It’s okay to talk about Nelson Mandela’s politics, because you can’t really understand his life and times without discussing them.
The recent death of Nelson Mandela has led to a number of people weighing in on how to talk about recently deceased political figures, especially in the age of the internet. After his death last week an unfortunate number of people immediately took to the internet to denounce Mandela for not living up to their own personal standards of what a political hero should look like. While another trend, highlighted last week by Slate’s Dave Weigel, has involved people asking for a discussion around Mandela’s life and times that eschews politics.
I think both of these takes are wrong. Some people’s attempts to criticize Mandela because he did not embrace a total philosophy of pacifism simply aren’t fair. Unless you are also willing to say Margaret Thatcher should respond to bombings with prayer meetings and sit-ins, and George Washington should have petitioned the Hessians to let him have Trenton instead of launching a sneak attack, you are in no position to criticize Nelson Mandela.
Meanwhile the attempts to turn Mandela into a sort of depoliticized international hero and symbol of goodness strikes me as being all too similar to the peculiar American belief that The Civil Rights Movement happened because Martin Luther King was just such a swell guy. The reality is that The Civil Rights Movement happened for real reasons, over real issues, and was carried out by real people. It was in short a political movement using political force to achieve social and political change. Mandela was no different. He went to jail for very real political reasons and was in the end released for very real reasons caused by a very real political movement that happened all over the world. These reasons don’t go away simply because he has shuffled off this mortal coil.
There is an argument for pausing to make political statements about figures that have just died out of politeness. At the very least I’d say if you are going to make political comments right after someone has died, make your political comments on Twitter or in online pieces about the life and times of the person who is actually dead, and don’t go wild about “proof” that people who you disagree with are wrong about something or are bad people. It is sort of rude to appropriate another person’s life and death just to prove yourself correct this instant. But at the same time trying to depoliticize a political figure, especially a revolutionary political figure like Nelson Mandela, is worse than being rude.
–AP Photo by Pool-Theana Calitz-Bilt, Pool
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