Nelson Mandela, John Brown, And The Perils Of Hagiography


He wasn’t a saint. Is it unethical to say so?

The truth made a surprising appearance where one should least expect it, MSNBC, yesterday. As the rest of the news media was awash in the sanctification of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, former TIME reporter Richard Stengel, who worked closely with Mandela his autobiography, told shocked MSNBC hosts yesterday that the image of  Mandela being broadcast was, in fact, a false one.

“He was a pragmatic politician,” Stengal told “Morning Joe” that Mandela “wasn’t a visionary necessarily, he wasn’t a philosopher, he wasn’t a saint. But he never deviated from [his goal of overturning apartheid]. But anything that would get him there, he embraced, including violence. He created the violent wing of the ANC. And people don’t realize that and don’t remember that. We’ve kind of made him into a Santa Claus. He wasn’t. He was a revolutionary.”

The same day that Mandela’s death was reserved for testimonials and glowing remembrances, the website Buzzfeed had the impertinence to re-publish some of Mandela’s less Santa-like quotes, including praise for communism, communists, and dictators, and condemnations of the U.S. and Israel:

  • “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.”
  • “Israel should withdraw from all the areas which it won from the Arabs in 1967, and in particular Israel should withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, from south Lebanon and from the West Bank.”
  • “All that (Mr. Bush) wants is Iraqi oil.”( regarding the war with Iraq)
  • “From its earliest days, the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist-orquestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gain made in the Cuban Revolution. … Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro.”
  • “It is our duty to give support to the brother leader [ Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi]… especially in regards to the sanctions which are not hitting just him, they are hitting the ordinary masses of the people … our African brothers and sisters.”

All of this candor was too much for some in the alleged truth-telling industry known as American journalism. CNN’s Jake Tapper led his guests in a take-down of Mandela critics for having the bad taste to mention the darker side of his methods and positions on the day when he was being elevated to angelic status. The segment was summed up by the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who said, “I think we all agree that, if there’s anyone in modern or world history that deserves sort of to be put on a pedestal, it’s Nelson Mandela.”

Funny: I would say that if there is anyone in modern or world history that deserves sort of to be put on a pedestal, it’s someone who really does deserve to be put on a pedestal. That Mandela, both before he was imprisoned and during his imprisonment, was a periodic supporter of communism and, by any fair definition, an advocate of terrorism is undeniable. Yet here is Forbes’ Rick Unger (who, he says, “writes from the left’), damning anyone so mean as to point this out. His particular target is Dick Cheney, who helped put Mandela’s ANC on the U.S. terror list its acts clearly warranted, writing that it is “beyond [Cheney’s] capacity to distinguish between a freedom fighter committed to ending South Africa’s brutal system of apartheid—one of the most evil political systems ever to scar the planet—and a terrorist.”

Ah yes, the old “he’s a freedom fighter, not a terrorist” trick. This exact sentence has been uttered in support of, among others, Yassir Arafat, the Irish Republican Army, and Osama Bin Laden. In this country, the rhetorical device’s best application best fits fanatic abolitionist John Brown, whose objective was as equally unassailable as Mandela’s: the elimination of slavery. It is not hard to imagine a parallel history where Brown goes to prison before the Civil War, only to be released after U.S. slavery has been vanquished,and  to be universally praise as a visionary, a martyr and a hero. But Brown’s tactics killed innocent civilians, and so did Mandela’s. While in prison, he refused to expressly reject violence as a means of overthrowing the Botha regime. Embracing one unethical rationalization after another in a bear hug, Unger writes this:

“Clearly there were those who, back in 1986, viewed the ANC as a terrorist organization. And it is true that the ANC did engage in some violent acts. However, none of the violence perpetrated by the ANC was as heinous as the violence and acts of terrorism carried out by South Africa’s apartheid government.”

