Muhammad Ali, Thomas Hobbes, and the Politics of Fear

When Muhammad Ali famously said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…they never called me nigger,” he wasn’t just refusing to serve in Vietnam. He was also challenging the ability of the state to define for its citizens whom they should fear and who were their enemies. As Ali said to a group of white college students, who had challenged his position on serving in Vietnam, “You my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese.”

From the time of Hobbes, one of the leading attributes of sovereignty has been the right of the state to define what threatens a people and how that threat will be responded to. In the state of nature, Hobbes wrote in Elements of the Law, “every man…is judge himself of the necessity of the means, and of the greatness of the danger” he faces. But once we submit to the state, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of the threats we are facing and how to respond to them. Except in cases of immediate physical threat to ourselves, we must now accede to the sovereign’s assessment of and decision about these threats. The sovereign, as Hobbes says in Leviathan of the state’s control over matters theological, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.”

This is why Ali’s challenge to the Vietnam War was so formidable. He wasn’t merely claiming conscientious objector status, though he was. He wasn’t simply claiming the authority of a higher being, though he was. He was asserting the right of the citizen to be the final judge of what threatens or endangers him. In asserting that right, Ali was posing the deepest, most fundamental challenge to the power and authority of the state.

That he also claimed to be more threatened by his own fellow citizens and government than by an officially declared enemy of the state only added to the subversiveness of his challenge. Against the state’s axis of fear, which claims that one’s enemies invariably belong to another country and thus are part and parcel of the international state system, Ali sought to rotate that axis along a different dimension: away from the international state system to the domestic system of social domination and civil subjection.

13 Comments

  1. xenon2 June 4, 2016 at 2:31 pm | #

    ‘away from the international state system
    to the domestic system of social domination
    and civil subjection’

    It is still going on, 49 years later.
    Sometimes, there’s a video,
    and we can all see it for ourselves.

    That’s the only difference.
    Do we stop the wars?
    Pay attention to the ‘homeland’?

    Nah…

  2. Jason Fossella June 4, 2016 at 9:45 pm | #

    The notion that there exists a “right of the citizen to be the final judge of what threatens or endangers him” is at the core of gun rights and stand-your-ground legislation. It’s far more likely to endanger lives than protect them. Have you gone so far left you’ve wrapped around to the other side?

    • Jacob Jefferson Jakes June 5, 2016 at 12:09 am | #

      Perhaps that what makes them seem so subversive, as well?

    • Aaron Dellutri (@AaronMDellutri) June 5, 2016 at 11:14 pm | #

      @ Jason Fossella June 4, 2016 at 9:45 pm

      It’s not the same. Ali was insisting that his personal judgement about threat was right and proper. “Stand Your Ground” laws give a gun-owner’s personal judgement the force of law.

    • Will G-R June 6, 2016 at 11:30 am | #

      Only through the distorted lens of modern liberalism (including the set of views Americans call “conservatism”, which derives most of its philosophical premises from classical liberalism) can gun control be interpreted as a left-wing cause. The legislative gun control regime currently on the books was overwhelmingly enacted not as a response to apolitical lumpenproletarian criminal activity or reactionary right-wing militia-style agitation, but to curtail the armed activity of the Black Panther Party, whose armed urban police-monitoring patrols were the only effective check America has ever seen on police brutality against black communities. This is exactly the sort of activity both Ali and Robin are talking about.

  3. sakib niaz June 4, 2016 at 10:51 pm | #

    He was a muslim. It’s the real picture of a muslim. And I found that kind of thoughts in Bernie. I am a Bangladeshi though.

  4. Edward June 6, 2016 at 9:35 am | #

    In our time a similar argument has been made by soldiers refusing to serve in Iraq because the war is illegal. I don’t know if Ali tried to ground his objection in the law that way, which would not be as subversive, but he was basically declaring the war illegitimate.

  5. Reader X June 6, 2016 at 7:08 pm | #

    Cogent, brief. Thank you.

  6. Nah June 7, 2016 at 3:56 am | #

    On a slightly unrelated note- I read this description of Ali from a Vox email describing an NPR story on him:

    “He was a genius athlete who transformed not just boxing but the whole sports industry — leading a shift in power from ownership and management to the athletes themselves, by refusing to be grateful for being allowed to fight.

    It reminded me of how grad students and other low wage workers who attempt to form unions or increase their job security are told that they should just be grateful to be in the program/job and to keep quiet while doing the brunt of the grunt work, b/c medical leave is unproductive.

    • Stephen Zielinski June 7, 2016 at 2:13 pm | #

      The lower classes and castes ought to thank their betters for allowing them to live and, perhaps, work as wage slaves. They could be sent to one of the many prisons constructed over the last fifty years, sent there for the crime of being poor, or because they were a nuisance, sassed a peace officer, slept in the park, etc.

      After all, “the world does not owe the poor a living.” It is best if they just moved along, remaining out of sight and thus out of mind.

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