Muhammad Ali, integrity, and a bridge too far

Muhammad Ali, integrity, and a bridge too far

Though I have never supported the “sport” of boxing because I consider it a form of inhuman barbarism, I have always supported and held Muhammad Ali in the highest esteem for a number of reasons.

First, for me, Ali through his larger-than-life personality put an accessible and relatable face to boxing. I loved his incredible humor, his focused commitment, his enormous athletic ability, his physical beauty, and his agility in virtually turning a boxing match into an intricate choreographed ballet.

But most of all, I admired him for his total and complete dedication to issues of social justice and to peace, even at the expense of his personal fame and financial gain. Ali never talked or acted in ways that jeopardized his integrity and his truth, even when he took committed stands that raised controversial issues, which ultimately lost him some admirers.

For example, by refusing induction into the U.S. military in 1967 on religious grounds and over his opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the World Boxing Association stripped Muhammad Ali of his world heavyweight championship, banned him from boxing for three years, fined him $10,000, and he sentenced him to five years in prison for draft dodging, which he never served since his case was on appeal. At the time, Ali stated:

My conscience 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.”

Muhammad Ali demonstrated to each of us the varied bridges he refused to cross at the expense of his dignity, his integrity, his self-worth and self-respect, all which he held up higher than any amount of power, fame, and glory. By example, he asked us all to question which bridges we could not and would not cross to maintain these quantities in ourselves. This questioning of ourselves I find particularly timely and poignant during this presidential election year.

Though I supported Senator Bernie Sanders throughout the primary season, I now support and will enthusiastically vote for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee, not merely because she is the lesser of two evils when compared to Donald Trump, but because, though I am at odds with some of her policy stands, I agree with her on many others.

Following a critical self-analysis, I truly feel that I will sacrifice no degree of my personal integrity by voting for her. As one of her constituents when she served as a senator from New York, I witnessed as she acted with great intelligence, sensitivity, and true understanding of the issues and the procedures of the Senate.

I wonder, though, how can many of the Republican Party leaders, who previously condemned Donald Trump for his statements, so-called “policies,” and his temperament, now turn around and endorse him, wholeheartedly or more modestly? Can they do so without compromising their integrity?

I realize that they as partisan politicians feel compelled by their constituencies to remain loyal to party nominees for elected office for their own standings and advancement. But at what price to one’s self? Which bridges will they cross while depositing their integrity on the other side?

Though I am certainly no leader of any political party, as a 21-year-old first-time voter in the 1968 presidential sweepstakes, I had a quandary to sort out. I opposed virtually everything Richard Nixon stood for in terms of his political philosophy, policy positions, and temperament. Therefore, not casting my vote for him I found easy. 

On the other hand, I had once admired Hubert Humphrey when he served as a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. In fact, I was elected as Secretary of the Hubert H. Humphrey Young Democratic Club at Ulysses S. Grant High School in Van Nuys, California between 1964-1965.

After his election in 1964 as Vice President under Lyndon B. Johnson, however, I witnessed Humphrey compromise his progressive values and policies in the arena of foreign affairs by embracing Johnson’s disastrous and failed strategic policies in Vietnam. I lost too many friends on the battlefields of Vietnam in a war I had long believed we never should have entered. I, like Muhammad Ali, never saw the Vietcong as my enemy.

Though many of my acquaintances, family, and friends voted for Humphrey as “the lesser of two evils,” I decided instead to spend Election Day and the day following with two friends camping out and playing our acoustic musical instruments under the glorious pines overlooking the Pacific Ocean at celestial Big Sur National Park. We took with us no electrical means of learning the outcome of the election until we returned. 

Though a number of people criticized us for taking our stands, to this day, I have no regrets.

In the final analysis, we each must work out our own way of maintaining a proper balance between taking positions and maintaining (indeed enhancing) our personal integrity. If, however, within this process we fall into the psychic traps of self-deception, rationalization, justification, we will ultimately foster greater concern for personal advancement over personal integrity. 

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