Banter M Issue 52

I Spent a Day with Muhammad Ali, and Here's What He Was Really Like - Ben Cohen speaks with former Australian Olympic coach Sean Kneebone, who spent an entire day with Muhammad Ali back in 2000. In this enlightening and hilarious interview, Kneebone reveals what the greatest heavyweight of all time was like in person. 

The Age of Post Reality - "This is where we are now: in a place where reality doesn't matter anymore," writes Chez Pazienza of modern day America. "Reality is what anyone believes it is....Don't like something? Just don't accept it."

I Was the Target of a Donald Trump Campaign -- In Middle School - Jamie Frevele recounts what it was like being on the receiving end of a vicious Donald Trump style campaign, back in middle school. Are we really going to subject an entire country to this, she asks? 


I Spent a Day with Muhammad Ali, and Here's How He Really Was

Note from Ben Cohen: The following article is a transcript of a story told to me by Sean Kneebone, a former Australian Olympic athletic coach who was married to an Olympic athlete and spent the day with Muhammad Ali in 2000, months before the Sydney Olympics. 

by Sean Kneebone

Back in Australia pre Olympics, I was training and coaching athletes. I had an athlete who was at an elite level, who made the Olympic team, and I managed that athlete, who also happened to be my wife at the time. I'd met the owners of a company called Visy - a privately owned recycling company. at a function and discussed the possibility of sponsorship in regards to my wife. They said yes, we'd like to talk to you about that, so we ended up doing a deal with them so that they would become one of her sponsors.

The Pratt family, who owned the company, was a big donor to the Ali Foundation, so given my wife had made the Olympic team, we were looking at ways in which we could promote Visy. The family had this relationship with Ali, and it turned out he was the last torch bearer at the Atlantic Olympics. My ex-wife was the first torch bearer on Australian soil, at Uluru, a sacred place to indigenous Australians. So it' s a big deal, because my ex has indigenous roots, so it had pretty big press and was on the front page of all the newspapers, the back drop being in central Australia in this very symbolic place. So we were on our way to LA and we thought there might be an opportunity to drum up a bit of publicity and we figured there might be a way for the last torch bearer to meet the first torch bearer. It was received really well and the Olympic committee got behind it, and so did Visy obviously, who had access to Ali through the foundation. So we pulled it together and went over with a replica of the original torch which was to be given to Ali in LA. 

This media event was set up at the Beverly Wilshire, and the Visy people told us that if we wanted to go to the hotel early and meet up with Ali we could do. And we were like, "Really?" And they said, "Yes we can introduce you to Ali and you can go up and hang there till we go across to the other side of the hotel and do the media event". So we said, "Yeah, alright! We can do that!"

It was a little weird. We had trained a bit earlier that day and then we were off to the Beverly Wilshire to go and meet Muhammad Ali! So we go up and go to his room and we were told to just go and knock on the door. So my wife and I walk up, knock on the door, and Ali answers the door!

He looks at us, and he smiles, and he sticks his hand out and shakes our hands and he's speaking very quietly. You could understand him, but you really had to listen. My wife introduced herself, and she said, "This is my husband". And he looked at me, and he looked back at her, and he said "You married him???" And I thought this was hilarious. "You married him?!?" he kept saying. 

So we go into his hotel room, and his wife was there, Lonnie, and then his son Asaad. He turns to us as soon as we met Lonnie and his son -- who was playing video games -- and he looked at my wife again and said "You really married him?!?" And then he looked at me and then winked, giving me a little smile.

We sat there conversing with Lonnie, and Assad asks me, "Do you want to play video games with me?" So I said, "Yeah, why not," and played an NBA game with him. My ex wife went to talk to Lonnie, and I played video games with his son -- who I think was about 10 at the time. So I got lost in the game with him, and really got into it, then all of a sudden, I hear a "Hey! Hey!". Ali comes over and looks at me and says "What are you doing?" And I say, "I'm playing video games with your son!" And he says, "No, no, no. I'm the star here! Come, come."

