“The Truth about Muhammad Ali and the Draft” — Wall Street Journal Op-ed Shamelessly Smears an Icon

On April 28th, 2017, the Wall Street Journal gave us a perfect real-time example of a feeble attempt to re-write history. In an oddly-timed Op-ed, Paul Beston, whose qualifications include having written about boxing before, strings together a few out-of-context quotes and factoids to fabricate a narrative in which “Muhammad Ali’s] refusal to serve [in the war of American aggression in Vietnam] wasn’t motivated by conscience, but by fear of being killed by the nation of Islam.” Is this true? No — Perish the thought.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s draft resistance, Beston and the WSJ try to re-cast the story naming the US Army as his potential savior from a murderous band of fanatical Muslims. According to this creative interpretation of the story, Ali missed an opportunity to “unify” the country but “tragically” decided to be race-conscious instead. As we begin unpacking this article, contemplate how Beston and the WSJ’s narrative dove-tails with the foreign policy interests of the United States today. Also, we would make a connection lest we neglect to link this article to Colin Kaepernick who, like Ali, put millions of dollars and his career on the line to take a definitive stand against systemic racism.

The opinion piece opens with a condescending and shameless repetition of the name which he rightly denounced for its link to slavery. Beston’s passive reminder that Ali’s ancestors were owned by a white slave-owning patriarch named Clay sets the tone for the rest of the article. Indeed, anybody who insists on summoning the man’s former slave name has no idea about what Ali went through or the principles on which he made his decision.

The principle of which Mr. Beston willfully displays his ignorance is identical to the one upon which Ali acted in accepting the Muslim religion and resisting conscription in the American invasion of Vietnam. In his own words,

“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”

Contrary to this reality, Beston insists that in “searching for meaning in a segregated America, [Ali] found the wrong answers,” one of which was his refusal to become a mascot for America’s invasion of Vietnam. “Had Ali chosen more wisely,” Beston continues, “he might have become a unifier,” however, “Ali’s refusal to serve helped deepen America’s racial and political divisions.” Ali, according to Beston, “hurt himself and achieved no social good in doing so.”

Okay, let’s start unpacking this ridiculous array of fallacies. America was already divided on the issue of the war. In a Gallup poll taken only a few weeks after Ali’s conscientious objection in April 1976, 50% of the country disapproved of the war. Ultimately, Ali was ahead of his time. Just a year later, mainstream America was beginning to align itself with Ali’s position on the war. In 1967, the war’s approval ratings dropped to 40% and continued to drop year after year to 21% in 1971 after which Gallup stopped collecting data on the question. While the data is telling, the factual contradiction like this merely underlie the perverse motivation of Beston to warp the history of a transcendent world figure.

Beston continues his diatribe by comparing Ali’s Parkinson’s disease to his religious objection to the war and concludes that the former was the “defining tragedy” of the man’s life. Apparently, The Wall Street Journal would have its audience know that Parkinson’s disease was merely a tragedy that he suffered alone while his refusal to participate in the killing of innocent people was a tragedy he imposed upon all of the American people. Could there be a more blatant attempt to disrespect and discredit a civil rights leader and world figure?  We would ask the editors of the Wall Street Journal if they would have had the courage to publish a piece like this if the man were still alive? We think not. When The Heavyweight championship of the world tells us that his denouncement of war gave him “peace of mind and heart and the respect of his people,” we see no reason to call him a liar.

However, the article is correct about one thing. The private interests groups which become the government aimed to appropriate the image and fame of Ali by making him a mascot of their pernicious foreign policy objectives. Beston points out that the military establishment sought the services of Ali in a “ceremonial [non-combat] role.” Knowing that the democratic support for the war was shaky from the jump, the establishment needed a political relations maneuver to win over the masses. We are not sorry that this plan backfired.

Muhammad Ali’s political consciousness which informed his religious convictions forbade that he participate in the killing of innocent people. In his own words, “My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail.”

Before we get on to the next issue, would like to address the question of the timing in relation to this article. Who might benefit from re-writing the history’s most well-known draft resister? Just look at selected quotes like, “he wasn’t afraid of jail. He was afraid of being killed by the Muslims.” This false narrative pathetically attempts to change the villain in the story of Muhammad Ali from America’s racist military-industrial complex to a dangerous group of murderous Muslims. We understand that the content and timing of this piece are aligned with what we would expect from an establishment which is interested in garnering support its aggressive military intervention in the Islamic world.

As always, while our intention was to draw attention to the contradictions propagated in the establishment press, Muhammad Ali is uniquely suited to speak for himself of these issues. We invite you to watch the video shared below to hear this message in his own words.

Original article — https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-truth-about-muhammad-ali-and-the-draft-1493330969

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