I cannot recall if Muhammad Ali’s defense of his refusal to serve in Vietnam was picked up by Soviet propaganda, but I am certain that some of his arguments were reproduced in print in the USSR. Russian boxing fans will undoubtedly remember Ali as the great champion he was, but will anyone quote the man on why he declined to fight the Viet Cong?
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.
The Russians driving around with nasty Obama posters on the windshield might also want to ask themselves if the American president has forced them to bribe trafic cops or subjected their sons to abuse as conscripts; they might inquire whether it is Obama who is preventing Russia from buying value-for-money Polish cheese and Lithuanian yogurt.
As a recent Russian joke goes, the Russian people have never had it so bad as under President Obama. But here’s to hoping this is not a case of terminal collective stupidity. At some point, some Russians may finally pay attention to Ali’s more radical rhetoric:
If I’m gonna die, I’ll die now right here fighting you, if I’m gonna die. You my enemy. My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom… You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.
Call it simplistic, self-defeating, ugly, hateful, racist, whatever. Draw the parallels to Bolshevik propaganda in 1917: point your bayonets at your oppressors. Conclude it’s a recipe for civil war. But admit this political philosophy is unabashedly anti-Hobbesian and potentially explosive. Muhammad Ali may have not even heard of Thomas Hobbes, but, as Prof. Corey Robin writes:
He was challenging the ability of the state to define for its citizens whom they should fear and who were their enemies. He was usurping that power and claiming it for himself…
From the time of Hobbes, one of the leading attributes of sovereignty has been the right of the state to define and determine what threatens a people and how that threat will be responded to…
He [Ali] was asserting the right of the citizen to be the final judge of what threatens or endangers him. In asserting that right, Ali was posing the deepest, most fundamental challenge to the power and authority of the state.
That he also claimed to be more threatened by his own fellow citizens and government than by an officially declared enemy of the state only added to the subversiveness of his challenge.
It does not take a particularly animated imagination to picture large segments of the Russian population challenging the Russian state’s mandatory taxonomy of enemies – America, Ukraine, Georgia, ISIS, gay liberals, Turks, etc. “Why should we care about Syria when the true enemy is…” I don’t want to speculate about the identity of the outraged groups and the direction of their pointing finger. Once the (mis)understanding that the enemy is internal starts driving crowds to action, “it isn’t pretty” will soon become an understatement. The Russian state may eventually wake up from its self-destructive policies but it will probably be too late.