This week we will hear much about the life and works of the late Nelson Mandela including, I have little doubt, from those who will try and stuff down the memory hole the inconvenient fact that almost all of the American Right worked their industrious little asses off fighting everything he stood for.
(He was utterly despised by Jesse Helms; that alone would be enough to establish him as a Great Man in my mind. Sometimes it is as simple as who your enemies are.)For all of his fame - or notariety - it took me many, many years longer than it should have to recognize who the man was; perhaps the greatest statesman of our era.
Mandela held the point of the spear that stabbed to death perhaps the most loathsome political regime since the fall of the Soviet Union. Only the decaying ediface of Maoism and the bizarre undead husk of Kimism in North Korea linger to remind us of the officious dictatorships that once bestrode the world like colossi. Of all of those the apartheid government of South Africa was the only one that we, the United States, was even remotely associated with, outside the usual caudillos of our own hemisphere who hardly count, we've been in that business so long.
Mandela's most famous fight was, though, probably his easiest. The Afrikaner regime was an almost cartoon baddie, booted ranks of thick-necked Boers with elephant-hide whips, for God's sake, like a cut-rate kill-the-Nazis flick brought to-date. If you had any more decency in your soul than Dick Cheney - and I have it on good authority that the Lovecraftian Elder Gods once met with Cheney and were appalled and horrified at the callous evil in the man - it was easy to hate on the apartheid government and cheer on its enemies.
Once that cardboard villainy was dispatched, however, there remained the vast sea of troubles that is "South Africa". Mandela was unable to fully calm those restless waters. But he did what he could and, especially, avoided the Mugabe Trap that has ensnared so many other African leaders. If Mandela's nation does not rise from its troubled past it will not be because of his efforts.
Though I cannot write a touch of the prose that seems to flow effortlessly from Charlie Pierce's word processor, I did want to note that amid the funereal orations and encomiums we will hear we will probably not hear of the burning heart of Mandela's struggle. Beyond his work for his nation the real greatness of the man is that his life, his struggle, as a man of the people reminds us of what we should be living and struggling for; the rights of all of our fellow man and women to live free.
"There are few colonial nations any more. Instead, we are colonized by financial institutions beyond our political control. We are colonized with pens and papers and millions of little digital bursts transferring billions of dollars all over the globe in the blink of an eye. For the most part, we are not kept colonized with rubber bullets and water cannon -- although there is plenty of that going around these days, as militarized law enforcement all around the world is summoned to do the bidding of major corporations -- but rather through sophisticated financial instruments that keep the money and the power moving upward.
There is resistance, as there should be -- the Occupy movement, and what went on in Greece this year -- and that resistance has had its martyrs, like Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria. But it is colonization of a vague and amorphous -- if incredibly powerful -- variety. There are no radio stations to capture, no capitals to fall, no Dublin Castle over which the successful rebels could take command.
But it is a revolution of the mind, no less than Mandela's was, and that is also what we should remember today when we remember that we are, in our souls, a revolutionary people. We have a revolutionary history to honor and uphold. Which was what Nelson Mandela did. He reminded us of that which we need to be reminded, over and over again, about our own best selves. He reminded us because he was the last one of them, the last in the line that began with George Washington, the last one to witness what Lincoln called for 150 years ago.
He was there for a new birth of freedom."