There's a lot of commentary right now about Muhammad Ali, and yet so far I haven't seen or heard any that gets at the central point of why he was great.
This is the central quote:
"I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger."
This is right up there with anything ever written by Jefferson.
Muhammad Ali was not great because of conscientious objection: there were thousands of Quakers who did the same thing and were forgotten. And he wasn't great for resisting the Vietnam War either.
He was great because, in that one sentence above, he reaffirmed a basic tenet of democracy that is forgotten even today: no democratic nation can deserve patriotism from a people who've been spat upon by that nation for their entire existence.
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
Again, that's an entire treatise on democracy distilled into one sentence. And it's something that even the Supreme Court in Clay v. United States stayed away from, instead letting him off on a technicality and burying their support for his "religious conviction" in the written opinion.
They stayed away from what Ali really said, because to address it would have meant forcing the nation to deal with the continued oppression of their own legal citizens.
And this week, everyone who's hailing Ali for being a run-of-the-mill "war resistor" or a "conscientious objector" is also ignoring his real thesis: that no nation deserves the patriotism of people who it's treated like an enemy for decades.