Float Like a Butterfly - And Sting Like One, Too
By A.D. Freudenheim

17 August 2003

Last winter, as the Bush Administration’s war drums went into high-energy mode, beating out the clear rhythms of a full-scale attack on Iraq, so too did Hollywood’s “liberal,” anti-Bush, anti-war mavens pull ever-harder in the opposite direction. Organizations like MoveOn.org rallied the peace troops, took out expensive, full-page ads in papers like The New York Times, and otherwise used the notoriety of actors such as Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, and Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (most notably) to present the American public with an alternative point of view on the need for war, or the evident lack thereof.

Clearly, they were not successful in stopping the war. What did happen, however, was a backlash aimed at these celebrities for sticking their necks out into politics at all; even some publications willing to acknowledge the weakness of the case for war were also forced to acknowledge the weakness of the Hollywood anti-war effort, while super-patriots challenged their depth of knowledge and proposed public events like a televised debate.[1] Even Lefties here in New York, opposed to the war and the ethos of the administration driving it, were critical – if not downright cynical – about the celebrity voices opposing the war. In fact, it seems the only thing that did much to boost the morale among the Hollywood Left was the ruckus caused by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s cancellation of an anniversary event for the movie “Bull Durham,” in order to prevent stars Robbins and Sarandon from having another platform from which to espouse their anti-war views. It was easy to paint this move as anti-American no matter what one felt about the Robbins/Sarandon perspective on war – and so it was done.[2]

The attempts to silence the Hollywood Left were more than just the patriotic rumblings of the 1950s-style Republicans who now control our Executive and Legislative branches of government. It seems that this whole notion that celebrities should stay out of politics reflects what has become the dominant trend in the world of sports, too, and one which the Republicans must surely hope will spread to the movie industry (or at least the Left wing thereof). In fact, it is unimaginable now that a sports super-star – a Tiger Woods / Michael Jordan / Lance Armstrong type – would take the same kind of stand for his beliefs as Muhammad Ali did in 1967 when he refused to serve in the U.S. military and fight in Viet Nam. The various boxing organizations took away Ali’s title as World Heavyweight Champion until he won a lawsuit – fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – that granted him the draft exemption he had claimed, on religious grounds that bordered strongly on the political.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy describes Ali as “extremely popular in Africa,” no doubt an understatement, while the The Columbia Encyclopedia notes that even “in retirement, Ali has remained one of the most recognized of all world figures,” a statement that sounds more accurate to judge by the continued interest in his biographies, bio-pics, and his presence at sporting events world-wide.[3] Fold into the mix some of Ali’s most notable quotes, including statements like “I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free,” and the image of a very complex person starts to rise above the more general notion of a sports superstar.[4]

Does anyone remember Jesse Owns, Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, or Arthur Ashe? They may have been less big-mouthed than Ali, and less quotable – but they also fought for their rights as humans in a society that strove to keep them down based on the color of their skin. They used their implicit visibility and integrity, the respect they had earned for their successful victories in the white man’s world, to support the increased inclusion of other minorities in sports and in society writ large. Meanwhile, by the middle of Ali’s career the Civil Rights Act had already been passed and the situation of American Blacks had changed (somewhat, at least on paper) in the U.S.; by the end of his career in 1981 the Civil Rights movement may have felt very far away. That did not stop him from speaking out against the continued political and economic suppression of black people and from using his pulpit to express himself and articulate positions – sometimes logically, sometimes not, it’s true – that he felt needed an airing. Ali’s aggressive commentary on the world was not just part of the Muhammad Ali-the-boxer shtick, it was clearly part of Muhammad Ali-the-person, too.

Today’s sports stars? Maybe they have it too easy, maybe the world isn’t tough enough, and they don’t think there’s much they need to do. Tiger Woods, of famously mixed ethnic heritage, is happy to play at the Masters and ignore the protests that the private, all-male golf club should change its policies and admit women – but does not seem to have the courage to say what he presumably believes: that because the club is private it is under no legal obligation to admit women, and that is OK with him. (Nor has there been any acknowledgment on his part that these were the same arguments used to restrict access to the club by someone like him, i.e., someone who was not white.)

Many, such as Michael Jordan, have set up private foundations and are active in supporting a variety of health-related or other causes, and those are all worthy efforts; others lend their faces for well-scripted ads about the importance of developing new anti-cancer drugs or the dangers of recreational drugs – but these hardly rise to the level of the Muhammad Ali quote noted above. More commonly, today’s stars are visible in two places: out competing, or in advertisements for products they have been well-paid to endorse. What is so evidently missing in the American cultural arena is the weight of these stars’ personae; instead of putting their money where their mouth is, all that can be found is their money and their acumen on the field, while their mouths are conspicuously quiet.

Regardless of how one feels about boxing, Ali made himself a force for social change by saying things that other people – with less visibility and less clout – could not. Likewise, Charlton Heston, so brilliantly (if cruelly) ridiculed by Michael Moore for his rabid support of the National Rifle Association, may be supporting a movement that many find uncompelling, but there is value to be had in his astute use of his own name for what he undoubtedly believes is a worthy cause. Or the rock star Bono, of U2, who has not only advocated for Third-World debt relief, but has actually traveled to these countries with American politicians to make the case and sustain the debate on this issue in person, even as he has been laughed at for parading around such "hifalutin" ideas.

Criticizing stars – Hollywood or otherwise – for their pacifism is fine as a matter of intellectual debate about the nature, importance, and relevance of that pacifism, but no one should question the value of their opinions or the acceptability of their public, political role. If anything, it is a shame that most of today’s biggest, wealthiest, and most visible sports “heroes” appear to see no value in the entire idea of social change. There is something different about these people and their values, and it isn’t for the better – nor are we better off as a nation.

[1] See “America: with the protests limited to
Hollywood bigmouths such as Barbra Streisand and
Sean Penn, no wonder that the latest poll shows six
in ten Americans are for war.” by Andrew Stephen,
from New Statesman, 17 February 2003, found at
FindArticles.com, or “THE DEBATE SHOWDOWN
EVENT OF THE YEAR: Hollywood Is Challenged By
Politicians, Military Personnel and Fortune 500.” a
press release from Team Hollywood Global Networks,
PRNewswire, 28 February 2003, also at FindArticles.com.
[2] A variety of articles are available on this at Find
, including Dave Kindred’s article in The
Sporting News
from 28 April 2003, “The church of
baseball deserves better".
[3] The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third
Edition, edited by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett,
and James Trefil; entry is Batleby.com; The Columbia
, Sixth Edition, 2001; entry is at Bartleby.com.
[4] From a 1975 Playboy interview, as reported in
Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, available online
at Bartleby.com
. A selection of other quotes can be found at
Bartleby.com as well.
Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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