Mandela and Other Heroes


One of the issues I promised to discuss here, while I was still in the middle of my recent papal series, was the death of Nelson Mandela. I knew I wouldn’t be among the first to write an insightful essay about the meaning of his life after his passing, but while the issue is still relatively fresh and while some of the debates about his legacy are still swirling, I believe it is appropriate for me to toss in my two cents worth. Not that mine is a particularly important voice in such matters, but having spent a fair amount of time in South Africa during the past few years, and having set the task for myself here of discussing major topics related to the meaning of life in general, Mandela’s life is one I definitely should say something about.

“Madiba,” as his admirers call him, had the sort of death that all people, men in particular, hope for: “full of years,” in bed, surrounded by those who loved him, internationally admired and deeply mourned by those who wish to carry his legacy forward. Those factors to a great extent compensate for his having lost the prime of his life to forced labor mining limestone on an island in South Atlantic, for having lost many friends to a violent conflict with an evil regime, and for having lost a son to a terrible disease which has come almost to typify the country which counts him as its father. All in all then I both would and at the same would not want to have a life like his.

It has been almost inevitable to draw comparisons between Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. At the very least they were both black men of deep principle who came to symbolically represent the struggle in the 1950s and 60s in particular to prevent people from being unjustly essentialized based primarily on their skin color and/or the continent of their ancestry (as of, say, 500 years earlier). Both paid a heavy price for taking on the role of symbolic leader for their people against the injustices they were experiencing: Mandela with his freedom, King with his life. Both knew the risks in advance and were quite ready to pay this price if necessary. Both, very centrally, preached a message not of revenge but of overcoming historic hatreds and divisions between peoples. Both were men of moral failings, particularly as husbands, but that is ultimately irrelevant to their heroic life’s work. (Had it been traditional sexual morality and “family values” that they were fighting for, their failures in those areas would be more directly relevant.) Both of them recognized that the question of racism could not be entirely separated from the problem of “classism”: denying the importance of manual laborers within economic and social processes, and treating such workers as expendable commodities. Both, it could be argued, succeeded in breaking down many of the borders of race at the expense of reinforcing many of the borders of class. Both were deeply hated and demonized by the forces of “conservatism” in particular, yet both have had conservatives attempting to casually symbolically exploit their heroic status since their deaths in ways that should be revolting to anyone for whom integrity in historical interpretation has any significance.

Then just as Martin Luther King was subject to verbal abuse from both Malcom X on the left and Jerry Falwell on the right, Madiba too had been critiqued both by those on the left and on the right. Those on the left cite his failure to live up to the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” in terms of their government acquiring a significant portion of the massive wealth being generated by gold and diamond mining in particular, held quite exclusively by the white population, and to use that wealth to provide safety and basic services for the country’s poor blacks. Those on the right critique him for having attacked the country’s “job creators” both ideologically and militarily in the process of revolutionary struggle, and for not giving them all they were hoping for in the aftermath of the revolution. And for many people’s taste Mandela remained far too friendly with all sorts of abusers of power in the world –– ranging from the Anglo-American mining group and the Oppenheimer banks managing their ill-gotten gains, to homicidal maniac African dictators like Gaddafi and Mugabe. For old school American Republicans, meanwhile, it is enough to know that Fidel Castro was able to number Mandela among his personal friends, and Ronald Reagan counted Mandela among his personal enemies.

But rather than morally discrediting Madiba, this flack from both sides may be an indication of his greatest merit: Any true peacemaker (other than those manufactured by the Colt Corporation) will be hated by those on both sides of the conflict he is mediating who are addicted to their own violent mentalities; and those who are not able to listen to and deal civilly with those who wield power badly are essentially doomed to perpetual ineffectiveness. Making peace between those existentially committed to hating each other will involve this sort of attack from both sides, inevitably –– open question of whether the fruits of peace will be enough to encourage people to allow the peace to last and to overcome the hatreds in question.

The real questions concerning Madiba’s legacy for coming generations is really not whether there was merit in his words and actions, but rather whether those words and actions will be followed by up-and-coming leaders, or whether calloused greed and corruption will doom the country and the continent to a perpetual state of widespread human suffering and on-going low to medium-grade civil wars.

