is almost entirely composed of so-called “Superdelegates”—unelected party hacks and lobbyists chosen by the party apparatchiks precisely to ensure that a candidate favorable to the ‘establishment’ will almost always prevail favors Clinton; but the second proposition simply doesn’t stand. 

Caucuses are sponsored and organized by the Party.  The times held, the cites chosen, are determined by the party, usually at the county level.  Word is then spread through the party organization and usually the party faithful, the political ‘activists’ can be relied upon to show up in these low-turnout affairs to ensure the party favorite wins.  This, on the face of it, should favor Clinton.  The fact that she had lost 10 of the first 14 such state-wide contests is not only a testament to the superior political organization of the Sanders campaign but to the miserable organization and lack of enthusiasm awaiting the nomination of the once and future Queen.

The sad fact is that Clinton, as in 2008, has run a miserable campaign, convincing no one but the already convinced of either the legitimacy or the need of her candidacy. And, as it was 8 long years ago, nearly half of her own party—as most clearly demonstrated by the severe drubbing she has received in Caucus—balks at the prospect of her bearing the Party’s standard in the general election.    

Yet she is the near unanimous choice of the party hacks and mossbacks that run the party. Caucuses are not organized by the state but by the political parties. The party decides where they will be held under their auspices and put out calls to all the party activists to attend. Under these circumstances the caucuses should have been a Clinton cake-walk. Instead they revealed not only the weaknesses of the party to deliver but the telling fact that for the second time in 8 years half or more of her own party find the prospect of her nomination repugnant and are recoiling accordingly. She is a weak candidate whose agenda, as in 2008, is shaped by her opponent, running a 'me-too but not so fast' version of whomever stands in opposition. Already as I write she is about the business of wooing Bush supporters (note the arrow on the logo points in the wrong direction). By mid-summer she will, as Bill before her, be rifling the Republican agenda and presenting us with Bush-Lite. Given the choice the country may well opt for the genuine article.

_____

(1).  Blow, Charles M. “The (Un)Democratic Party” New York Times April 4, 2016 pA19

 

 

 

 

Apr 22, 2016

April 22, 2016: Babbling Brooks, Experience Slow to Instruct, Giving Voice to Doubt


 
Political commentator and columnist David Brooks wrote in a recent “New York Times” (1) essay lamenting the emergence of Donald Trump that Trumpism, such as it is, represents a paradigm shift in conservative thinking and, by extension, an opportunity to redefine conservatism.  The problem, as always with conservatism is that, as the Brooks’ effort clearly demonstrates, conservatives first fail to recognize the shortcomings of their own intellectual constructions and secondly they fail further to recognize the brazen internal contradictions between their major and minor premises and the conclusions they divine therefrom.  The result, all too predictably are babbling Brooks of nonsense.

Brooks rightly now describes the current Republican malaise as “groaning under the Reagan Orthodoxy” (2) that somehow went from a Rising Tide America to a Coming Apart America.

Now along comes Trump whom Brooks describes as an “Angel of Destruction”, blowing to “smithereens” the comfortable old bromides.  “He represents not only a rejection of the existing Reaganite establishment, but also a rejection of Reaganite foreign policy (he is less globalist) and Reaganite domestic policy (he is friendlier to the state).”  Trump, in Brooks’ view is “prompting what Thomas Kuhn, in his theory of scientific revolutions, called a model crisis”.  Declaring Trump totally devoid of any ideas or policies, Brooks concludes that Trump “will almost certainly go down to a devastating defeat either in the general election or—God help us—as the worst president in American history.” (3) 

But, alas for Brooks at least, every looming political catastrophe bears a silver lining.  Now is the chance, he writes, for a “mental purging: casting aside many existing mental categories and presuppositions, to shift your identity from one with a fixed mindset to one in which you are a seeker and open to anything.  The second step is probably embedding: going out and seeing America with fresh eyes and listening to American voices with fresh ears….” (4)

Brooks then waxes on about the need to replace the soulless and loveless Trumpist vision with compassion, moving conservative doctrine to a more sociologically compassionate philosophy and away from the fetish conservatives demonstrate for tax cuts, enterprise zones, and the “utility-driven individual”. “Somehow”, Brooks writes, “the Republican Party will have to rediscover a language of loving thy neighbor…. because today’s problems relate to binding a fragmenting society, reweaving family and social connections, relating across the diversity of a globalized world.  Homo economicus is a myth and conservatism needs a worldview that is accurate about Human nature.” (5)   Indeed, so it does.

