On November 19th, President Barack Obama wrote a stirring tribute in USA Today to the most famous draft resister in US history, Muhammad Ali. On Tuesday, Obama spoke at West Point, calling for an increase of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, with a speech that recalled the worst shadings of George W. Bush's "war on terror."
On November 19th, Obama wrote about why Ali's photo hangs over his desk, praising "The Greatest" for "his unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way." On Tuesday, Obama showed neither courage nor strength but the worst kind of imperial arrogance. He asserted America's right to go into a deeply impoverished country that -- from Alexander the Great to the USSR to today -- has made clear to the world's empires that it wants to be left the hell alone.
On Tuesday, Obama summoned the spectre of 9/11 and said, "It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united -- bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear." He didn't mention how many innocent Afghans had already died in eight years of "horrific attacks" on their homeland or how many would die in the months ahead, defending their own homeland.
On November 19th, Obama praised Ali as "a force for reconciliation and peace around the world." On Tuesday the Nobel Peace Prize winner reconciled himself with war.
Would that Muhammad Ali still had his voice. Would that Parkinson's disease and dementia had not robbed us of his razor-sharp tongue.
Today, Ali has been described as "America's only living saint." But like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, both postage stamps before people, Ali has had his political teeth extracted.
But in a time when billions go to war and prisons while 50% of children will be on food stamps for the coming year, we can't afford Ali, the harmless icon. Maybe Muhammad Ali has been robbed of speech, but I think we can safely guess what the Champ would say in the face of Obama's war. We can safely guess, because he said it perfectly four decades ago:
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here..... If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."
Replace Vietnam with Afghanistan and it's a message Barack Obama and our troops need to hear. But we shouldn't wait for some celebrity or athlete to make that statement for us. Muhammad Ali may have helped shape the 1960s, but those years of resistance also shaped him. We need to rebuild the movement against war. We need to revive the real Muhammad Ali to inspire draft resistors of the future. We need to reclaim Ali from warmongers who would use his image to sell a war that will create more orphans than peace. This is the struggle of our lives and we have the Nobel-minted President of the United States on the other side of the barricades. Barack Obama can have the fawning media, the adoring generals, the RNC, and the liberal apologists on his side. But he can't have the Champ. Remove that poster from your wall Mr. President. Your Ali privileges have been revoked.
Dave Zirin is the author of A People's History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.