Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

Sergio Martinez, Noble Fighter

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by David

Sergio Martinez

Boxers are often thought to be thugs. Not so for Sergio Martinez, the Argentine middleweight  (160 lbs) superstar who cemented his legacy last night with an exciting unanimous decision victory over the younger, bigger, and stronger Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the son of the legendary Mexican fighter. Martinez, 37 with movie-star good looks, took the 26-year-old Chavez to school for 11 rounds, but then nearly got knocked out in the 12th. Amazingly, Martinez ended the bout on his feet to get the points win.

I was rooting for Martinez. Though he was the favourite, he was also the naturally smaller man, as Chavez has famously put on upwards of 20 pounds after the weigh in, and appeared clearly larger last night. But the main reason I rooted for Martinez is because he’s a rags-to-riches story, he’s a really nice guy. Earlier this year, before a fight at Madison Square Garden, he spoke the Dominican Women’s Development Center and a safe house for victims of domestic abuse in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York. And he even appeared in an anti-bullying “it gets better” video.

Boxing can be brutal. But some of the fighters are actually pretty good people. Sergio Martinez is among the better ones. And that’s why he’ll likely remain one of my favourites for a long time.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 16, 2012 at 13:39

Posted in sports

Barack Obama: Jackie Robinson of Black Presidents

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by David

Barack Obama

For the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned a superb essay on Barack Obama as Black president. Coates argues that Obama, by not talking about race while sitting as president, has taken an accommodationist stance against white racism. You should read the whole thing, because it really is a spectacular piece of writing. Indeed, it’s an essay that is much better than this blog post in response to it, an essay that so impressed me that I will likely assign it to my “Race and Identity in Judaism” class.

And yet, it’s an essay that I have some problems with, on historical grounds.

As Coates correctly notes, “Obama is not simply America’s first black president–he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” In short Barack Obama is an intellectual. America has long been uncomfortable with intellectuals, as can be evidenced by the cult of anti-intellectualism surrounding Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right. I think Black intellectuals make this sector of white America even angrier than than the poor black underclass does, because they want to feel superior to Barack Obama, but they can’t.

Obama’s status as intellectual makes me wary of lumping him in the same accommodationist category as Booker T. Washington, as Coates does. For Washington displayed an anti-intellectualism of his own, as he preached industrial education, economic self-development, and acceptance of segregation for the black community of the South. Washington’s antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, argued in favor of integration, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, to be led by a “talented tenth.”

So is Obama an accomodationist in the vein of Booker T. Washington? As president, when he has dealt with race, it has been to engage in the “time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates is most angry about Obama’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from the US Department of Agriculture after the late Andrew Breitbart aired selective moments of an interview with her to make it appear as if she harbored anti-white sentiments. By failing to stand up for Sherrod, Obama followed in Washington’s footsteps by backing down in the face of white racism.

Booker T. Washington

And yet I think there might be another way to understand Obama here.

First, there are important differences between Obama and Booker T. Washington beyond the purely intellectual. The latter preached a doctrine of group uplift through industry and agriculture. His was a separatist, if not segregationist schema. It’s no wonder that Marcus Garvey, who led an even more radically separatist group in his “Back to Africa” movement, looked to Washington for inspiration.  Washington, Garvey, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, these leaders and movements rejected integration. Obama, whether he discusses race or not, is an apostle of integration.

Obama’s story, then, is not one of accommodation and separation, but of accommodation and integration. In order for this integration to occur, Obama has had to avoid the perception of succumbing to “black rage,” of being an “angry black man.” And in that way, the black leader he most resembles is baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson

When Jackie Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, he made a promise to Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, the man most responsable for signing him in the first place. Robinson promised Rickey that no matter how many taunts he received from players and fans and teammates, no matter how many baserunners slid into him spikes high or pitchers who threw at his head, he could not fight back. He had to take it, grit his teeth, and remain silent. Robinson promised to do this for three years. Rickey knew that if Robinson retaliated, he would be labeled an angry black man, other owners would refuse to sign African Americans, and the great experiment at integrating America’s national pastime would be rendered a failure.

Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of the white house. He has effectively integrated the presidency. But in his first term in office he has behaved like Jackie Robinson did in his first three years in the majors. After those first three years, Robinson was free to retaliate, to yell and fight back, and he did so vociferously. The metaphorical gloves came off. He succeeded in integrating baseball, and could then assert himself, as a black man, and as an individual.

Obama has not faced the degree of racism that Robinson did, but he has faced racism, both overt and subtle, in large part coming white resentment in the face of a changing national makeup. He is living in the post-Civil Rights era, indeed, HE IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. One would think he would have the ability, the power, to speak his mind more forcefully on racial questions.

Or maybe it’s precisely because he is president, because he is blazing a trail, that he needs to keep a low profile on race issues. The question remains: will Obama, if elected for a second term, take the gloves off? Will he be the tough-as-nails player that Jackie Robinson was his whole career, while still putting up Hall of Fame numbers?

This question may be related to the left’s criticism of Obama, that he promised change but then governed from the center. If a re-elected Obama changes course on race, will he change course and veer left on other policy arenas?

Written by David Weinfeld

August 30, 2012 at 15:24

Aly Raisman and Jewish Women’s Sweat

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by David

Aly Raisman

To follow up on Afrah’s excellent post on Gabby Douglas, I thought I would reflect a little bit on another American gymnast who won gold in London, Aly Raisman. The 18-year-old Raisman, an American Jew, proudly celebrated her heritage by performing her gold-medal winning floor routine to “Hava Nagilah.”

In winning the gold medal, Raisman also did her part in undermining certain stereotypes about Jewish women. Particularly in the post-WW2 period, two comic images of Jewish women emerged, both with a decidedly negative edge. The first was the overbearing Jewish mother, the second the Jewish American Princess, or JAP, personified in either the nagging wife or the spoiled daughter. These images were on display in American Jewish fiction, but they also caused real harm in gender relations between American Jewish men and women.

Ali MacGraw as Brenda Patimkin

In her 1996 essay “Why Jewish Princesses Don’t Sweat,” anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell argues that the archetypical JAP is allergic to work. As an example, she points Brenda Patimkin, the leading lady of the 1959 Philip Roth novella Goodbye, ColumbusIn both the book and the 1969 movie, Patimkin (as portrayed by Ali MacGraw) is seen playing tennis. To Prell, the message is that JAPs can sweat, provided that the sweat is not productive, i.e. that it comes from exercise or a leisurely activity like tennis. The Jewish woman is thereby denigrated as unproductive, lazy, and spoiled.

Of course, this stereotype is far from true: Jewish women work, and certainly sweat while working. This is where Raisman comes in. Here we have a wonderful real-life example of a Jewish woman whose work is athletic, sweat-producing, and medal-winning. Mazel tov Aly!

Written by David Weinfeld

August 8, 2012 at 19:31

Posted in gender, Jews, sports

Black Girls Rock! Considering Gabby Douglas, Cultural Phenom

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Gabby Douglass on balance beam, August 2, 2012

by Afrah

Gabrielle Douglas is the 16 year old two-time Olympic gold medalist (at the time of this post) in the team and individual all around gymnastic events. Her success is a testament to the almost single-minded drive of a young woman, her family, and coaches. In a few short days she has been transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. She is, first and foremost, an Olympic champion. Gabby has also become America’s sweetheart. Finally, she is a black girl.  The three identities are inextricably embedded in her public personae. The gold medal-winning athlete and surging popularity will follow a well-established path in the public consciousness. It is the fact of race that both complicates and potentially deepens her impact on cultural history.

