Archive

June 10th, 2016

How Muhammad Ali transformed the image of Islam

    Boxing made Muhammad Ali famous, but his conversion to Islam -- and the meaning the world attached to it -- made him a global historical figure. Ali's conversion came to be understood as an act of transnational identification with the oppressed wretched of the earth. And through Ali, Islam itself was symbolically transformed for many observers from a conservative, quietist faith to a force for radical protest against Western power.

    This remarkable story says more about Islam in the last half-century than it does about Ali personally. Nevertheless, there remains something truly astonishing about how the first African-American athlete to achieve global celebrity could make that celebrity into a platform for religio-political activism, not patriotism or consumerism.

    When Ali was publicly accepted into the Nation of Islam in 1964, that remarkable movement was doubly peripheral. The numerically tiny Nation was very much at the margins of American religious life. In theological and social terms, it was almost completely alien to international Islam in its various mainstream forms.

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Hillary Clinton's long, hard climb to the top of the ticket

    Hillary Clinton has been part of our national consciousness for so long that it is easy to forget how far she has pushed the edges.

    It is not just that she has made history by becoming the first woman to claim the presidential nomination of a major party. Hillary -- known on a first-name basis, both by her fervent supporters and by those who despise her -- has been the avatar of a different way of thinking about women and what they can do.

    Hers was an earnest generation of feminists who decided that nothing was beyond them. They could choose their careers, build unshakable marriages and raise nearly perfect children. They could go out and change the world, yet still be there for their friends.

    A younger Hillary once said: "There is no formula that I'm aware of for being a successful or fulfilled woman today. Perhaps it would be easier . . . if we could be handed a pattern and cut it out, just as our mothers and grandmothers and foremothers were. But that is not the way it is today, and I'm glad it is not."

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'Fix' the U.S. political system at your own risk

    It's rare that President Barack Obama and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus agree. In recent weeks, they both have said that the presidential nominating process is not rigged.

    They are right. That hasn't stopped those displeased with the results -- establishment Republicans and Democrats who support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- from insisting on changing the rules for the next election.

    Some tweaks are always in order, but both sides are trying to craft procedures that would have worked to their benefit this time. Like generals fighting the last war, experience shows this rarely works and often backfires.

    "Every time someone tries to game out this system," says Benjamin Ginsberg, the leading Republican election lawyer, "the great law of unintended consequences rears its head."

    For the 2016 elections, Republicans wanted to compress the initial primaries and limit debates so that an establishment favorite -- Jeb Bush for most --- could wrap up the nomination early. Concurrently, conservatives insisted on the early Southern contests -- what became known as the SEC primary -- to better ensure victory for an ideologically suitable candidate.

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Clinton still talks about aliens, and that's good

    Among the underappreciated oddities of the 2016 election is that Hillary Clinton keeps talking about aliens. On the radio, in newspaper interviews, on late-night TV, she and her surrogates are vowing to "go into those files" and "get to the bottom of it." What she wants to get to the bottom of is Roswell, UFOs, Area 51 -- you know, the whole thing.

    It's a weird idea to campaign on. And no one is quite taking it seriously. (Almost no one, anyway.) But she's right. Getting to the bottom of things is a sensible ambition for a president. And those things, those archetypes of American paranoia, have resisted analysis for too long.

    White House aspirants have been mentioning them for a while, of course. Gerald Ford, as a congressman, asserted that "the American public deserves a better explanation" of UFOs. Jimmy Carter actually saw a UFO (he even filed the paperwork) and vowed to expose what the government knew if elected. Clinton's husband claimed that he asked around about secret files but no one would tell him anything. (They never do.)

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California and Trump's war on the press and the judiciary

    As California and four other states hold presidential primaries today (Tuesday), Hillary Clinton is expected to accumulate a majority of pledged delegates to claim the Democratic nomination, along with unpledged super-delegates promised to her.

    But rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, hoping for an upset in the Golden State that might persuade enough of the super-delegates to switch to him, is vowing to take their fight into next month's national convention. His persistence injects a distraction at a time Clinton is trying to pivot to engaging presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump for the fall campaign.

