In response to Mohammad Ali’s death last week, there was an outpouring of grief and adulation for the great man. Not only was Ali a great athlete, but also a great philanthropist and humanitarian. He was a champion of civil rights and free speech. At great cost to his career and reputation, he stood firmly on principle in his opposition to an unjust war. He was known for his smile and his friendships with even the hard-to-love Howard Cossell.
In today’s Sunday Globe, Steven Kinzer, a terrific foreign policy analyst, objected to this one-sided portrait of the great Mohammad Ali: “Don’t mythologize Ali’s rage.” Kinzer notes how the commemorations have taken the edge off, turning Ali into a kind, grandfatherly, and patriotic soul. In fact, he was a fierce advocate of social transformation. He was angry at US racism and the US war against Vietnam, which he objected to on general moral and race-based grounds: killing people of color and drafting disproportionate numbers of African Americans to do so. I remember that well.
Kinzer then argues that the softening of Ali’s image is nothing new. Our culture, powerfully abetted by our media, declaws all kinds of radicals. Think of Father Daniel Berrigan and John Brown. “Activists of earlier generations have suffered the same fate. Radicals from Thoreau to Paul Robeson to Malcolm X now appear on US postage stamps. Mark Twain is remembered as a folksy humorist partly because his vivid denunciations of American intervention are absent from most anthologies.”
During their own time, these men—in fact, almost anyone who wanted to change our society—were generally reviled, termed irresponsible, unpatriotic, revolutionary, un-American. And there were reasons to revile them. These were passionate people with passionate points of view, many of which were offensive to a great variety of people, even to those who appreciated the advocacy which made them famous. In this sense, domesticating them not only robs them of the activities we value but also of their complexity.
The media are not alone in transforming fire-breathing radicals into kindly patriots. Historians do a pretty good job of this, and the clearest product of their efforts is the generation of men who led the American Revolution. I would be willing to bet that at least ninety percent of people do not even think that the “revolution” part of that phrase means what the dictionary tells it means: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” The synonyms Google offers are: “rebellion, revolt, insurrection, mutiny, uprising, rioting, insurgence, seizure of power…” These are not polite words; applied to any contemporary activities, they would almost surely be condemned by the great, great majority of Americans.
The “gentlemen” who led this revolution were no doubt thoughtful and principled. They stood for many of the same principles we hold “to be self evident.” But the differences between them and us are multifold: first and foremost, they were willing to die for these principles, and many explicitly acknowledged that commitment; second, they were bringing a new order into being, trying to shed autocracy for democracy. They were change agents. In our attachment, we stand for the status quo, even, I might add, if the actual status quo does not live up to those principles.
It has become a cliché to say that history is written through the eyes of the present. We might add that it is written to advocate for a particular ideological position in the present, whether it is states rights or federalism, for instance. So, in fact, we don’t always domesticate historical heroes. Sometimes, as in the case of John Brown, we play up their violence as a lesson to contemporaries who even think that insurgency is a good idea. Bottom line, though, consciously and unconsciously, historians distort what they report, either to prove a point or because they are so imbued with contemporary values and viewpoints, that they lack perspective.
Maybe the most glaring instance of historical distortion is the one imposed on judicial decision making by the “Constitutional Originalists.” Led by Justice Scalia, the Originalists treat the Constitution the way religious fundamentalists treat the bible—as literal truth. Then they contend that they know the intention of those who authored the Constitution and of the other Founding Fathers. Really? How do they know those intentions. Serious historians have been struggling to understand these intentions for centuries. They have also disagreed in countless ways. If they are to be taken at their word, then we simply have to conclude that the Originalists are poor historians, ignorant and obviously biased.
But to avoid being a literalist myself and getting into an argument about what the Founders’ intentions really were, I would like to emphasize the more important point. The authors were practical revolutionaries, dedicated to change, flexibility, adaptability. They would never prescribe, in exact terms, how generations hundreds of years hence, should conduct their affairs. Rather, as Jefferson often argued, each generation must make its own decisions. It is totally ridiculous to use them in the service of a fundamentalist style conservatism.
Then, too, we might remove the halo from our Founders. As great a service as they performed, they also solidified the institution of slavery in American society. They famously “compromised,” trading slavery to induce the South to join the Union. The importance of the Union has gotten a free pass in our historical telling. What, we may ask, was so holy about all getting together. Maybe two nations would have been a successful way to go. And, as an aside, wouldn’t the whole Progressive urge in America have been better realized without the South?
Finally, I want to add a word about ordinary people like me. We are like the historians. We often join in the process of disarming ourselves. We make fun of ourselves, of our youth, of the fire and passion that made it so engaging, so much fun. Part of this has to do with perspective—sometimes called wisdom—gained over the years. But part of it has to do with not making too many waves. We grow vulnerable with age, and we love to be loved. By joining in the stories of misbegotten youth, we remove our own claws. That’s a good thing—sometimes—but sometimes we should keep the fire going.