Friday, December 6, 2013

Long walk ended

I am sorry to have to inform you, but the world is a complex place, full of contradiction and nuance, populated by human beings who are the corporeal embodiment of that complexity

Those vilifying Nelson Mandela in these days following his death – and there are plenty of them – ignore certain essential facts about his later life, of which I will mention only a salient two: He more or less singlehandedly averted a national convulsion of bloodletting and racial war by embracing the notion that even those who participated in decades of brutal oppression ought to have a place and a voice in South Africa, and that even those who opposed that oppression ought to answer in truth for their own crimes. And – in the public act for which he ought to be most highly praised – having attained more or less complete power, and being positioned to keep and wield it so long as ever he wished, Mandela instead relinquished it – soon, peaceably and willingly. Compare that to nearly any other post-colonial revolutionary leader on that continent.

Those lionizing Mandela – and there are many more of them – do no better. He was in younger years a proponent of systemic violence, and when he was arrested his house was filled with tens of thousands of weapons designed to wield that violence in the most indiscriminate fashion. To ignore that is to ignore conduct that he himself later repudiated, not only in others, but in himself. And while he may not have chosen himself to become a dictator, he supported and embraced brutal dictators – quite literally so – along with leftist policies that almost no American of any political stripe would endorse upon close examination.

This duality – plurality, really – in a single man is the furthest thing from being unique. It is our essential nature. Whitman said it best: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Mandela the man contained just these multitudes. The evolving legacy of a post-apartheid South Africa is more complex still. (And, by all present indications, not headed toward a future Mandela would have wanted to see.) It is easier and more comfortable to feed our confirmation bias and assuage our cognitive dissonance by imagining that he or it was or is all one thing or all another. Easier, more comfortable, but false.

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