People are complicated, no matter how we wish them to be simple enough to define with a single word. Muhammad Ali is a good example to start with. Few dispute that he was “The Greatest” when it comes to boxing. He reached the pinnacle of his sport three times, beating the likes of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman in their primes. He had speed, fluidity, a gracefulness of movement not normally associated with boxing’s heavyweight divisions.
He was also charismatic, an entertainer whose outsize personality dominated every interview. There is usually nothing so dull and predictable as athletes talking. That was not the case with Ali.
Outside of the ring, his generosity to strangers was well-documented.
His political stands were either heroic or shameful, depending on whom you asked. His refusal to enlist in the Vietnam era cost him what likely would have been the three best years of his career, but he wouldn’t back down. He saw no reason to risk his life for a country that, at the time, offered him and other black people second-class citizenship. I understand that; my own father remembered black WWII veterans who shed their blood abroad, only to come home to states that forced them to ride in the back of the bus and avoid drinking at whites-only water fountains. Ali took an antiwar stand, held his ground and took his lumps. Many people couldn’t understand his point of view, and never forgave his refusal to serve.
And then there was his personal life. Four wives. A long string of extramarital affairs. Nine acknowledged children, and possibly quite a few unacknowledged ones, some of whom are living in poverty. Given all of this, it’s no wonder the online comments on Ali’s many obituaries are so wide-ranging. Some say he was a hero, RIP. Others say he was a bum, and good riddance. [I’ve got to wonder about people who post sentiments like “good riddance.” Is that the kind of thing you want his survivors to read?] The truth is, you can’t sum up such a complex man with a single word. He was a superlative athlete, a great showman, a political lightning rod, a generous neighbor, a philandering husband, an absentee father. In other words, he was a complex character. Isn’t everybody?
When Michael Brown and Ferguson Missouri were in the news every day, a lot of “All cops are heroes” sloganeering was flying around the Web. That view is more than a little myopic. Would you name as heroes the plainclothes cops whose aggressive driving caused a near collision with a mail truck, and who then roughly arrested the on-duty postal worker for yelling at them about their driving? The New York City police commissioner sees their actions as disturbing, not heroic.http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nypd-oversaw-postal-worker-arrest-loses-badge-gun-article-1.2584376 Or how about the South Carolina cops who pulled an illegal traffic stop, followed by a no-probable-cause body cavity search of a humiliated man on a public street in broad daylight? http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/white-s-cops-give-black-man-illegal-public-cavity-search-article-1.2585402 And there can be nothing heroic about shooting a fleeing man in the back and then planting a taser on his corpse to try to justify the shooting. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/us/south-carolina-officer-is-charged-with-murder-in-black-mans-death.html Do a Google search on the name “Frank Serpico,” and you will get a pretty eye-opening look at a classic case of institutionalized police corruption.
But some cops are indeed heroes. Maybe lots of them. Not necessarily famous, not celebrated, but quietly protecting and serving their communities, putting their lives at risk for others. My brother was a career cop who once pulled five people from a burning minivan, saving three generations of one family. Was that a heroic act? I think so. Is “hero” the term that best sums up my brother’s life and career? I don’t know. I didn’t get to see him live his life or do his job day in and day out. Like most people, he is probably a complex mix of the admirable and the not-so-much.
I’ve seen this post pop up on my Facebook a few times today. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154112456717696&set=a.421145862695.193437.750062695&type=3&theater I’d have no problem with it if it said “the problem might not be your leadership, the church you attend.” By saying that the problem isn’t those things, it goes for simplicity at the expense of truth. It wrongly insists that the institution is never the problem. The leaders are never at fault. People in pulpits are guiltless, and people in pews are always at fault. As one who often occupies a pulpit, I understand the attraction of that idea. But the truth is that people and their interactions are irreducibly complex. Wisdom and folly, truth and error, innocence and culpability are a part of every human life. From the pulpit to the door, there is no simple one-size-fits-all description of people and their problems.
If you can see that, then you will recognize the people of Fighting Back. I write about complex characters who defy one-word descriptions, people who combine strength and weakness, the profound and the banal, the heroic and the lamentable. I think that’s what makes them real.
Was Muhammed Ali a hero or a bum? Yes. That’s what made him so fascinating.