He got me away from the video game, and then he started to do magic tricks for me. He's got a levitation trick that he does, so he's doing his levitation trick -- and he's doing this for me! He does a few more tricks and then we sit back down, and he says "Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you are from." I really think there was a connection there, because my ex-wife was black and I was the only white guy in the room. I don't know what it was, but I think he thought "this bloke, he's not a bad bloke" -- that I was a decent guy because, well, obviously, I'm not a racist! I don't know what it was, but we seemed to get on really well. We chatted, and just talked about life, then we hung out a little bit more, had something to drink and kept talking.  The whole time he was just fun -- joking, smiling, and he was so funny! A couple of times he got up and pretended to try and take my ex-wife off to the bedroom. He kept saying, "Come on then!" and he'd look at the door of the bedroom! It was just so funny to see him do it. Because you could see that his mind was 100%. The mind, it was switched on, and he knew exactly what was going on. It was the Ali that we all knew -- nothing had changed, but it was the disease that had got him, and he couldn't communicate the way he wanted to, but you could see that his mind was still the same. 

He was a very good looking man. I mean for a boxer, he had what, 50 or 60 fights and he took some punishment. His skin was so smooth! And he kept telling me how good looking he was. "Look at me! Look at how smooth my skin is! I mean, this was in 2000, so he was 58 years old.  

Anyway, we went to the other side of the hotel with his entourage later on, and it was Ali, myself, and my ex-wife and a couple of other people -- and it took him a little while to get his speed up. He would shuffle along, but he could go quite quickly. I was on the right hand side of him, and probably about two people deep, and I was right against the wall, then all of a sudden, I get this click in the side of my ear! And I'm like, where the fuck did that come from! I turned around, and nothing. No one was near me, and I'm thinking, who the hell did that?? And all of a sudden, Ali just looks at me, and smiles and just winked at me. And I thought, how did he do that?? He somehow got around the group while he was shuffling along, and got me in the side of the ear! I looked at him with disbelief, and he had this straight face, and just winked! I'll never forget that image.

We finally got to the elevator and there were lots of people around us, and I was the last one to get into the elevator. I turned around to face the door, then Ali grabbed me and turned me around and made me face him! And I said "What? What are you doing??" So he pushed everyone to the side in the elevator and started warming up. He wanted to spar me in the elevator! So he started to throw jabs and right hands, and I say "Ok, alright!" He had this big smile on his face, and he was so alive. We got out of the elevator where all the media was, then the conference started and everyone else had him. We did the event, then Ali asked us afterwards if we wanted to come to watch Laila, his daughter, who was having a fight that night somewhere in LA. So we were guests of Ali's, and went later on that night. Will Smith was at that time filming the Ali movie, so he was there and Jada Smith was there where we were -- and I'm from Australia, I'm from the Bush!

At the fight, Ali comes in a bit later than us, and everyone stands up and starts singing "Ali! Ali! Ali!" I'm looking around the room and everyone is standing up except for one person who was on the opposite side of the ring. And it was Joe Frazier! It's Smokin' Joe! He was the only guy who didn't get up! The chants were going on and on and on, and Ali comes over and sits down and smiles and winks at us to acknowledge us, and I'm thinking to myself, I have to go and see Smokin' Joe! So I walked around the other side of the ring, and he was about three seats in, really well dressed with his hat on and looking great. I called out to him and said "Excuse me Mr. Frazier," and he looks up at me and says, "What son?" And I said, "Can I please get a photo with you sir?" 

So he says, "Of course you can!" He turns to the people sitting around him and says, "Get out of the way! Let him in here!" So these two people sitting next to him get out of their seats and I got this great photo of myself and Smokin' Joe with his arm around me.

Ali and Frazier: The best of enemies. 

Ali and Frazier: The best of enemies. 

We watched the fight, and Laila belted the shit of the other girl, who I think was actually replacing someone else who was supposed to be fighting. I just remember Ali smiling and winking as we left.

I haven't thought that much about it until Friday when he died, and I thought I should share the story. Because to not just meet him, but to go into a room with him and for everyone be relaxed and getting to know each other, and to converse with him -- who is, as far as I am concerned, the greatest athlete who ever lived, and I think wow, how lucky was I? He wanted to know about me, and it was just a really special day. He just had so much charisma, and even though his body was failing his eyes were so alive, and he had a mischievous warmth about him. Ali was just a nice person, a genuine, caring person with a great sense of humor. He was funny -- but he just seemed so real. There was no aloofness, and as big as he was and all the things he had achieved, he just seemed so connected with you and he actually cared And I think he probably did that with everyone who got around him -- there was just something about him. He just cared. It was like there was still this little boy in him, like it was fun. Life was still fun, even though he couldn't communicate. There was a playfulness and a sincereness, and everyone who crossed his path, he tried to connect with if he had the opportunity. 