Again, to paraphrase Gibbon, if with regard to our conservative brethren “experience is powerless to instruct”, we must at least give Brooks credit here for some well-intentioned, if not long overdue soul-searching.  It is not often that we find this kind of courage exhibited so publicly among the chattering class.

But, alas, our friend has miles to go before he sleeps.  We can begin with the failure to honestly apprehend our national experience.  Referring to the legacy of his patron Saint Ronald Reagan, Brooks openly declares that “We’ve gone from Rising Tide America to Coming Apart America”, from the “Reagan worldview…based on the idea that a rising tide would lift all boats. But that’s clearly no longer true.” (6)  It never was.

Brooks, like all of the chattering class, the myriad talking heads that sometimes enlighten but often pollute the airwaves, is a victim of his own self-imposed myopia.  He has spent a lifetime caught in the confines of the Washington Beltway and the conservative echo-chamber.  The fact is that had he made even a modest effort to expand his horizons and, therefore, his peripheral vision, he would have discovered that the Kennedy, not Reagan, dictum that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ while administered by a good Liberal-Democratic administration became, in malignant conservative hands, more properly “a rising tide lifts all yachts”. 

To discover this, Brother Brooks would not have been required to read the collective works of Karl Marx, or even those of Jeremy Bentham.  He would not have been required to consult with pols like Ted Kennedy, or even a Bernie Sanders.  He would not have had to search in vain for a conservative stink-tank offering an alternative point of view.  All he would have had to do was consult the likes of Kevin Phillips—author of Nixon’s Southern Strategy—and longtime card-carrying Republican who has written extensively about the lingering effects of Reaganomics.  Beginning in the late 80’s right after Reagan left office, Phillips began to publish the early returns and by 1993 he declared straightforwardly in his book “Boiling Point” (7), that the middle class had lost ground, if not taken a thrashing, under Reagan—even during the High Tide period of the 80’s when the policies first went into effect.  It hasn’t got any better in the ensuing quarter century as administrations both Democratic and Republican have ratified the inspired stupidity of what the host of “Death Valley Days” had wrought.  The returns have been in now for over quarter century, we are now nearly two generations into this failed experiment and only now a lonely soul far off on the political wrong begins to give voice to doubt.  It has been a long time coming.

What I am suggesting here is that Brooks has not gone nearly far enough in casting aside long held categories and presuppositions, beginning of course with the category that man is entirely a utility-driven economic animal and with the supposition that unfettered capital will ‘raise all boats’.  The first is a deeply one-dimensional, if not completely self-serving (from the view of the capitalist elites) proposition and the second has never been demonstrated in the whole of human experience.  Indeed, precisely the opposite occurs with nauseating certainty. 

Secondly the conclusions divined by late 20th century conservatism are wholly at odds, it should now be painfully apparent with the objective, empirical, measurable reality—as writers like Phillips have so laboriously and conclusively demonstrated.  Plainly one simply cannot institute a regime in which a form of Social Darwinism is fostered which does not in the end strain the social, economic and political bonds to the breaking point.  A clear contradiction emerges in which the “freedom” of those who through effort and intelligence, or inheritance and sloth, assume such massive advantages as to stifle the aspirations if not the very well-being of the rest of society.  Society bifurcates into the Have’s and Have-Not’s.  The Middle Class gives ground, as does the ‘political center’.   Politics becomes a reflection of the divisions now deep in a society coming apart. 

