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March 25th, 2017

Insight

Requiem for Ali

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published July 1, 2016

Let us utter a quiet prayer of thanks for the private graveside service for friends and family. It was the only thing that left Muhammad Ali's leave-taking with a shred of simple human dignity. The rest was a concatenation of self-infatuated egos, political causes of the pop-left persuasion, and Carnival in Rio.

It was all a great show but little else. And what was left out may have been most telling of all: Why would a society that bans cock fighting as barbaric let a splendid athlete -- and not a bad rhetorician in his own rhyming way -- turn himself into a human punching bag, dead of Parkinson's at 74? Muhammad Ali rope-a-doped many a hapless opponent in his all too brief time, but in the end the system he was praised for daring to expose and oppose rope-a-doped him.

Meanwhile, out in the world Mohammad Ali/Cassius Clay entertained, the games continued. He got a 19-mile funeral procession followed by a star-studded "memorial service" that was more like A Night with The Stars. It featured luminaries like once and future co-president Bill Clinton, movie director Spike Lee and the all-too-imitable Whoopi Goldberg. What fun. And what wretched excess.

Naturally enough Billy Crystal, bad taste incarnated, led the caravan of celebrities. When a society loses touch with propriety, it substitutes celebrity-worship for it. Billy Crystal snapped into his routine automatically. He called Muhammad Ali "a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air. He was funny. He was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw. And those were his own words." (Applause, canned if necessary.)

Michael Lerner, editor of a thoroughly predictable journal called Tikkun, was there to represent what was once the obligatory Jewish voice in our old tripartite society of the Big Three religions. A poor man's Abraham Joshua Heschel, he rambled on, drawing applause from a crowd that would applaud any and all of the predictable clichés. It doesn't take much courage to preach to the converted or to go along with the crowd. Just stand there and you'll be swept away. Like the confetti after every parade, it's something else for the street-sweepers to deal with.

The rest of this show was a combination state funeral, pep rally and general spectacle that would have done justice to some Latin American caudillo, not excluding the feminine variety like Eva Peron. At any event, the crowd was full of ordinary people celebrating their own ordinariness. As the long line of limos crawled by, some people acted like fans at one of Ali's title fights, pumping up their fists. Others ran alongside the hearse, reaching out to touch it as if it were a holy relic. The crowd threw so many bouquets at the windshield that the driver had to pause from time to time to push them away so he could see.

Here was a once young man who could have been anything he wanted to be by virtue of his brains, brawn and agility. Instead he became everything others wanted him to be, reading their own dreams, desires and divisions into him. At the end, he got everything except the decent, dignified burial both the least and great of us deserve. R.I.P., at last.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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