Next: The Age of Post-Reality - by Chez Pazienza


The Age of Post-Reality

by Chez Pazienza

The other day I was driving fast along the 101 freeway here in Los Angeles when a woman pulled up next to me in a gunmetal gray Jaguar F-Type. The top was down and so taking her in, in all her glory, wasn't just easy, it sort of cried out to be done. She was well past middle-age, with hair an unearthly color and pulled up on top of her head, wearing giant white-rimmed Prada sunglasses and a silk scarf around her neck. She was, to put it mildly, the living embodiment of Beverly Hills. The look. The clothes. And of course that car -- that Jag roadster. Except here's the thing: it wasn't a Jag. Sure, it had the Jaguar badges on the hood, the trunk, and at the center of its tire rims. It even had the chrome "Jaguar" label on its side just behind the front tire. But it wasn't a Jaguar. It was a Pontiac Solstice. Not a modified Pontiac Solstice with a Jaguar F-Type body or anything like that. No, just a plain old Pontiac Solstice, the kind that stopped production in 2010 and which can now be bought for as little as nine grand used -- a very far cry from $64-thousand sticker price of a base model 2017 F-Type. 

It was really kind of an astonishing sight. Who the hell slaps Jaguar insignia on a Pontiac and figures no one will know the difference? Who is this bad disguise designed to fool? Did she honestly hope that no one in, of all places, L.A. would know what a Jaguar F-Type actually looks like? Or was she simply, in some breathtaking display of self-delusion, trying to convince her and only her that she wasn't driving the car she so obviously was? Was the status of driving a Jag so important to her that she simply had to feel like she was driving one even though she wasn't? Most importantly, what would she say if someone rightly pointed at her Pontiac and said, "That's not a Jaguar"? Wouldn't she have to insist that, why yes, it is! And how could she say that without seeming like a completely crazy person? How willfully detached from reality do you have to be to deny that your car is what it is and literally pretend it's something completely different? It's not like she picked up a counterfeit Jag on Canal Street like she'd bought a fake Gucci purse. This was a Pontiac.  

In November of last year, Donald Trump claimed that on 9/11 there were "thousands and thousands" of Muslims celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center right across the river from its wreckage, in New Jersey. It was, of course, utter bullshit. A nonsense story pulled directly out of his old, orange ass. In an effort to prove his confirmation bias, Trump retroactively went on a Google rampage but the best he could come up with was a report on MTV that showed Guardian Angels founder and equally ridiculous caricature from New York's 1980s Curtis Sliwa saying there was sporadic cheering in some Muslim communities, but that report was later debunked by MTV's own reporting. To date there's been no legitimate proof whatsoever provided that confirms Trump's claim -- and that's because it just didn't happen. Had there been thousands of Muslims celebrating the demise of 3,000 Americans just a couple of miles from where most of them died, that would've been the biggest sidebar story that day -- mostly because the neighborhoods where it was supposedly happening would've been burned to the ground in response. 

What Trump did, of course, was tell a story that simply wasn't true. There are two possibilities for why he would do something like that and neither is very reassuring in terms of what it says about his personality. Either he lied outright, knowing full well what was coming out of his mouth was crap, or he genuinely believed he had seen Muslims cheering in the streets, making his brain basically a piece of syphilitic Swiss cheese. What's most important to keep in mind, though, is that once journalists, fact-checkers, and people with functional temporal lobes corrected his story, he doubled-down. He didn't back off and say, "Well, maybe I was mistaken." He insisted he'd seen it. He insisted it had happened, even though there was no evidence for it and was, in fact, evidence to the contrary. He simply didn't care that he wasn't telling the truth. It was as if the truth wasn't a tangible thing, something inarguable and set in stone. It was as if the truth could be negotiated and were susceptible to opinion, as if it was whatever he said it was at any given moment. Trump creates his own truth, in other words.

It's actually kind of quaint to look back on that bald-faced Trump lie when you consider how many have come out of his mouth since. Trump told so many lies in 2015 that Politifact bundled them all together and tagged the whole thing with its "Biggest Lie of the Year" dishonor. Just the other day he said that crime was on the rise (it isn't). CNN had to correct him last week when he claimed he had never said Japan should have nuclear weapons (he had). He said his arch-nemesis in the Trump University case, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, was "a member of a club or society, very strongly pro-Mexican" (he's not). He says he's broken "by millions" the all-time record for votes in a GOP primary (he hadn't). The list goes on and on. Trump lies about the littlest things and the biggest things -- and what's more, he lies about things that can be easily checked, including his own statements, which are of course all on-record. He just does not care that he's not telling the truth and that it can be proven. Because when he's caught, he doesn't fess up to the reality being held in front of his face -- he simply goes right on denying it. 