    In California, 475 pledged delegates are at stake, allocated by congressional district, and Clinton, according to the Politico tracking, needs only 23 more for the majority. It's considered likely she will pick up that many in the earlier voting New Jersey primary, where the polls will close while they are still open in California.

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An Obama Nominee’s Crushed Hopes

    In early 2014, after decades of government and nonprofit work that reflected a passion for public service, Cassandra Butts got a reward — or so she thought. She was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the next United States ambassador to the Bahamas.

    It wasn’t an especially high-profile gig at the crossroads of the day’s most urgent issues, but it was a longstanding diplomatic post that needed to be filled, and she had concrete ideas about how best to do the job.

    “She was very excited,” her sister, Deidra Abbott, told me.

    The Senate held a hearing about her nomination in May 2014, and then … nothing. Summer came and went. So did fall. A new year arrived. Then another new year after that.

    When I met her last month, she’d been waiting more than 820 days to be confirmed. She died suddenly two weeks later, still waiting. She was 50 years old.

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A Q&A on Clinton, politics and 'predistribution'

    Hillary Clinton's website lists 31 alphabetized policies on everything from Alzheimer's disease to workforce skills, each with its own 10-point plan. It's wonky, to be sure. But does it add up to a governing philosophy?

    Republicans say no, that Clinton is only offering a bunch of free stuff to Hispanics, blacks, women, gays and other special interests to buy votes. Bernie Sanders says she doesn't do nearly enough to redistribute income.

    Political scientist Jacob Hacker sees the question differently. Known for having coined the "public option" idea as part of the Obamacare debate, the Yale professor more recently came up with the concept of "pre-distribution," which aims to design government programs to spread economic power and rewards more widely. To Hacker, when Clinton talks about paying for family leave, improving skills, lifting wages, helping parents with college tuition and regulating shadow banks, she's being more holistic than she gets credit for.

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The Madness of America

    The candidacy of Donald Trump, the fervor of those who support it, and the fierce opposition of those who don’t is making America mad — both angry and insane, as the dual definitions of the word implies.

    One of the most disturbing displays of this madness is the violence Trump has incited in his supporters, and the violent ways in which opposition forces have responded, like the exchange we saw last week in San Jose, California.

    Both forms of violence are unequivocally wrong, but speak to a base level of hostility that hovers around the man like the stench from rotting flesh.

    What is particularly disturbing is to see anti-Trump forces lashing out at Trump’s supporters, seemingly provoked simply by a difference in political position.

    This cannot be. It’s self-defeating and narrows the space between the thing you despise and the thing you become.

    Listen, I understand how unsettling this man is for many.

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Media's impossible duty: Keeping Trump honest

    How should the media cover the presidential candidates over the next five months?

    Reporters and editors should "bend over backward" to be fair to Donald Trump, Alan Murray of Fortune said last week, echoing an admonition that the Wall Street Journal's top editor, Gerard Baker, reportedly issued to his editorial staff.

    Of course, a considerable amount of bending over already has taken place.

    Media outlets have given the likely Republican presidential nominee something like $2 billion worth of free exposure and, in many cases, let him get away with blatant falsehoods - even about something as basic as whether he did or didn't support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Trump says he clearly opposed it, but as Ben Smith of BuzzFeed noted, there's evidence of just the opposite.) Or that President Barack Obama wants to admit 250,000 Syrian refugees, when the real number is 10,000.

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A Pause That Distresses

    Friday’s employment report was a major disappointment: only 38,000 jobs added, a big step down from the more than 200,000 a month average since January 2013. Special factors, notably the Verizon strike, explain part of the bad news, and in any case job growth is a noisy series, so you shouldn’t make too much of one month’s data. Still, all the evidence points to slowing growth. It’s not a recession, at least not yet, but it is definitely a pause in the economy’s progress.

    Should this pause worry you? Yes. Because if it does turn into a recession, or even if it goes on for a long time, it’s very hard to envision an effective policy response.

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