Gabby Douglas’ story can be easily recounted in the familiar terms that world-class athletes use. She spent thousands of hours in the gym, sacrificed greatly, and continued to perform through pain. She moved from Virginia Beach to Iowa at 14 years old in order to train with a winning coach and live with a host family.  She talks convincingly of blood, sweat and tears at the gym because one must remember that she has shed them all in pursuit of the top spot in the world.  She has the nickname of the “flying squirrel,” due to the ”height on release moves on the uneven bars.”  The name reflects her skill, power and precision. Gabby Douglass joins Dominique Dawes, an African American woman, who won the gold for the team gymnastic event in 1996. After winning the individual gold, Gabby posted the following on her blog: “I was ready to seize the moment, to focus and to trust in what I can do.” She stands alone as the first black woman to win the individual all around gold medal. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

August 6, 2012 at 16:44

Heroes and Villains in the NBA Finals

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by David

I don’t pretend to be a big basketball fan, but I do have at least a mild interest in these NBA Finals. You know, the series pitting the good guys, the Oklahoma City Thunder, versus the bad guys, the Miami Heat. There’s an easy narrative for hating the Heat: their star player, Lebron James, is a serious douchebag, an Ohio native who left the Cleveland Cavaliers to “take his talents to South Beach.” While everyone loved to see him lose in last year’s finals, they didn’t love his post-series interview where he basically told all those haters to get a life. For more on this, check out Jay Smooth’s awesome video:

The Thunder’s Kevin Durant on the other hand, is playing for the team that drafted him, a homegrown superstar.

Simple stuff, right? Except The Nation‘s progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin says that people who think this way have got it all wrong. According to Zirin, who still blames the Thunder ownership for taking the Supersonics from Seattle and turning them into the Thunder:

Strip away the drama and the Heat are called “evil” because their star players exercised free agency and—agree or disagree with their decision—took control of their own careers. The Thunder are praised for doing it the “right way,” but no franchise is more caked in original sin than the team from Oklahoma City. Their owners, Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon, with an assist from NBA Commissioner David Stern, stole their team with the naked audacity of Frank and Jesse James from the people of Seattle.

In addition, he notes that “Bennett and McLendon are big Republican moneymen whose hobby is funding anti-gay referendums.”

Complicates things a little, doesn’t it?

But Kate Perkins disagrees with Zirin. She writes:

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren’t playing Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and David Stern. They’re playing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Rooting for the players of one team to win an ideological battle, however righteous, against the owners of another doesn’t add up.

I agree with Perkins. I also agree with Bill Simmons, who says that we shouldn’t fault OKC or their fans for the theft of the Supersonics. Simmons notes that OKC has amazing fans, largely because the Thunder are the only game in town, and because the city is still bonded together by the terrorist attack back in 1995. Makes you wanna root for OKC the same way so many of us rooted for the New Orleans Saints in the superbowl after the horrible hurricane flooding there.

All that doesn’t help you if you’re from Seattle. Yes, it sucks for Sonics fans. I get it. My Montreal Expos are now the Washington Nationals. I understand anyone from Seattle not rooting for OKC out of spite.

But as a general sports fan, I think this equation is pretty simple. Unless you’re from Miami, or bitter and from Seattle, you should root for OKC. Not even because they have great fans. But because the Heat already won a championship in 2006. That wasn’t so long ago. Wade has a ring. So the Miami fans have had their taste. And it would be really nice to see LeBron feel a little disappointed again. Maybe he’ll even start regretting The Decision. I doubt it. He’s too arrogant for that. But a sports fan can dream, can’t he?

Written by David Weinfeld

June 13, 2012 at 22:18

Posted in sports

Jeremy Lin: of course it’s About Race, and it’s Not All Smiles

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by David

On February, 13, 2012, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the racist, woman-beating arrogant jail-bound criminal, who also happens to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and current welterweight champion, made a stupid, racist tweet. Here’s what Mayweather tweeted:

Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.

Mayweather is an asshole. He’s not backing down. And as Washington Post sportswriter Jason Reid notes, Mayweather is mostly wrong. Jeremy Lin’s story is unique: he went to Harvard, he’s an evangelical Christian, he was undrafted, he was sleeping on his brother’s couch, then coming off the bench for the New York Knicks, and now he’s an NBA star.