And that's the problem. Because when you consider his alliances with Alex Jones, a man who traffics in nothing but conspiracy theories and offensive bullshit -- and a man whose influence is obscenely far-reaching -- Trump's unwillingness to bend to the tenets of reality makes perfect sense. We now live in an era where the the truth doesn't matter the way it used to, where facts can be shrugged off without an ounce of shame, and where nothing can be done to really fact-check or correct false statements because it's so easy to simply refuse to acknowledge reality. That's what Trump does. When facts are presented to him that he's already denied, he just keeps on denying them. What do you do in a situation like that? What happens when someone just does not accept reality? Anyone who's argued with a conspiracy theorist on the internet understands this dilemma because no matter the facts you show them, they simply come back with "facts" of their own -- curated from their own social media bubble of misinformation where they can live without the inconvenience of contrary information -- or they deny empirical evidence that runs against their beliefs and statements.  

But Trump and the right's online ilk aren't the only ones guilty of believing only what they want to believe and refusing all the rest. On Tuesday, after being clobbered in New Jersey and California and being beaten to the Democratic nomination finish line by a wide margin by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders appeared onstage in Santa Monica, California and -- denied he'd been beaten. In spite of Clinton's earning enough pledged delegates and superdelegates to be the presumptive nominee -- and despite the fact that in 2008 he'd accepted that President Obama had won the nomination by the exact same metric -- Sanders simply vowed to press forward with his campaign. He couldn't win. It was impossible. There was no path to legitimately earn enough votes to win the nomination, but it didn't matter. Reality just didn't matter, not when he wanted something bad enough. And his rabid disciples, of course, followed along and continued to twist logic and reason into pretzels in an effort to somehow make the decision not to concede make perfect sense. (There's even a lengthy article being passed around now claiming that Sanders, in fact, won California in a landslide but since the election is rigged the votes weren't counted.)

Because this is where we are now: in a place where reality doesn't matter anymore. Reality is what anyone believes it is. It is, as Stephen Colbert once brilliantly said, up for a vote. He coined the term "Wikiality" to describe the idea that facts can be affirmed or denied based on a Democratic process, with individual people editing the truth as they see fit. Don't like something? Just don't accept it. It's what Donald Trump does. It's what Bernie Sanders did the other night. (Although today Sanders seemed to take a step back and promise to work with Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump, which would represent a concession to reality.) The truth should matter. Facts should matter. Because facts are the yardstick by which we measure reality, and if everyone can't agree that some things are true and some things aren't, we descend into chaos. Or at the very least perpetual frustration as fact-checkers try to call out the reality-averse and get nothing more than a shameless shrug. 

Three decades ago, Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach -- who at the time was writing for The Miami Herald -- posted a column I've referenced several times throughout the years because it changed the way I looked at the world. Achenbach made note of a growing trend that he referred to as "Creeping Surrealism," the idea that Americans were able to tell the real from the artificial, they just didn't think the distinction mattered anymore. His examples included Pepperidge Farms cookies that were specifically made to look like they were baked at home, one by one, by a loving grandmother -- even though the company clearly used a mold designed to create the illusion of imperfections -- and the fact that people at funerals, more and more, seemed to mimic the behavior they'd seen at funerals on TV or in movies. In Achenbach's view, we'd just given up worrying about what was authentic because nothing was authentic anymore. So what if the truth isn't really the truth? So what if everything is more "truthiness," again as Colbert used to say, than the truth?  

But facts should matter. The truth should matter. Reality should matter. Because these things are important. Because a lie repeated often enough or with enough conviction doesn't actually become the truth. Because a Pontiac covered in Jaguar insignia is still just a Pontiac.   


I Was the Target of a Donald Trump Campaign -- In Middle School

by Jamie Frevele

Before I begin, a caveat, if I may: I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm going to tell you all about a time in my life that was not easy for me, but let me assure you now that I've moved past it. But that doesn't mean I don't remember that it happened, and I'm definitely thinking about it because I feel like I'm revisiting it: my middle school years.