It's the Coming Apart America, in Brooks phrase, that Trumpism represents.  In subsequent columns Brooks admonishes us to forge ‘intermediate’ relationships, and make ‘Covenants’ with each other (8).  All that is well and good but he is overlooking the necessary first step and that is to recognize the damage that Reagan had wrought and to repudiate it. “Reagan orthodoxy”, wrote Brooks, “…. was right for the 1980’s but has become increasingly obsolete” (9).  This represents not even the first step toward honesty.  No, David.  Reagan Orthodoxy is a purely 19th century construct and was obsolete at conception; that it ill-suited the 1980’s has been demonstrated by your fellow conservative and former Republican Kevin Phillips.   No, David, there are reasons why the country and your movement is groaning under the weight of the Reagan Orthodoxy and that is that it never worked. 

And now, your movement and your party are finally being abandoned as those who create the wealth through their labor have become painfully aware that they do not share the same interests or the same world-view as those who appropriate the value of that labor and manage it for their own selfish ends.

Trump would be the worst president in American history?  That is quite an assertion betraying a pique unbecoming a man revisiting the country with fresh eyes and ears.  In any case it may be an abyss too far.  It is, for instance, difficult to imagine a President Trump sending troops off to the frontier as states secede from the union, or playing guitar while a major city drowns.

_____

(1). Brooks, David. “The Post-Trump Era” “New York Times” March 25, 2016.  Page A23

(2). ibid

(3). ibid

(4). ibid

(5). ibid

(6). ibid

(7). see Phillips, Kevin. “Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans, and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity”. 1993 Random House, New York. 307 pages

(8). Brooks, David. “How Covenants Make Us” “New York Times”  April 5, 2016. Page A23

      Brooks, David.  “How to Fix Politics” New York Times” April 12, 2016. Page A23

(9). Op Cit

 

Apr 10, 2016

April 7, 2016: Lessons from Michigan, Finding the Party, Myopia Strikes Deep


 
For years the Ionia Democratic Party has held its annual ‘G. Mennen Williams’ memorial dinner on the infield at the Ionia Free Fair.  One such conclave, in the early 1990’s celebrated as it’s featured guest speaker one Debbie Stabenow, now senior Senator from the State of Michigan but then a State Senator known primarily for giving Rescumlican John Engler his entire first-term agenda by agreeing to shift funding of the public schools from property to income taxes.  Engler parlayed the victory into another two terms as governor continuing a campaign to further erode the well-being of the state.  Stabenow went on to the United States Senate.

I remember her appearance at the dinner, held annually under a tent on the infield next to a permanently constructed stage upon which, over the years, performed Tiny Tim, Jefferson Starship, Alabama, Willie Nelson and a host of other notables.  After her speech, I had occasion to engage in a rather lengthy exchange with the state Senator.

Kevin Phillips had recently published his work “The Politics of Rich and Poor”, declaring in decisive and convincing terms the abject failure of Reaganomics.  I brought up the subject, prefacing the author’s role as the architect of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’.  I could see her eyes glaze over at the mere suggestion of anything of importance being associated with Republicanism this, after all, being a partisan occasion.  Nevertheless, given her willingness to work with even the most abject swine (Engler), I found myself confused.  It was clear, however that no matter the extent to which I tried to drive home the point that ‘trickle-down’ is not, has not, and never will work, the work of ‘rendering the obvious, obvious’ was lost upon our intrepid politician.  Alas, Michigan’s now senior Senator is a part of the ‘generation of swine’ that emerged in the 1980’s and affiliated itself with the Clinton-led Democratic Leadership Council.  She along with former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard, best known for “putting Michigan behind bars” by incarcerating so many of the state’s citizens that for the first time the Department of Corrections became the largest state agency dwarfing even the monies spent on roads and schools, was part of the emerging Democratic Political Elite that did it’s level best to ape the Republicans by not only ratifying the Reagan Reaction but appropriating the Republican agenda itself.  Clearly, I sensed, I was wasting my breath.