But there’s at least a kernel of truth to Mayweather’s obnoxiousness. The Jeremy Lin story is big because of everything else. It’s huge because he’s the first Chinese-American in the NBA. And that’s OK.

I’ve finally caught on to the Linsanity. Normally I don’t watch any more than the last two minute of regular season professional basketball games, but I’m making an exception here. We don’t get cable, but I’ll even shlep out to the Columbia med student housing common room to watch the Linsanity.

And it is exciting. Heck even Tiger Mom Amy Chua tweeted that her and her family are “huge” Jeremy Lin fans, and linked to this article, which attributes Lin’s success to tough Asian parenting. But I cry (or call) foul. This piece, by Gish Jen, is more accurate, highlighting the rebellion, the anti-stereotype that Jeremy Lin represents. Because Lord knows that if Amy Chua had a ten-foot-tall son she’d still be shoving a violin in his hands before allowing him to shoot hoops.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But only a little. Because I know this story. It’s why I celebrate Kevin Youkilis and Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and why the movie Airplane can make a joke referring to “light” reading, a leaflet of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.” These Jews, like Jeremy Lin, are exceptions. Sure, there will be more. But most Jews, and most Asian Americans, will go on to more conventional, but still successful paths. Because that’s what their parents want for them, and that is what is expected of them.

And so the real tragedy behind the Jeremy Lin story is here, hidden in a New York Times story about Stuyvesant High School, maybe the toughest and most competitive high school in the country, where thousands of students take a difficult exam, and only the highest scoring are admitted. It’s worth noting this on the last day of Black History month of 2012. Stuyvesant High School has 3295 students. A whopping 72.5% of them are Asian. Forty are Black. Forty. Not Forty percent. Forty students, total, equal to 1.2 percent of the student population. Another 2.4% are Hispanic. These are the Jeremy Lins of the American high school system: Black and Latino students who succeed against the odds, disproving the stereotypes, fighting structural inequality that dates back generations, even centuries. Read the article. It’s harrowing.

So let’s applaud Lin’s success in the NBA. It’s awesome, and need not be denigrated in any way. He’s a pioneer for Asian-Americans in sports. But this story is about race, and when we take a step back, it’s not a happy story. So let’s get our priorities straight.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 29, 2012 at 20:46

The Dangers of Collegiate Athlete Worship

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by David

Yale Quarterback Patrick Witt aka Captain Douche

As a Harvard alum, I suppose I could take some obscene pleasure in the recent revelations about Yale quarterback Patrick Witt. You know, the guy who chose to play in the Harvard-Yale game instead of attend his Rhodes Scholarship interview? Yalies celebrated his upholding team and school loyalty over personal prestige–even as Harvard crushed Yale in The Game, 45-7. Except, according to this New York Times story, Witt rescinded his Rhodes application not because of the scheduling conflict, but because of a sexual assault allegation issued against him by a fellow student.

This was already a bizarre tale. Witt’s coach at Yale, Tom Williams, had lied about having been a Rhodes Scholarship candidate himself to suggest that he was in a prime position to advise his star quarterback. Then we find out that the campus paper, the Yale Daily News, had known about the sexual assault charges and been sitting on the story for months.

The thing is, I don’t take any pleasure in this at all (nor should anyone). Instead, we should lament the perils of athlete worship, which has reared its ugly head recently, most notably in the rioting of Penn State students over the firing of the late and disgraced Joe Paterno, protector of alleged child-rapist Jerry Sandusky.