The problem of cleaning up the mess created when a portion of society is treated as a disposable resource is an ancient one, which no portion of the globe has been immune to. When massive changes in the base economy –– in the basic systems by means of which one is able to keep one’s family healthy and fed –– leave some people tossed aside as no longer needed by “respectable folk,” there are strong reasons, both moral and practical, for doing something to help them. Yet the “industry” of providing aid to those in such tragic circumstances has always been rife with corruption and abuse. The poor are not in any solid position to critique the quality of work being done among those who have been sent to help them, and rarely can donors justifiably blame the continued existence of widespread problems on the incompetence of those they are paying to help deal with such problems. Thus, with no reliable means of holding the aid workers responsible for achieving results, and with a seemingly endless supply of problems for them to deal with, there is little to stop those who are so inclined from keeping a significant amount of the resources they are supposed to be using to help the poor for their own private use. This problem remains the same whether we are talking about government organizations, religious institutions, privately run NGOs and “development funds” or UN-based charities: there will always be a “cookie jar” for some to get their hand stuck in. Still in each case the question remains, will those who prioritize compassion and solidarity over greed outnumber the greedy by a large enough margin to make the process of caring for those in need effective regardless of the corruption that inevitably keeps creeping in?

Citing the ways in which such welfare programs get abused at times, both by those within the aid delivery mechanisms and by aid recipients themselves who know how to “play the system” properly, there are many calloused individuals who believe this work should be set aside, and we should focus our efforts on more “productive matters” in the economy. At the very least they would like to see government step entirely out of the role of caring for the poor, leaving such a task to the good will of private sector individuals with their own random religious and/or humanistic motivations for occasional generosity. Preventing South Africa from becoming prey to such a mentality needs to be the top priority in maintaining something of Madiba’s legacy there. Jacob Zuma’s general incompetence at meeting the needs of his country’s poor and at regulating industry for the good of the workers and the environment must not be taken as evidence that government should just give up on such matters. Here Mandela would want his legacy to reflect the principle stated by Pope Francis just before his (Mandela’s) death: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

There are two essential means of dealing with such a deadly economy of inequality and exclusion (which sadly we find in some of its most abusive forms these days in South Africa and the United States): government redistribution of resources and disparity limitation laws. The former involves taxing those who have become rich –– not stopping to judge what combination of good fortune, personal hard work and taking advantage of the hard work of others enabled them to get that way –– and using those funds to provide services that allow even the poorest to have basic human dignity in their lives. The latter has historically taken the form of minimum wage laws, but it would be far more effective if it were rather set in terms of maximum wage laws. The question can essentially be posed, within any given economic system, how many times more should the maximum contributor be given relative to what the minimum contributor gets? Ten times more? A hundred times more? A thousand times more? Ten thousand times more? If we can reach a basic understanding within our societies on that matter, then from there it can be made a matter of law that those who are at the highest level in a mining corporation cannot give themselves salaries over that multiple of what they are paying their basic workers –– their miners, cooks, cashiers and cleaners.

walmart protest messageTo avoid stock option loopholes on this making such a law meaningless, there would also need to be certain limits set on how much of the profit a company makes each year be distributed to shareholders as dividends, as opposed to being paid in salaries and bonuses to all those working in the company –– right down to the men and women with shovels and mops in their hands. Nor does the effect of such laws need to be limited to corporations: laws functioning on the same principle can be implemented for entire states, or nations, charging substantial tariffs on goods being brought into their territory which are not produced according to these basic principles.

These systems are not mutually exclusive by any means. We can have both systems of redistribution and disparity limitation working side by side with each other. The point is that leaving income disparity, social exclusion, extreme poverty and injustice (in terms of a lack of protection for basic rights) untreated to the extent that they are now still is not a morally acceptable option, nor an economically viable one in the long term. Madiba’s legacy should give South Africans –– and other global citizens inspired by this legacy –– the courage to face such problems and not allow them to be swept under the rug.

One tactic I have seen used in attempting to neutralize this message though is to accuse those who wish to carry Madiba’s legacy forward of tasteless hero worship. An old distant acquaintance of mine, somewhat typically for those of this mindset, said last week, “People seek a savior, like Gandhi or Mandela to have hope. A hope orchestrated by those in power to pacify the masses. Mandela was on the terrorist list until 2008 and now those who imprisoned him or supported it give speeches of his sainthood. A bone they throw to the masses like a lottery ticket. (…) Do not trust those who make saints which where their enemy.” So in other words, don’t get sucked into this whole admiration of Mandela thing. It’s really nothing but hype designed to manipulate you.

In one sense I agree with him: As stated above in my brief survey of the comparisons between Mandela and Dr. King, both of these great men have had those who had no stomach for their message still attempting to associate themselves with these leaders’ moral status. It stands to reason that not all who claim to respect Madiba’s heroism and to be following his moral example deserve to have their claims taken seriously. (Rick Santorum’s effort to compare his political agenda with Mandela’s has to be the most absurd thus far, but I’m sure it will get worse.)

