Quote of the day: Muhammad Ali reframes a war


From Corey Robin, author and professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, writing at his blog:

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.

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