I don’t know if Witt is guilty of sexual assault. But as the NY Times piece indicates from his prior arrests, he has a clear record of extreme douchebaggery. What we have here is a problem of the over-emphasis of collegiate athletics, and particularly the worship of male college athletes. These are people whose already inflated egos are fed from the moment they arrive on campus. This problem can lead to an equally inflated sense of privilege. Sometimes, this privilege just creates more and bigger douchebags. But other times, it can create atmosphere where real crimes go unnoticed, unreported, or unpunished.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 28, 2012 at 22:55

Posted in Academia, education, sports

B-Hop, Booker T, and the Jews

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by David

Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins (left), the current light-heavyweight (175 lbs) champion, the oldest man to win a major title, and a future boxing Hall of Famer, recently gave yet another candid interview, complete with new musings on race. We’ve been here before, even on this blog. This interview, however, was a bit different. Here’s a sample:

You’re a very candid person, especially about race. Why are you so forthright? I’ve been around a lot of candid people, but I’ve learned it’s good to be certain things at certain times. Everybody doesn’t know when to be candid and when not to be candid. It’s a strategy, part of the Art of War that I use as a script for anything I do in the ring or out of the ring.

 I’m sure you’ve heard the term $40 million slave. What does that term mean to you?Just because you got a contract for $40, $80, $90, $100, $200 million, no matter what you have or what you think you are, in this country, unfortunately, to most people, not all, you’re still a n–. You just happen to be rich. They’ll open the door for you. They’ll carry your bag. They’ll call you sir and they’ll call you mister. They might even let you date their daughter — because of what you have and what you represent, not because of who you are. I won’t say everyone thinks this way, but I believe in my heart that the percentage is high. I can speak to the $40 million slave situation. But if you’re LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods, that’s pocket change. The stakes are higher now.

Is there any part of you that’s worried that people will say, “He sounds like a racist”?No. When I say things, I say it out of what I experienced. I believe that before I try to help another race, why not see if there’s something to be done in my hood? That’s not saying I’m anti-white or anti-Chinese or anti-Puerto Rican. Many of my business partners are Jewish. And boy do they stick together. I want to bring my own people up to understand that let’s learn from the Jewish people’s business minds. Everybody can’t dribble their way out of the hood. Let’s try to book your way out. I only learned what I’ve learned from other cultures. I have some Italian friends. Everybody knows how Italians stick together. Go to South Philly. Go to New York. I’m not talking about the negative, but the wholesome Italian families with unity. The Irish. The other cultures. It’s when you start saying I’m better than that other person, that’s when it becomes something different.

Why do you think so many black athletes are so hesitant to talk about race? Because they are told not to.

Who’s telling them? The system that pays them, the system that dictates how they speak, how they talk. Football players, basketball players, they don’t talk about politics. It’s modernized slavery. They’re not allowed to talk about things that are sensitive and incorrect in the political world.

One person who isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect is Floyd Mayweather. How do you think his image impacts how black athletes are perceived? I have a problem with it.

What do you have a problem with? The perception and the stereotype of how they view and judge us as athletes is a blueprint and a script from what Mayweather shows them all the time. You don’t see Steve Jobs — God rest his soul — talking with a stack of money on the phone. He never showed his wealth because his wealth was who he was, not what he had. 

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you’re calling Floyd Mayweather a modern-day minstrel. No. I’m calling him a guy who’s not conscious of the image he portrays to promote fights and the image he portrays to show who he is. But he happens to be the guy people are looking at in boxing as the man, other than Pacquiao. He has the power like Jim Brown had in his era. He has the power like the great Ray Leonard had. He has the power like Ali had, when he said, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me n–.” Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity. I don’t think Mayweather is a bad person, but his message is misleading.

 The part the stuck out to me, of course, was when Hopkins mentioned his Jewish business partners who “stick together.” Antisemitic? Hardly. Novel? Not even close. In his 1899 book, The Future of the American Negro, Booker T. Washington (below right) praised American Jews’ economic success and industry, highlighting their “unity, pride, and love of race.” He advised Blacks to “imitate the Jew,” because  “as the years go on, they will be more and more successful in this country,–a country where they were once despised, and looked upon with scorn and derision.”

