Saturday, October 26, 2013

"The Trials of Muhammad Ali"

If you have the courage of your conviction and act on it, people will love and respect you, even if they hate and scorn you at first.

More than anyone else in recent memory, Muhammad Ali epitomizes this truth. Ali spoke truth to power long before politicians turned the phrase into a cliché. In the Jim Crow South of the ‘60s, when lynching of Blacks were daily occurrences, Ali stood out for justice and dignity for his people, unafraid of losing his life, challenging White America to look into its soul and acknowledge its bigotry and racism. From “I am free to be what I want to be” to “I have seen the light and I am crowing,” Ali opened raw wounds in the American psyche, provoking anger and fury that in the end proved cathartic.

That he was also a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion seems, in retrospect, almost incidental to the enormous religious, social and political role he played outside the ring.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” a new documentary (Director: Bill Siegel, Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes), examines Ali’s life in the context of a turbulent America in which segregation was the norm and Blacks were convinced that “The White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.”
The combination of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests in the mid sixties shook America to its core. Drawn by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, Ali had become a Muslim in 1964. Earlier, he had shocked the boxing world by defeating the “unbeatable” Sonny Liston.

Most Americans regarded Black Muslims as a cult, sinister and treacherous, bent on destroying their country. When Cassius Marcellus Clay publicly and proudly shed his “slave name” and became Muhammad Ali almost fifty years ago, Blacks had found their hero and racially-driven Whites, politicians and pundits their enemy. Even the TV talk-show host David Susskind, considered a liberal, labeled Ali in 1968 “a disgrace, a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
The documentary pulls no punches. Stokey Carmichael of the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam (who later split from Elijah Muhammad and was assassinated in 1965) gave Ali the framework he needed to articulate his bitterness against racist America. He defended Islam as the “slave-breaking” religion. When the draft board reclassified him as eligible for military service in 1967 and ordered him to join the Army, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector because of his Muslim beliefs. Overnight, he became a traitor for refusing any role in America’s war machine. He was convicted but Ali never wavered. His logic was as powerful as it was simple: Why should I travel thousands of miles to kill brown and black people who never harmed me or my people for a government that continues to oppress and kill my people, he demanded to know. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously declared. When an army brass kept calling him Cassius Clay during a hearing, he politely but firmly kept telling him, “It’s Muhammad Ali, sir,” until his interlocutor obliged.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction on technical grounds.
“I am no slave,” Ali is quoted in the documentary more than once. “Don’t call me by my slave name.” When boxers Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell insisted on calling him Clay, Ali punished them so viciously in the ring that the New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte called the Terrell fight “a truly terrible moment in boxing history.”
In this young 21st-century, history seems to be repeating itself. America now finds itself as polarized as it was during the ‘60s. The sacrifices that African-Americans made has no doubt led to much racial progress, but the toxic social forces that Ali and others fought against seem to have reappeared, although in subtler forms. Wealth inequality is the new Jim Crow, the rise of Tea Party ideologues the new racial reality. We need brash and bold “loudmouths” like Ali, be they white, black, brown or any shade in between, to demand just and legitimate distribution of wealth and opportunities, in the absence of which American society is bound to fatally fracture.
Ali has been silenced and immobilized by Parkinson’s disease. People who see him now cannot bear to look at him a second time. Yet his legacy endures and inspires. There have been several excellent documentaries on his life and boxing career, including (1996) “When We Were King” and “Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story.” But in “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” Bill Siegel has woven a complex and fascinating story that is at once bracing and disturbing, a story that is worthy of the subject whose elusive essence it tries to capture and largely succeeds.
Hana Ali, the third-youngest of Ali’s nine children and by all accounts closest to him of her siblings, calls her father in the documentary “the eighth wonder of the world.”

How true, how so very true!

Friday, October 04, 2013

Archer Kent Blood's Lasting Legacy

The recent publication of “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide” by Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, has reopened raw wounds in the collective psyche of Bangladeshis.

Drawing on recently declassified White House tapes and documents, Bass has summoned a searing story of hubris and genocide that will shock readers four decades after the violent birth of Bangladesh.

