Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Celebrating Nelson Mandela

Last night I watched some of the Internet live stream of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. I was struck by how it was a celebration rather than a dour funeral. It was also a welcome relief.

Ever since Mandela died, we’ve been treated to commentators on the left and the right trying to define him and his legacy in their terms. Sometimes it was amusing, other times infuriating, but mostly it was all just so predictable.

Commentators on the left seemed outraged that people on the right were saying nice things about Mandela and his legacy. It was hypocrisy, we were told. I saw things a little differently: I preferred to think that in many cases, at least, these conservatives had evolved and come to realise that they’d been wrong about Mandela in the past. If Mandela’s life showed anything, it’s that it IS possible for people to change.

On the other hand, there were plenty of conservatives who lived up to the scorn heaped upon them by the left. The left accused the right of focusing on Mandela’s forgiveness and reconciliation as a way of telling African Americans to, basically, shut up. As if on cue, the bloviating blowhard Rush praised Mandela and his legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation, then proved the leftsists' point by adding:
“Nelson Mandela would not qualify as a civil rights leader in [the USA] with that philosophy. They can’t let it go. It’s become too big a business. They will not let it go. Mandela let it go. It's just — amazing.”
Among the lunatic fringe of US conservative politics, Rush was actually one of the tamest; some wingnut reactions were thoroughly disgusting.

But once the memorial service started, it was possible to forget all that. I stayed up to watch President Obama’s speech, and saw him shake hands with Raul Castro, epitomising the spirit of Mandela, I thought. Contrary the silly, childish criticism by Marco Rubio, President Obama's speech directly criticised dictators like Castro when he said:
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
This part of the president’s remarks was widely reported, but there was another, seldom reported part that I noticed. The president said:
“Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today.” [emphasis added]
That can’t have been popular among some of the world leaders assembled there, but the Obama Administration has been consistently pushing human rights that include LGBT rights. It, too, was in keeping with Mandela’s legacy.

I think that in the years ahead, people will appropriate Mandela’s legacy for their own political purposes. It always happens. But at least now people are moving beyond the incessant commentary on that legacy.

Ultimately, what was so good about the memorial service wasn’t just that it provided a closing point for all the incessant chatter, it was that the event was more celebration than mourning. And wouldn’t most of us want our lives to be celebrated when we die?


rogerogreen said...

It's not that the right is saying nice things about Mandela; it's that some of them are engaging in revisionist history about their support of his actions at the time. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/12/08/1261194/-Al-Sharpton-stops-Meet-The-Press-panel-from-revising-the-torrid-American-apartheid-stance

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

That's very true, and was at the heart of a lot of the leftist commentary I read. But many of them engaged in their own sort of revisionism. They were correct to point out how many people ignored Mandela's one-time embracing of violence. But they also tended to focus on that earlier time and downplayed his later commitment to peace and reconciliation. And all of this filtering of commentary through ideological filters is what led me to stay out of the commentary at the time. Well, that, and the fact I was too busy with work, of course.