Back then, I was a nerd. Not the stylish kind -- a geek -- who was quirky and into fun stuff. A nerd. My younger brother was even nerdier than I was. We were both hot, awkward messes when we were teenagers and we were both targeted by the same groups of bullies. As a girl and a boy, we dealt with different varieties of insults, but I remember mine and I remember what I saw being hurled at my brother. We were mocked for being shy, skinny, unpopular, weird, and creative. Anything that set us apart from the most humdrum student possible, we were mocked for it. As a girl, I had to deal with boys calling attention to my flat chest, my glasses, my bad hair, my confused wardrobe, my lack of male attention, my lack of popularity…

I am reminded of this period of my life every single time Donald Trump opens his mouth. Sure, I could draw parallels to middle school bullying with social media or internet comments sections, or even pundits saying hurtful words out loud. But who cares about any of that? I don't. I don't give a flying fuck about any of those people. But Donald Trump is running for the highest office in the land. That's a different ballgame altogether, and that bothers me to a frightening degree.

Donald Trump is a bully, through and through, and I cannot conceive why would anyone allow him to talk the way he does while trying to become the President of the United States.  Trump is rude, petty, and shallow.  He insults women because of their looks, and has a particular skill for going after things that no one would have noticed or cared about otherwise. For example: who gives a shit if Hillary Clinton is using a teleprompter? Trump does and used it as a point of attack against her. But if that's not enough, he used a teleprompter! Days later!

But he's also not even keeping track of his own positions because he keeps contradicting himself. And flat-out making shit up. I've watched one of his "speeches" at a rally where he used no prompter, and it looked like he just wandered into a place full of people who think they're going to see a presidential candidate speak.  He then went on to behave as if he were carrying on a conversation with some invisible motherfucker on a subway platform. This, ladies and gentlemen, could be the next President of the United States. 

Trump's behavior reminds me of a handful of kids who weren't just casual, bandwagon-jumping bullies, but the ones who relentlessly made me a target of their "campaign" to make themselves feel bigger. It didn't matter what they said to me, as long as it hurt me and was heard by everyone else around. My pain and their approval made these kids feel powerful. They were powerless unless they could dominate me and plenty of other vulnerable kids. But by the time we all had to start worrying about real life, they backed off. We all got our own cars, so the bullies didn't have the captive audience of the school bus. We had to start thinking about college and tests and our futures, so the campaign died down considerably. The bullies didn't start trying to become friends with their targets, but no one had the energy to fight this battle anymore. In high school.

Donald Trump simply hasn't grown out of that phase. And now, unlike the insecure children who became distracted by life, he also has financial power and an army of people surrounding him who reinforce everything he does. Because apparently he can't handle anything other that the fawning approval of acolytes who subsist off of his vast fortune. Trump has to have his own way, and he  apparently never grew out of that toddler-like mentality. Maybe the bullies of my youth turned into assholes instead of repenting for their sins (though I should say that one apologized to me when he found out I became hot), but they were never deluded enough to think that they deserved to be the President of the United States.

Whenever Trump talks about policy, I'm not really convinced he has a clue what he's talking about. He's talking to hear himself talk, and he's convinced way too many stupid people -- because yes, you have to be stupid to support this guy for any level of elected office -- that he's a "political outsider" and not someone who is grotesquely unqualified to be a president. (By the way, since when is it a good thing for someone who is a "political outsider" to seek political positions? Don't we want someone who knows how the fuck this all works? Including scholars and "egghead" or "establishment" types?) And this is exactly like the bullies who have nothing backing them up other than their big mouths. Maybe I was an easy target when I was an awkward teen, but that didn't make my bullies better than I was. It just made them louder. They were just as insecure as I was, they were just louder about it. And their insecurity, disguised as cockiness, resonated with all the other insecure kids whose bodies and brains were developing at inconsistent rates, so they weren't going to support the nerd on the receiving end of attacks -- they were taking the side of the one who looked like they were in charge, in power. Because they thought that gave them power. Trump supporters are feeling just as insecure and powerless as those kids, and they think his "power" will rub off on them.


But here's the little secret that bullies don't share: they don't give a shit about the people who support or agree with them. Bullies like seeing the crowds and hearing the cheers, but they aren't going to stand up for anyone but themselves. The only difference between a middle school bully and Donald Trump is that those bullies can still grow up or ended up doing just that. Donald Trump continues to be a petty, thin-skinned child and thinks he can run a successful national campaign like that? His dumbass supporters are in no way a "silent majority." They are a vocal, whiny portion of the American population and they will eventually learn to take their balls and go home once Trump is robbed of his bully pulpit.

I'm not worried. Bullies don't win. And those of us who were bullied? We grew up a lot stronger than the people who tried to cut us down. Just ask Hillary Clinton.