That Prof. Bass was able to find an American publisher for his book is rich in irony. Archer Kent Blood, Bass’s protagonist, wrote an even more searing first-person account of the blood-bath in Bangladesh but not a single American publisher would touch it. It was eventually published by The University Press Limited of Dhaka in 2002.

Author of “The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh: Memoirs of an American Diplomat,” Blood was the United States Consul General in the-then East Pakistan during the turbulent ‘70s. When the Pakistani army mounted a war against unarmed Bangladeshis to reverse the results of the 1970 national election in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a clear majority, Blood was stunned by the silence of his government.

The diabolical Nixon-Kissinger duo was obsessed with appeasing Yahya Khan for the general’s role in facilitating the “grand opening to China.” They supplied him with all the arms, ammunition and spare parts he asked for. 10,000 Bangladeshis were massacred in the first three days alone. Over a period of nine months, as many as 3 million were killed (other conservative estimates put the figure much lower) and 10 million had to flee to India for safety.

Responding to the call of his conscience, Blood sent a telegram to the State Department that read in part, “… Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak government and to lessen likely and deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy …”

The late Christopher Hitchens, in his 2001 book "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," described the cable as "the most public and the most strongly worded demarche, from State Department servants to the State Department, that has ever been recorded."

Kissinger was furious and recalled Blood to Washington where he was assigned to the State Department’s personnel office, a public demotion. It was the same Kissinger who, at the height of the genocide in late April of 1971, sent a message to General Yahya Khan to thank him for his “delicacy and tact.” Nixon was equally invested in the asinine dictator when he told him, “I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced.”

In 1973, when Blood’s name was proposed for a possible ambassadorial position, Kissinger responded with: “Get that guy out of Washington!”

Blood’s book is filled with glimpses of men steeped in arrogance and their attempts to trash the truth. In June, 1971, for example, a World Bank Mission visited East Pakistan and filed a devastating report on Pakistani brutality. World Bank President Robert McNamara desperately tried to suppress the report but the New York Times obtained the document and splashed it on the front page. McNamara sent a letter to the Pakistani government apologizing for the leak! During a briefing in 1971 in Islamabad, a sneering Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, the first test pilot to break the sound barrier, challenged Blood’s contention that Bengali resistance would win out in the end. “Do the Bengalis have any aircraft? Any tanks?” Yeager asked. “Then, how can they stand up to the well-equipped, disciplined Pakistani army?”

Blood’s testimony is proof that people armed with hope and a will to be free can defeat armies equipped with weapons of war. The diplomat saw a parallel between his own country’s war of independence against the British in 1776 and Bangladesh’s war of independence almost two centuries later.

Blood received the Herter award in 1972 for “extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and creative dissent.” The award was named after the former Secretary of State Christian A. Herter and established by the American Foreign Services Association in 1969. In 2005, he was posthumously given an Outstanding Service by the Bangladeshi-American Foundation, Inc. (BAFI) in Arlington, Virginia.

Archer Kent Blood passed away peacefully at Ft. Collins, Colorado, on Sept. 3, 2004, at the age of 81, survived by his wife Margaret Millward Blood, two daughters, Shireen Updegraff and Barbara Rankin, and two sons, Peter Blood and Archer Lloyd Blood.

Reflecting on the fateful “Blood Telegram” years later, Blood said, “I paid for my dissent. But I had no choice. The line between right and wrong was just too clear-cut.”

If this is not human spirit at its finest, what is?

Prof. Bass’s “The Blood Telegram” will undoubtedly contribute to a renewed appraisal of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy and the lasting damage these two “statesmen” inflicted on the world, reverberations from which continue to be felt to this day.

At the same time, it should serve as a reminder to the leaders of Bangladesh that they too are under the spotlight of history, that they too will be judged by whether or not they have squandered the sacrifices of millions. It is easy to point fingers and wallow in the past. It is far more challenging to develop policies and institutions that can move the nation forward. Bangladesh is now politically polarized to the point of paralysis. Integrity, magnanimity and farsightedness are missing from the national discourse. Perhaps our politicians should read and re-read “The Blood Telegram” and “The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh” to gain perspective on what constitutes hubris and what constitutes enlightened leadership. Forty-two years later, surely it is time.