On Facebook this Thursday, I misreported the release year of A Pope Francis Lexicon – an informative and often delightful volume by my colleagues on the Vatican beat, Cindy Wooden and Joshua McElwee – incorrectly stating that it came out six or seven years ago. The book appeared in January 2018. It’s been a long two and a half years, and as I said to Josh, it might be time to update the Lexicon.
Facebook also reminded me that Muhammad Ali exchanged time for eternity four years ago this week. I’d have guessed it was last year or the year before, but hey, Wikipedia said 3 June 2016, and Jimmy Wales and Mark Zuckerberg can’t both be wrong, right?
I grew up admiring Ali, an attitude I learned from my father.
Ali stood up for his convictions, and for their sake submitted himself not only to the loss of fame, some of which he recovered, but to other hardships and indignities including several years of exclusion from his profession. For his refusal to be inducted into the Vietnam-era US Army, people called Ali a traitor. It’s always seemed to me that he loved America better and more deeply than his detractors.
Ali proved it in his body and with his mind: he might have become embittered by his ordeal; he might have nurtured rancor toward those who spat their venom at him; instead, he took his case to the American people, and eventually he was vindicated in the highest court of the land and before the public.
“He never would have faced danger,” I once heard an erstwhile detractor urge upon my father (ipsa voce), “he would have fought exhibition matches and done an occasional turn as a guard for show.”
The gist of my father’s reply, as I recall it, was one of the most important lessons he ever taught me: basically, he thought the unlikelihood of Ali ever facing danger was a big part of what made him a hero. Ali knew it, and wouldn’t see himself used in furtherance of a cause he believed to be immoral. He was prepared to bear the consequences of his conviction.
No pacifist, my father, but an important part of the lesson was that one need not agree with a man – not even with his principles – in order to respect him. Ali sought only to do right as God gave him light to see it, and he was willing to pay the price for it. It strikes me that anyone incapable of admiring a man like Ali for those reasons must be incapable of moral imagination.
Ave atque vale, Champ. Hail and farewell.
“It’s hard for me to understand why we would doubt that there would be systemic racism,” Faith Glavey Pawl said to me during a conversation this week on Catholic Herald: Behind the Headlines, “when we have the legacy of slavery in the United States.”
“Why would it be,” Pawl wondered, “that just a few generations after we had chattel slavery, we don’t still see the effects in the way that our society is structured?”
It’s a good question – and Pawl quite frankly struggles for a way toward an answer – surmising that the hardest part of it for most white people is not in recognizing our complicity (she is at once gentle and unsparing in her notice of the fact that most of us do not see it because we do not want to see it), but in committing to the hard work of listening.
Derek Chauvin spent 8 minutes and 46 seconds of this past Memorial Day with his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
“I think what’s really, really hard for us,” Pawl said, “is perspective-taking: It’s really hard for us to engage in the deep, searching kind of perspective-taking that allows us to see things from other people’s point of view; because, it unsettles us, it implicates us in things in which we do not want to be implicated; and, it’s just hard.”
Pawl admits that she takes a dim view of human nature.
“The ways out of that,” she said, “involve listening to other people, having difficult conversations, reading from other people’s perspectives: and I think we all, on an individual level, must do that.” Whatever else there is to do, we must do that. It is, quite literally, the very least we must do. Will we?
Lots of things are general threats to liberty – like overcharging and other zealous prosecution tactics, or civil asset forfeiture and other rent-seeking behavior – that also do more harm to some portions of the citizenry than they do to others.
If we don’t, we’ll have chosen the alternative: “that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another. (Federalist #55)”
As Leticia Ochoa Adams noted in her recent essay for Chapter House, “America has no ‘golden age’ to speak of – anyone telling you different is selling something – but lately,” she went on to say, she’s been, “unable to shake the feeling that something in us is more deeply broken than it has been for a long time, and we’re running out of time in which to fix it.”
She wrote that line on Memorial Day: the yearly recurrence on which we remember and celebrate all those, who gave their lives in defense of American liberty. Derek Chauvin spent 8 minutes and 46 seconds of this Memorial Day with his knee on George Floyd’s neck: long enough to destroy him.
There’s another story making the rounds on social media these days, a really gruesome one with some appalling twists, about a young white man another policeman brutally murdered while the man begged on his knees for his life.
Police kill unarmed white people, too. It shouldn’t be any sort of comfort to anyone. Lots of things are general threats to liberty – like civil asset forfeiture and other rent-seeking behavior, or overcharging and other zealous prosecution tactics – and also do more harm to some portions of the citizenry than they do to others.
I understand that folks get hung up on the term, “systemic racism”. Only, here’s the thing: If two dozen similar cases were to receive saturation coverage in quick succession on the news, à la George Floyd (Philando Castile) (Ahmaud Arbery) (Eric Garner), I still would not be afraid of the police the way our Black fellows in citizenship are legitimately afraid of the police. If I called out a wound up, haughty princess in a park for not having her dog on a leash, and she called the cops on me, I’d while the time waiting for them to arrive by crafting the cocktail party anecdote I’d be telling about the affair. That’s the difference.
Black citizens suffer disproportionately the effects of America’s broken police culture and justice system, and in a thousand other ways related directly and indirectly to the legacy of slavery, segregation, and other forms of oppression, so arguing over whether all that comes to something called “systemic racism” is basically a semantic quibble.
Black. Lives. Matter. It is important to say that, because in too many ways our society – culturally, institutionally, and “mechanically” (if you will) – behaves as though Black lives matter less. The point is that we can’t just keep letting that be the case.
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