Saturday, April 18, 2009

Culture & Cruelty: Rahm Emmanuel vs Muhammad Ali

There is a dark paradox to culture. A flip-side of cruelty to the esteemed achievements of mankind. The civilizations of Rome and Greece were erected on foundations of slavery. In a sense, all of what we call culture works the same way. Culture is the name we give to things we do once we have the tough, dirty job of survival out of the way. It is what we do with the surplus time, energy and material left over after we've cared for our basic, fundamental needs. Food, shelter and clothing are transformed into cuisine, architecture and fashion after there is free-time and extra cash on hand. Survival on this planet has never been easy and reaching a position of prosperity that allows for the flourishing of culture is the exception, not the norm. Even today, most of the world struggles with problems of poverty and disease in their day to day lives. As uncomfortable as it is to think about and accept, getting the "extra", the surplus needed to conquer survival and create culture usually comes about through the exploitation and control of other people and resources. 

I was reminded of the contrasts and intertwined natures of civility and brutality by two things last weekend. The first was a piece in Esquire magazine: Rahm Emanuel and his tough SOB brethren have officially replaced the douchebag. No excuses. (by Stephen Marche).
As Obama's first hire, Emanuel was a welcome sign of things to come, for Obama's lovely dreams will mean nothing without a thug to realize them. The beautiful cannot exist without the crude, or, as Walter Benjamin put it, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." Emanuel's boss has the world's most charming smile; Emanuel has a sliced-off finger. Obama says there are no red states or blue states; Emanuel likes to stand on tables and holler "[The Republicans] can go fuck themselves." Obama is "yes we can"; Emanuel is "yes we are doing it right now so why don't you piss off." How tough is Emanuel? He's so tough, he was offered a scholarship to dance with the Joffrey Ballet. He also once sent a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him and has said of himself, "I wake up some mornings hating me, too." The guy's like a character out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

I watched "Thrilla in Manila" the new HBO documentary on the infamous third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Fraizer.

Muhammad Ali, a personal hero since childhood, was a great boxer, athlete and one of the most charismatic and entertaining figures in American history. Which is why I found it so painfully disillusioning to see this realistic, sobering glimpse of a legend who's myth had all but cleansed him of the inconsistencies and ugly failings that are a part of any life.

After being stripped of his license to box for refusing induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War, Frazier befriend, supported and went to great lengths to aid in the renewal of Ali's boxing license to make possible the fight which would give him his career back. Once the fight was announced Ali turned on him and used his position within the Islamic community to subject him to bitter racial attacks. The film also shows clips of Ali siding with the KKK on issues of segregation and publicly flaunting his marital infidelity.

I've always maintained that behind every great brand (Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart, George Eastman, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison) there is an asshole birthing it through the arduous, painful process of creation. Maybe legends and the storybook versions of culture we find it easier to live with are are born the same way.


Kathleen said...

Nicely written.

We are all human, but it seems like the people who really have the focus to achieve on that level don't work on the rest of their personality. Maybe it's like the previous article you posted about beautiful people. When you have a single outstanding characteristic that propels you forward, you lack the incentive to work on other areas.

Most of us have to work a lot of angles to get ahead. For people like Ali, the one angle they have works like a tidal way to propel them well ahead of the rest of us.

HadTheCobraOut2Day said...

I echo Kathleen's sentiments.
Incredible times we're in, and incredible to be watching this unfold in real time. The douche is dead, all hail the tough son of a bitch.

Bob Ichter said...

I saw the documentary too, and was thinking the same thing.
It's sobering when you realize your idols are only human.

Thomas Sherman said...

his slinding self serving behavior went deep into asshole douchebag territory. When I see health of Steve Jobs and Ali I really have to wonder if there conditions and personlities/behavior are linked somehow. I have a theory that people that burn so hard mentally/emotionally can burn physiologically from within

Allan Jackson said...

Excellent piece, Tom. I need to watch that documentary. I'm sure my father would enjoy it, too.

I particularly like your analysis of culture. Personally, I'm reminded of the importance of leisure to culture every time I see David's portrait of the French chemist, Lavosier and his wife, at the MET. I've been meaning to read Josef Pipers'"Leisure: The Basis of Culture" for some time. I think you'd enjoy it. Short but seminal read.

Kathleen said...

Research is increasingly supporting the idea that behavior/psychology and physical health are connected. It seems to work in both directions, as well: what's going on outside can either be a cause or a mirror of what's going on inside.

Literature has known this a lot longer than science, of course :-)

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