Sunday, June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali - The Social Context Of A 15 -year old

I occasionally post in a local political forum in Minnesota.  I generally try to avoid it because politics in science is interesting at severals levels but the politics of American political parties is not nearly as interesting.  The biases and political responses are always predictable. It is always a mystery to me why there are so few reasonable candidates.  A few friends who have run for office and not made it on party ballots have given me their opinions, but this post is not about that.  The other aspect of politics as I have stated hundreds of times on this blog is how it gets transacted in academia and professionally.  The biases are again evident.  In science nobody seems to take complexity into account on reproducibility issues or the unconscious biases of the researchers.  In looking at conflicts of interest, nobody seems to take into account that in many cases (like the price of pharmaceuticals) that there are clearly some conflicts of interest that trump most of the others.  But again, this post is about one aspect of politics and that is connectedness to the candidate.

Today - I was reading my e-mails from the political forum and I came across a statement about how Barack Obama did not connect well to the middle class.  I think that the research shows no matter where you end up in life, your class identification stays where you were when you grew up.  That would place me solidly in the middle class - in the lower half if socioeconomic status means anything.  I have seen a lot of Barack Obama and can appreciate his charisma, intelligence, ability to communicate and personality.  As a small "i" independent I don't always agree with his politics, but there is no doubt that this is a guy who I can relate to and I have very high regard for.  I want nothing but the best for him.  In thinking about why that might be, I reflected on another prominent American in the news this weekend - Muhammad Ali.

Listening to a lot of news this weekend about his passing - I like George Foreman's comments the best.  This is an excerpt of a CNN video of George Foreman on meeting Muhammad Ali in New York City sometime after their fight in Zaire:  

"....Everybody falls in love with him.  You can't help it. He was one good looking, lovable guy.  I was excited to meet him and happy to be his friend." -  CNN - June 5, 2016.

I never came close to meeting Muhammad Ali.  I have never attended a boxing match and even if I did, by the time I could afford it he would have been retired.  My initial experience was as an early teenager in a remote outpost in northern Wisconsin.  The communication in those days was primitive - just newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasted out from Duluth over the airwaves to your antenna.  There were three television channels and on a good day - you could see two out of three.  My grandfather would often say: "They've got kids running those TV stations." to describe the predicament.  It was a long time before they could send a clear signal.  Even in those primitive pre-Internet days, Muhammad Ali could dominate a long news cycle with his comments and the press and others reacting to those comments.  There were a long series of controversies.  As a young guy he was probably the most exciting sports figure to watch.  He was verbose at times, articulate, and he had a great sense of humor.  When he was saying something that many considered to be outrageous, he was smiling and I had the sense that he knew exactly what he was doing.  He would also not back down from an argument even when he was being videotaped.  No matter what he was saying, I found myself nodding in agreement with him.  The  other sports heroes I had at the time were shallow by comparison.  No other sports figure could comment at length on American culture, religion, and philosophy.  There were no other sports figures who had such an active relationship with their fans.   

But the most striking thing I remember, is that older generations of men did not react the same way.  Most of what Ali did made them very angry.  And of course at times they characterized him in very ugly racist language.  Racism was rampant at the time, and it was everywhere.  In rural areas, it wasn't obvious because there were no black people.  My father was a railroad engineer and as a special day, he would take me to the roundhouse with him.  The roundhouse was the industrial side of the  railroad.  All of the engines were housed in a roundhouse, just off a large turntable that allowed them to be rotated 180 degrees and connected with the main line.  There was a very plain locker room with various signs encouraging adequate hygiene.  In the room at the far end was an area designated for porters.  I asked my father who the porters were, but I never got an answer and I never saw a porter.  Passenger traffic had just about ended by then and the only thing the trains were hauling was iron ore, coal, and large bundles of scrap paper for recycling.

As a 15 year old, I had to bite my tongue while the old guys in the room cheered for anyone to beat Ali or while they criticized his boxing skills or just made outrageous comments.  But it was the 1960s and the culture was rapidly changing.  Young people were getting louder and norms that had been in place for a generation were no longer accepted.  It was easier at first to publicly agree with Ali's stand as a conscientious objector, but it soon became obvious that you were a fan of the athlete and then the man.  I heard some commentators talk about the tumultuous times when Ali first grabbed the national spotlight, suggesting that had something to do with his fame.  I would see it as being the other way around.  A lot of young guys like me identified with him.  At some level it was teenage hero worship, but unlike the other sports figures - he did not go away.  He was an example of a sports legend who became a great man and on this weekend those stories abound.  I found a kindred spirit where I work and we have been exchanging Ali stories, pictures, and clips for the past few years.  Most of these stories are after his retirement from boxing and it is an impressive body of work.

Those were my associations to the notion that Barack Obama does not connect well with the middle class.  It is easy to identify with charismatic, intelligent, articulate, and empathic people.  I am sure that I am not the only 15 year old that had his eyes opened to that.  

And I won't be the last.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1967 portrait of Muhammad Ali by Ira Rosenberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons at:

In 1967, I was 15 years old.


  1. To be fair, a lot of the dislike of Ali was not from racists, but from people who didn't like his own racism, antiSemitism and views on mixed marriage:

    From 1964 to 1980, Clay/Ali said all these things.

    “Integration is wrong. The white people don’t want integration. I don’t believe in forcing it….”
    —1964 interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal

    “The white man want me hugging on a white women, or endorsing some whiskey, or some skin bleach, lightening the skin when I’m promoting black as best.”
    —1966 interview with Sports Illustrated

    “My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese.”
    —1967 interview regarding the draft

    “All Jews and gentiles are devils….Blacks are no devils….Everything black people doing wrong comes from (the white people—drinking, smoking, prostitution, homosexuality, stealing, gambling—it all comes from (the white people).”
    —1969 interview with David Frost

    “Every intelligent person wants his child to look like him. I’m sad because I [don’t] want to blot out my race and lose my beautiful identity? Chinese love Chinese—they love their little slanted-eyed, pretty brown-skinned babies. Pakistanis love their culture. Jewish people love their culture. Lotta Catholics don’t wanna marry nothing but Catholics, they want their religion to stay the same. Who wanna spot up yourself and kill your race? You a hater of your people if you don’t want to stay who you are.”
    —1971 BBC interview with the portentously named Michael Parkinson

    “A black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman. And white men have always done that….And not just white men—black men, too. We will kill you, and the brothers who don’t kill you will get their behinds whipped and probably get killed themselves if they let it happen and don’t do nothin’ about it.”
    —1975 interview with Playboy

    “You know the entire power structure is Zionist. They control America; they control the world.”
    —1980 interview with India Today

    By the way, historically, Cassius Clay fought for the Union Army as an emancipator while Mohammed Ali was a slave owner.

    He said and did a lot things that were not thought through very well, to say the least.

    1. Thanks for the detailed comment.

      I would tend to attribute many of the comments prior to 1975 to his affiliation with the Nation of Islam. a religion that taught black supremacy and separatism. Their rhetoric is often heated along those lines. Malcolm X was involved in this religion at the time. Both he and Ali apparently (I am no expert) had similar experiences on their pilgrimage to Mecca when they encountered Muslims of all races interacting together and they both converted to Sunni Islam.

      The folks I was referring to in northern Wisconsin did not know the difference between a Muslim and a Methodist. I had no clue until I was sitting in a Freshman philosophy course in college. The media at the time provided considerably less detail than we have now.