Sunday, July 17, 2016

Shifting views

Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Gazette weekly column, “On Topic,” from 07-03-16
I am going to resist the urge to say something potentially cheesy and cheap and manipulative by pointing out that tomorrow, the Fourth of July, is not only a day to commemorate freedom in this country but also a time to remember that a basic tenant of freedom is to speak out. To inform and, sometimes, to encourage consideration of other viewpoints — whether that be from a newspaper, such as this one, or from an individual.
But it is.
Of course, listening to other opinions doesn’t always result in a road-to-Damascus change of hearts and minds. Sometimes, though, it can layer our thinking — on a single argument or for a whole new outlook.

Within a few weeks of each other, a pair of Americans died who had altered a great many minds — Muhammad Ali, on June 3 at age 74, and Michael Herr, on June 23 at 76.
Long after Ali’s boxing career had packed up, he used to turn up on occasion at a pizza place in a small southwest Michigan town where I lived, a couple jobs before this one. The restaurant was operated by a couple guys who, as policy, hired young people in need of patience and guidance.
The pizza was excellent: I still can smell the biting fragrance — that’s surely the best word — that filled my car from the garlic pizza, with its sloshing-everywhere sauce, that I’d pick up on a snowy winter’s night, then drive back home up a hill so steep the city would block it off at least twice between November and February every year, declaring it insurmountable.
Ali must have loved the pizza, too. In his retirement, he had purchased a house along Lake Michigan, as have many of the well-to-do who want to be close to the big city of Chicago, but not that close.
He would turn up, unannounced, and devote a good chunk of his time signing autographs and talking to children — and adults — lucky enough to be on the premises at the time, or who had got word his was there and dashed over.
Photos of him with adoring children, documenting several visits, were pinned to the restaurant’s walls. I assume they still are.
The Champ wasn’t always so agreeable. Certainly not in the ring — he didn’t get to be a three-time world heavyweight title holder by being passive.
Many who might have admired his “float like a butterfly” athletic skill or his acerbic-silly humor were caught off guard by his persona as a poetry-spouting boaster; by his shunning his birth name of Cassius Clay — a “slave name,” he deemed it — after aligning himself with Malcolm X; by flinging his 1960 Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River.
But mostly it was his refusal to be drafted in 1967. His reason? He couldn’t fight the North Vietnamese because, he said, they never called him names, “they never lynched me, they never put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, raped nor killed my mother and father … . Just take me to jail.”
Right there — bam! — Ali cast a different avenue on the debate. It wasn’t about whether he agreed with the purpose of the war in Southeast Asia. He meant something else: He was questioning why he should take up arms to side with a powerful nation that, even in his lifetime, had treated people of color – his people — atrociously.
He was banned from the ring for three prime years, and he began to change minds across the nation. Not everyone’s, of course.
Michael Herr’s name, too, is connected to the Vietnam War, but his by design.
His book, “Dispatches,” was ground-breaking — and I use that cliché with eyes wide open. I came late to the slim book, picking up a battered copy at a library sale, some years after its publication in 1977.
That was about eight years after magazine writer Herr had been embedded with troops in Vietnam, and two years after America decided to get out of that mess. That is, still well within our country’s contentious internal and external debate over the whole thing.
What was gripping about “Dispatches” was it presented not tales of heroic valor and duty, but of chaos and fear. The New York Times, in his obituary, proclaimed “Dispatches” demonstrated Herr’s “unimpeachable credentials as a witness” to that war’s “fury and … (and) the crippling apprehension that precedes it.”
 “You could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional,” Herr wrote.
Mostly what Herr had to tell us was that, frankly, none of us back home had the slightest clue as to what had gone on over there. Early in the book, he recounts this report from a soldier: “‘Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.’
“I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, ****** if he'd waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was.”
Herr’s harsh narrative solidified some views, but it also redirected many others. After all, he had been to hell and back, and we had not.

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