But there was more.   During the course of the exchange the conversation included several other members of the local party some expressing gratitude that the senator (albeit at state rather than federal level) had condescended to travel to central and western Michigan.  You see we don’t see much of our elected Democratic office holders here in this part of the state.  Stabenow replied that the visit is a notable exception, that the real effort to win elections in Michigan involve concentrating along the I-75 corridor, from Detroit and Ann Arbor through Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac and Bay City.  Here, it is held lies the keys to Democratic victory and dominance in the State.

For generations now this has been the prevailing view.  Not since Williams himself and his cohorts Neil Stabler, Phil Hart and Frank Kelly built the modern Michigan Democratic Party in the 1950’s have our Democratic representatives paid much attention to Western Michigan or much of Michigan beyond the I-75 corridor, with disastrous consequences.  

Detroit, once a city of 1.5 million now has less than half that population.  Flint, as recent headlines concerning the state-sponsored water crisis demonstrates, is equally not only in dire straits but likewise has lost much of its population.  The votes, consequently the political power, has shifted elsewhere, primarily to Western Michigan and out of state.  Grand Rapids, the second largest city in the state, has long been Democratic but you would never know it given the level of recognition the city receives from the state’s Democratic elites or, for that matter, the national Democratic Party.  The city is only sporadically recognized by even presidential campaigns as they make their quadrennial sojourn across the nation.   John Kennedy in 1960, Robert Kennedy in 1968, Dukkakis at a rather modest forum at the Meijer center in 1988, John Kerry in 2004.  As a result, the party has never had the support necessary to field an effective organization.  Often, mostly, there isn’t even a Democratic Headquarters except in the waning months of a national campaign.  Not even in the state’s second largest city.  Trying to find the party can sometimes be a daunting task.

The problem is further complicated by the shifting demographics as today cities like Muskegon, which has been a Democratic stronghold since the 1950’s but has not seen a Democratic president or presidential candidate since John Kennedy in 1962, are entirely ignored; but places like Holland—dominated by the Dutch Reformed Church and formerly a bulwark of political conservatism—are now voting Democratic.  In fact, in 2008 rural counties in West Michigan like Oceana and Mason voted for Obama.  Has the party done anything to build on those electoral returns?  Of course not.  Myopia strikes deep.

There was hope, in the run-up to the 2008 election cycle, when the Democrats put Howard Dean in charge.  Dean insisted that the Party abandoned the blue vs. red dichotomy and become a truly national party challenging the Rescumlicans in nearly every congressional district.  This made the opposition defend its territory not only putting more congressional seats in play but tying down resources otherwise free to spend pushing Democrats against the wall in places like Michigan.  With the election of Obama, Dean was pushed out as head of the party and things reverted back to ‘normal’.   We are living with the consequences.  Not only have the Dems lost control of both houses of Congress but literally hundreds of state legislative seats allowing the scums to gerrymander the House into a solid reactionary bloc, with little hope of mounting a successful challenge.

In this context the recent returns in the Democratic Primary are illustrative.  Hillary, following the strategy long adopted by the mossbacks of the party, concentrated her efforts as usual along the I-75 corridor.   Bernie concentrated on the rest of the state, places like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Traverse City.  In Muskegon, for instance, campaign workers came to my door, asked who I was supporting, put a Sanders yard sign in my yard, as well as that of my neighbor who was supporting Clinton.  Clinton’s campaign, here in a city that on election day will have no Republicans running for local office on the ballot, was nowhere to be seen.  Accordingly, Bernie handily won the rest of the state, including the former Democratic congressional district comprising the northern lower peninsula and the entire upper peninsula, now held by the Rescumlican Tea baggers.  

What the election demonstrates is a troubling dynamic within the contemporary Democratic Party, a party bereft of imagination not only regarding solutions to the countries myriad problems but in terms of organizing itself and, therefore, its subsequent ability to function as a political party by organizing, in turn, political opinion.  Here Bernie not only defeats the rear-guard apparatchiks representing as they do the remnants of the old DLC and all it stands for, but he does it by organizing in greater numbers a countryside long left fallow by the party regulars.  This should be a wake-up call to those in the party and progressives about the as-yet unrealized potential to fully materialize into a transformative movement.