Tuesday morning on National Public Radio, Rush Limbaugh's biographer Zev Chafets equated the object of his affection to boxing's own Muhammad Ali. This is not a joke.
As Chafets said, "In the book I compare him to Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was, in public, a very bombastic guy. And in private people say he was very soft-spoken and that his public persona was just a ramping up of his real personality, and that he did the public persona to gather a crowd. And I think that's very true of Limbaugh also."
The historical and ethical problems with Chafets's comparison abound. Yes, both Limbaugh and Ali belong in a Talkers Hall of Fame and both used a larger-than-life public persona to "gather a crowd." But Limbaugh used this skill to become richer than Croesus by exploiting fears based upon race, religion, gender, and sexuality. He's the great exemplar for all conservative media celebrity: revel in bigotry; become unbelievably wealthy; blame liberal media as your quotes are circulated; rinse, repeat.
Ali in contrast sacrificed. He sacrificed millions of dollars, national heroism, and in the end, his very motor functions, because he was a militant opponent of racism and the war in Vietnam. The only thing Ali and Limbaugh have in common is that they both did what they had to do to avoid military service in Nam. The slight difference of course, being that Ali risked five years in Leavenworth while Limbaugh claimed he couldn't wear the uniform because "pilonidal cysts" (anal abscesses from ingrown hairs") prevented him from service. To say that they have a lot in common because they are both "big personalities' is like saying I have a lot in common with Lebron James because we both play hoops.
Here are some other people with "outsized personalities" who Chafets could also have used to compare to Limbaugh; Hulk Hogan, Harvey Fierstein, Benito Mussolini... the choices are really endless. So why choose Ali? I fear that Chafets chose Ali for the same reason that Tom Horne, Superintendent of Arizona schools, said he was moved to abolish the Tucson ethnic studies program because "Martin Luther King gave his famous speech in which he said we should be judged by the quality of our character, rather than the color of our skin."
This is one of the right's favorite strategies: defend the indefensible by cloaking arguments with the martyrs of the black freedom struggle. This might be effective rhetorically, but it requires debasing history for political expediency. I wouldn't expect much more from Horne or the Texas School Board or any of the know-nothings who wear their ignorance like badges of honor in the culture wars. But I'd expect more from Chafets, who wrote a terrific expose of the Baseball Hall of Fame last year called "Cooperstown Confidential."
I emailed Chafets to ask him if he could understand why some might find comparing Limbaugh to Ali a tad off the beam, historically. He replied,
"Sure. But I wasn't comparing them as anti-war figures or good guys. And I want to remind you that Ali was, at that time, a Black Muslim who fervently believed (and often proclaimed) that white men are literally the devil. He changed his views later. But Limbaugh, the putative racist, has never gone anywhere near anything like that. He believes and says that all people should be judged on the content of their character, regardless of race. He and I got into it over my view that this is a misguided and overly simple--and possibly disingenuous--formula in today's racial environment. But I don't consider Rush is a racist. He is a racial conservative, (i.e. a liberal circa 1965) and a candid racial talker in the discussion Eric Holder has called for."
It's worth punching a few holes in this response. Liberals in 1965 were actually a far more principled breed than their 21st century counter-parts, let alone Limbaugh. They believed in the concept of a Great Society and that government had an obligation to take sides on questions of racial and economic justice. It was liberals, circa 1965, who were getting beaten, arrested, and even killed in the struggle for civil rights. It was liberals who turned against Lyndon Johnson when, as Dr. King put it, "The Great Society was shot down on the battlefield in Vietnam." To say that Limbaugh, who has called President Obama, "the little black man-child" and reveled in playing "Barack the Magic Negro" on his show, is just "a candid racial talker" strains belief.
As for Ali's embrace of the Nation of Islam, this was driven by the very racism and violence that was poisoning the United States. The fact that Ali, as a privileged sports celebrity, took these stands, only speaks to what he was willing to risk. For all of Ali's faults - and there were many - this part of his character is precious and worth defending. He had mettle. He had guts. Limbaugh revels in the isolation of his studio where opposing views never risk entry. Even Ali's harshest critics cite his courage. And even Limbaugh's fondest admirers, like Chafets, would do well to acknowledge his cowardice. There is really no comparison. It's Ali in a first round knockout.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]