There is no need to add to the chorus of praise for Nelson Mandela. He deserves it all. I wonder, though, if some of the fervent singing is due not to who Mandela was, but to a sudden fear that the breed of politicians who rise to the rank of great statesmen has passed with him.
Mandela by his own insistence was not a saint. None of us are, of course, but his acknowledgment seemed a deliberate attempt to discourage a personality cult. While that puts him all the closer to sainthood, I’ll honor his self-assessment and merely accuse him of humility and wisdom.
Sadly, however, he undermined his claimed unsaintliness by refusing to serve more than one term as president. Perhaps he was just old enough to know better at that point, but even that would amount to uncommon wisdom. Not uncommon for an average person, but tragically uncommon for a politician.
It is that distinction, between common people and politicians, that grabs hold of me when I think of Mandela and his legacy. Without in any way detracting from his achievements, it is worth reflecting on the fact that Mandela knew firsthand what he was fighting for. Naturally he knew the oppression that black South Africans faced, and his 27 years as a political prisoner gave him intimate knowledge of the demoralizing reality of incarceration. But he also knew poverty, and life far from the conveniences of the comfortable, the life of most of his fellow South Africans.
I don’t think any US presidents or senators of the last few decades grew up poor and oppressed. Maybe I’m wrong. And I don’t think many Supreme Court justices or, for that matter, congressional representatives (statistically speaking) fall into that category either. I think the United States is being and has long been run by fairly well-off people.
It is easy enough to make the case that democracy in this country is dysfunctional at best, having been replaced by an oligarchy with the means and resources to manipulate public opinion almost at will. But I don’t think we need to debate that, because a more basic dysfunction is at work. Continue reading