Even so, I’m not sure if the fellow I’ve just quoted honestly believes that moral leaders like Mandela and Gandhi are nothing but some sort of insignificant manikins which conspiratorial forces on the left have propped up purely for show. If so, he’s been listening to way too much right wing propaganda pretending to be “news”. Nor is it clear to me exactly which conspiratorial forces he believes might be trying to “pacify” the masses by means of such figures of hope, or for that matter what dangerous forms of “pacification” he is afraid this might lead to. The implication seems to be merely that for those in the political center or on the political left to have heroes that symbolize hope for change should not be considered a good thing. In terms of that principle I fundamentally disagree with him. Yet the question of how seriously we take our heroes does deserve some consideration here regardless.

Within hours of Mandela’s death being publicly declared I posted the brief comment, “Humanism can now get to work on the last remaining rituals for the equivalent of canonization.” I wasn’t being cynical about it; I merely saw it as inevitable that immediately after his passing there would be people lining up to declare his greatness to the world, holding him up as an example for all mankind without even getting religious about it. They always do that when someone of great moral status dies. (The political right tried to generate the same sort of heroic remembrance for Margaret Thatcher when she died this year but they failed miserably.) With Madiba, deep reverence for his memory was a fait accompli. Equally inevitable though were the resulting misgivings in some circles over this “equivalent of canonization” being enacted.

Sympathetic heroes leaving this life can have profound motivational effects on their admirers, and whether you consider that to be a good thing or not depends on what you think of the agenda of the hero in question. Religious Right leader Ralph Reed famously criticized the Democratic National Convention by saying, “And unlike the other side, we haven’t gathered in this city this week to anoint a messiah, because you see we already have a messiah.”  What Reed failed to mention in that particular speech is that the messiah that the Religious Right has already found was in fact Mandela’s personal enemy, Ronald Reagan.ronnie

I personally object to Reagan being chosen as a hero for a generation because his primary role in history was to eliminate as many protections for the world’s poor as possible and to expand income gaps in the United States and the rest of the world as far as possible. But I don’t object in principle to those who fundamentally disagree with me on political matters having their own heroes who help them find the motivation to “get up and do what needs to be done.” If there was one thing that Reagan did almost right it was to motivate Americans to work hard through a naïve belief in their own national greatness. He was painfully mistaken about that sort of pride being the theme of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, but he was correct in asserting that he had succeeded in raising such pride.

When people have the hope necessary to work hard in order to build a brighter future, that generally has positive effects on the society in question. It might have had that effect on the United States following the Reagan years as well, were it not for the effective dynamic that Pope Francis has astutely pointed out this month: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”  The rich benefited from the harder work that Reagan motivated people to do, and consequently the rich found new ways of getting more productivity out of their workers for less pay in the process. Things have been getting progressively worse and less secure for basic laborers in the US economy ever since.

Mandela is also the sort of hero which was capable of giving people hope, motivating them to work harder and believe more in the future. Whether or not this additional motivation will provide a better long-term pay-off for South Africa’s poor and middle class than what America’s equivalent demographic got out of the Reagan revolution remains to be seen. Some believe Zuma has already screwed things up too far for much good immediate good to come of Madiba’s legacy, but hope for growth and restoration still remains. Whatever the case, Mandela succeeded in convincing people that they can work together for the common good, regardless of differences in class, religion and skin color. He succeeded in convincing most people to put their bitterness behind them and to use the newly available democratic means of influencing the society they live in rather than the violence they had to use when that was the only tool at their disposal. He also made significant progress in convincing some of the wealthy whites there of the truth of another point restated quite forcefully by the pope last month: “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. …When a society… is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Peace with justice might be a rather naïve hope in many respects, but it is still the greatest hope we have for the realization of spiritual virtues and for the preservation of human societies on this planet. If “canonizing” Mandela helps increase hope for that sort of future I say canonize away!

Concerning the risks involved in hero worship in cases like this, one friend of mine recently posted the quote from the Tao Te Ching: “If you over-esteem great men people become powerless.” And yes, many times in following a profoundly charismatic leader people cease to think for themselves and act on their own initiative. But I qualify this with the tongue-in-cheek observation that if we are to apply Lao Tzu’s ancient words of wisdom to our current political situation it is clear that it is the US Republican party he is specifically warning us about. The proof is found in the stanzas directly below the warning against over-esteem: “If you overvalue possessions people begin to steal. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds… and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion…” Sort of obvious who what party he’s talking about, isn’t it?

But seriously, the risk of making Mandela into a saint should be really be looked at in the context of what Mandela himself had to say about the matter: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Let’s all keep pushing ourselves to keep following his “holy example” on that one.



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Filed under Death, Economics, History, Human Rights, Politics, Purpose, Racism, Respectability, Social identity

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