Washington was not alone in this view. The Washington Bee, an anti-Booker T. Washington African American newspaper, expressed similar sentiments in an anonymous 1899 piece about the Dreyfus Affair in France, titled “The Persecution of the Jew.” The article, sympathetic to Dreyfus and to Jews suffering from oppression, noted:  “There are no class of citizens more industrious than the Jews. There is not as much discrimination against the Jews as there used to be. The time is fast coming when the Jews will be the financial rulers of the world.” Though tinged with some antisemitic fear, the authors clearly saw the Jews as a  people to emulate, observing, like Washington, that economic success led to a reduction in discrimination.

On the cultural level, Alain Locke (below), the first Black Rhodes Scholar and leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, said similar things. In 1911 speeches to the Negro Historical Societies of Philadelphia and Yonkers, Locke commented that Jews were “perpetuating themselves and garnering respect at home and influence abroad” for their display of “race loyalty and effectiveness.” He noted that the Jewish community in the United States “has contributed to its racial life the world over and stands today as the champion of some of its most significant reform movements.” Locke held Jews up as a model group who were able to maintain their traditions and cultural cohesion while at the same time integrating and contributing to broader American life. Locke’s 1925 manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro, specifically referred to Zionism as an inspiration, as did Marcus Garvey‘s Back to Africa movement of the same period.

The point is that Hopkins was simply advancing the same “do it yourself” Black nationalism (or maybe communitarianism) espoused by Washington, Locke, Garvey, Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and more recently, Bill Cosby (on Cosby, see this great piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates). Of course, there are significant differences between these figures and movement. And of course, Hopkins did not limit his comments to Jews. Among people of all ethnicities, there are some who want to  “stick together.” Saying so should be banal. Hopkins was simply offering a variation of the old argument about separation versus integration, particularism vs universalism, that has presented itself to minority groups, Blacks, Jews, and others, time and time again, in America and elsewhere.

There’s much more to say about Hopkins’ interview, especially the stuff about Mayweather and minstrelsy, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll just say that I like Hopkins. He’s a defensive master and boring inside the ring, though never outside of it. I wish him all the best in his future bouts.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 9, 2011 at 12:16

Joe Frazier’s Historical Significance

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by David

I’m a big boxing fan, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on former heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who passed away last night at the age of 67. There has been a remarkable moment of sadness coming from all corners of the boxing community, from the classy Lennox Lewis to the controversial Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has promised that his “Money Team” will pay for the funeral. I share that sadness. And that’s why I want to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tweeted about the disappointing New York Times obituary, “Not really an honor to Frazier to start an obit claiming he was a ‘better man’ than Ali.”

Of course, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are inextricably linked. But the obituary’s author dwelled too much on comparing Frazier and Ali as fighters and as men, while completely ignoring Frazier’s political and historical significance. He notes that Ali called Frazier “a gorilla” and “stupid.” As this far better Christian Science Monitor tribute notes, Ali also called Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” while Frazier called Ali “Cassius Clay,” his “slave name” that he renounced upon joining the Nation of Islam and changing it to Muhammad Ali in 1964.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier represented the most important theme of African American history, the struggle between separation and integration. When Frazier and Ali first fought, in 1971 (clip above), African Americans had overcome slavery and Jim Crow, but Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and Black Power was on the rise. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam who had been stripped of his title while in prison for refusing to serve in the military  during the Vietnam war. He represented the spirit of Black separatism. Frazier, on the other hand, was the establishment fighter, the “white man’s” champ.

When the lighter-skinned Ali called the darker Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” the moment was rich with irony. Frazier, a descendent of share-croppers, was one of 12 children born in rural South Carolina. As the NYT obit notes, he grew up “picking vegetables for 15 cents a crate when not helping his father, a handyman who lost his left arm in an auto accident.” He brought $200 with him when he took a Greyhound Bus to New York to find better opportunities. He then went to Philly, and found occasional work in a meat locker, where he punched hunks of meat like a heavy bag, inspiring Sylvester Stallone to include a similar scene in Rocky.

