7:30 on the passing of Nelson Mandela, Quentin Dempster asked Andrea Durbach, “What do we lose with Nelson Mandela’s death?”
It’s a powerful question and if I might offer an answer, part of what we lose is control over his words and what they mean.
There are certain icons of history; people who not even the most churlish of contrarians would disagree with. Nelson Mandela is certainly one of them, but what happens to those icons is that their words get co-opted and their messages corrupted by those who want only to be associated with them, not to embody them. From Jesus Christ to Martin Luther King, you don’t have to look far to find those who are happy to quote their words without any understanding of or empathy for their real meaning.
I have seen King’s speech about judging people not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character actually used as an excuse for racism. Hey, we’re judging people by the content of their character and it’s a pure coincidence that the character we are judging just happens to belong exclusively to people with different skin colours.
As the messages of those who were once considered radicals finally, and rightly, become mainstream, there will be more and more privileged idiots who try to claim their struggle as their own, from Pete Hoekstra comparing the attempts to shut down Congress to the struggle for democracy in Iran, to Tony Abbott comparing his own time in opposition to that of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Already, it is happening to Mandela. Just last night, Rick Santorum compared the struggle against the great injustice of apartheid to his own struggle against the “great injustice” of Obamacare. I kid you not. I couldn’t make that up, and if I could, I wouldn’t.
I wouldn’t presume to know what Nelson Mandela would make of such a comparison but I doubt he would agree. Perhaps he would respond with a dry and playful irony similar to his response to the Spice Girls comparing his movement to their own phoney and confected “girl power,” which everyone would again take as an endorsement of their own assumptions, whatever they may be. Such was his wit.
The world loses much with his passing and no small part of it is his authority and perspective on what a struggle against injustice really is.