Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sports Illustrated on Jack Johnson

Tim Dahlberg, a national sports columnist for the Associated Press has written a column for Sports Illustrated arguing for a pardon to be granted to the long-dead boxing celebrity Jack Johnson, who never applied for, or sought, a pardon when he was living. We dissect (with only as much energy as we can muster) Dahlberg's "arguments" to be as follows:

1. Johnson beat Jim Jeffries in the "Fight of the Century" - We sincerely hope this needs no commentary as to relative weight as an argument for a presidential pardon

2. "Many" who cheered for Johnson were "beaten" - We cannot even imagine how this reflects in any way on his Johnson's personal worth as a pardon recipient.

3. Johnson "liked white women and he flaunted it, a crime worse to many Americans at the time than a black man winning the heavyweight title" - Here Dahlberg seems to reveal a certain degree of passion for this topic that would allow (if not encourage) him to present "the facts" in somewhat questionable ways. The full, and thus more accurate, picture would be that some (maybe even "many") were also not too impressed by the fact that Johnson publicly flaunted his relationships with known prostitutes - prostitution being illegal in most places back then (as it is now) and, who knows, maybe even considered more offensive back then than it is now.

4. Johnson's conviction for violation of the Mann Act "cost him nearly a year in prison, and stole from him what could have been the best years of his boxing career" - Houston, we have something like an argument on the radar. And how impressive it might have been, had Johnson ever even bothered to seek a pardon. On the other hand, Johnson did not serve his time right away. He spent seven years as a fugitive, before he served his time. To say those seven years were "stolen" from him is, at best, special pleading. It would be more fair to say that it was Johnson who threw those year away. But Dahlberg seems to rationalize (if not justify) Johnson's characteristically poor decision making because Johnson knew, in his heart, that he had not been treated fairly. Certainly. Marc Rich felt (feels) exactly the same way! Ditto for Scooter Libby and Charles Manson.

5. Johnson was "unrepentant, knowing he was the victim of a frame-up due solely to the color of his skin" - Which, to a reasonable person, would actually seem to suggest that Johnson wouldn't have any interest whatsoever in a presidential pardon. Are his supporters not familiar with the argument that pardon implies guilt?

6. Johnson "died a convicted felon, likely never dreaming there might be a day the wrongs would be made right" - First, Jack Johnson never asked for, or sought after, a pardon. And no one, living or dead, has a single reason on earth to expect that he ever had such a dream, even once. Second, drippy poetic sentiment aside, no "wrongs would be made right" because a pardon was granted 60 years after the man's death. If the president granted a pardon to every dead African-American convicted of crimes from 1789-1965, on the premise that they may have been (or probably were) the victims of racial discrimination, to some degree, somewhere in the judicial process, would every such "wrong" be made "right?" Let's not be so silly. It is plainly offensive to intelligent discourse.

7. The fact that Obama hasn't pardoned Jack Johnson already is "puzzling as it is troubling" - You want to see "puzzling" and "troubling, Mr. Dahlberg? Do you? Look into our federal prisons where there are 200,000 plus prisoners and literally thousands of African-American men serving ridiculously long mandatory minimum sentences (which have also disproportionately impacted African Americans). They are alive right now. They are suffering right now. And their suffering is not symbolic. It is real. You want to "right" some "wrongs," do you? And this is the best you can do? Focus on a dead guy who never asked to be pardoned and would probably have no interest whatsoever in your cheer leading effort? Epic fail. Epic.

8. The only opposition to a pardon for Johnson "comes from some stuffed shirts in the Justice Department who say pardons should be reserved for those still living" - For starters, add this humble blog to the "stuffed shirt list" (the Associated Press and ESPN already have). And, it is also worth mentioning that the view identified was also shared by every single Justice Department and every President in American history, until Bill Clinton came along and started this nonsense. Yes, that Bill Clinton. You know the one that "some stuffed shirts" all ganged up on for the exceptional wisdom that he displayed in matters related to pardons.

9. Among the "backers" for a Johnson pardon are such legal geniuses as filmmaker Ken Burns, Sen. John McCain, Rep. Peter King and the wildly honorable and respected Rep. Charles Rangle - For starters, this list is remarkably pitiful and quite lame in comparison to Scooter Libby's list of supporters. Second, why should anyone living care more about a presidential pardon for Johnson than Johnson himself did when he was alive? We have yet to see a single cheerleader in this cause (of dozens and dozens) explain this.

10. "The fact is, Johnson scared a lot of people" - This is a hard fact, indeed. Here are some other hard facts: there are plenty of politicians in this world who will hide in the comfort of symbolic (or practically meaningless) politics in order to avoid make the difficult (and right) decisions. For every celebrity Jack Jacksons, there are thousands of nameless, faceless victims of racial injustice who are living and could seriously benefit from a quiet, non-glamorous exercise of the pardon power. But there is no film footage of them for a producer to exploit, no potential biographers in waiting. They will just have to read about a Jack Johnson pardon and hang their heads in agony. What an insult to them! What a sorry scar to place on our criminal justice system.

There is more to the article, but it is clear where we are and why, and where Dahlberg is and why. See full article here

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