The NYT piece fails to mention Ali’s upbringing. Though hardly wealthy, the Clays lived a relatively comfortable and secure lower-middle class life in Louisville, Kentucky. Both of Ali’s parents were regularly employed, and he graduated from high school before heading off to the Olympics. Nonetheless, he became a symbolic hero to Blacks in America and Africa, as demonstrated in the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. The movie chronicles Ali’s trip to Zaire in 1974, where he upset then heavyweight champion George Foreman. Though now more famous for his grilling machine, the Houston-born Foreman was once a ferocious fighter. Like Ali and Frazier, he was also an Olympic gold medalist, and like Frazier, had grown up in poverty, yet he could not seem to win his people’s hearts the way his charismatic opponent could. Indeed, many of the Zaire locals thought Foreman was white before he showed up. Perhaps this degree of detail on Ali would have been too much for a Frazier obit, but some contrast of Ali and Frazier’s background helps place their historical significance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

November 8, 2011 at 12:17

Museums of Vilnius

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by David

Castle in Vilnius

In exploring Vilnius yesterday, the whole “city of ghosts” thing seemed to ring true. We walked along the beautiful streets, but the people seemed detached from the beauty around them. We claimed up to a castle at one of the flat city’s highest points, and took in the view. It was truly majestic. But through that castle was a museum, which hardly recognized the non-Lithuanian character of the city for much of it’s history. It’s as if they went from paganism to the Soviet era with nothing in between. And what they truly celebrated was liberation from the Soviets. On the top floor of the museum, a television played clips about Lithuania’s “2009 Millenium Odyssey: One Name – Lithuania.” This country celebrated 1000 years of Lithuanian history by sending a yacht sailing to visit every Lithuanian community in the world. Impressive, but strange. Hearkening back to a pagan past with a worldwide sailing trip for a nation with no real connection to seafaring? Imagined Community anyone? Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh here. Lithuania is a young country, building its own culture and nation. But I think an honest assessment of their history would do them some good.

The Lithuanian “Genocide” Museum, formerly the KGB museum, was even more troubling. The museum’s name begs the question: genocide committed upon Lithuanians, or by Lithuanians? The museum was in fact dedicated to the two Soviet occupations, from 1940-1941 and then 1944-1990. Those occupations were indeed oppressive. But if genocide ever occurred on these lands, it was between 1941-1944. One exhibit, outlining the casualties of the three occupations, noting 240,000 “Lithuanians” died between 1941-1944, and in brackets, that 200,000 of those were “Jews.” Apart from that, there was no mention of the Holocaust, except for a couple of lines at the bottom of one early exhibit, which said something like: “For those interested in the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, you should check out the Holocaust museum.”

I have no trouble with a museum dedicated to horrors of and resistance to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. As I wrote earlier, I was very impressed with the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which told a Polish story while not neglecting the Jewish element. The Lithuanian Genocide museum had none of that subtlety. Indeed, it had a large outdoor exhibit about the role of basketball is unifying the Lithuanian nation and resisting the Soviets. This exhibit, which consisted of a basketball net and about ten displays, was orders of magnitude larger than any mention of Jews in the museum.

Basketball Exhibit at Lithuanian Genocide Museum

So today, after a lovely guided tour of the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood/ghetto, I went to check out the Holocaust museum, or rather, two parts of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum: The Museum of Tolerance, and another museum specifically dedicated to the Holocaust in Lithuania. I did not have high hopes. When I walked through the first section of the Museum of Tolerance, I feared that this museum was not for me: it had artifacts from Jewish Lithuania, but nothing I hadn’t seen elsewhere. It seemed that the museum existed to educate native Lithuanians about Judaism, which is great, but I I already knew the basics and didn’t need a refresher course. What was worse, there weren’t any Lithuanians in the museum actually learning this stuff.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 19, 2011 at 11:21


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