Yes, indeed “those” who viewed the ANC as a terrorist organization included the United States Government. Unger is a fan of comparative virtue: the ANC isn’t a terrorist organization because what it was fighting was worse (first rationalization), and deserved what it got (second rationalization). Unger’s third rationalization is to evoke the Founding Fathers, which is # 31 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List, The Unethical Role Model, or “He/She would have done the same thing.” The impressive tally of rationalizations Unger employs totals at least eleven: 1, 2, 3, 7, 11, 12, 13, 21, 25, 27, and the afore-noted 31. Yes, Mr. Unger, several of the Founders were advocates of terrorism. If one opposes terrorism, one cannot accept the facile definition dodge that terrorism is what bad people (those whose goals you disagree with) do, and freedom fighting is what good people (those whose goals you support) do, when what they are doing—killing innocent people— is the same.

Journalist-abetted hagiography is unethical. It promotes ignorance,warps the understanding of history, and encourages illogical habits of analysis, like consequentialism, that support unethical conduct, such “the ends justify the means” tactics as terrorism, and, on a lesser scale, public deception. If Nelson Mandela deserves to be lionized for his contributions to freedom and human rights, he only deserves it after his entire record is revealed, scrutinized, analyzed and measured. Stengel, while debunking the notion that Mandela was a saint, noted that it was a myth that Mandela harbored no anger or bitterness towards his captors. “He had tremendous anger and bitterness in his heart,” Stengel said. “His entire life was taken away from him. Stengal then opined that Mandela’s greatest strength was “hiding” his bitterness so he could use his martyrdom and popularity to  transform  South Africa.

That is great leadership, no question about it. Praise him for that, while not pretending that the less praiseworthy or unequivocally wrongful conduct he engaged in on the way to achieving his worthy goal was other than it was, or never happened. Mythmaking and whitewashing lives now teaches dangerous and mistaken historical lessons that can cause tragedies later.

Among other things, it justifies terrorism.


Sources: MSNBC, NBC, Buzzfeed, Mediaite, Forbes

Graphic: Buzzfeed

28 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela, John Brown, And The Perils Of Hagiography

  1. As I mentioned to someone last night, Mandela was imprisoned for political dissent… It’s just that his dissent included brutal acts of terrorism.

    But the Left loves them some violent Communists, so a whitewashing they did go.

  2. Thank you Jack, for calling out the sly MartinLutherKingifying (or, maybe that should be the JackieRobinsonizing) of Nelson Mandela by ideological partisans. The pervuniverse where means are ethical because ends are ethical does not need another fundamental particle to call its own. My understanding is that to his credit, Mandela did not want to be so lionized.

  3. Does the conduct Mandela engaged in necessarily count as “wrongful”, if it is seen as making war, rather than as the very loaded term terrorism? It seems that political violence of any kind, for any reason, could be called terrorism.

    • Terrorism is pretty easy to define. When you use weapons and bombs to destroy structures and property outside legally declared warfare, that’s terrorism. Killing innocent civilians, which Mandela’s group did (and never denied) is terrorism, even if killing them was not the intent (the intent of 9/11 was to topple buildings.) There was no civil war: you can’t pretend there was. If Bernadette Dorn and William Ayers and the worst of the Sixties radical groups were terrorists, and they were, then Mandela supported terrorism—which is wrongful, by definition.

        • Warfare? WWII was a declared war. That’s a pretty material difference. The partisans didn’t declare the war.
          The bombing of Dresden was essentially terrorism, “tit for tat” for Coventry.

          • When ‘peace’ includes violent oppression and removal of human or political rights from a section of the population the normal view is that violent resistance is justifiable, if not always advisable. A declaration of peace was signed by the Vichy french government in 1940. Officially all resistance in France, was illegal, terroristic. In 1776 the signatgories of the declaratioin were legally traitors to the British crown, and any unrest terroristic. When the system of law is manifestly unjust what must we then do? Or am i wrong? The fact that the ANC were supported by and shared beliefs with the communist bloc does not ethically justify the west in ignoring ther call for freedom. If a free people, freely wish to be communist we may regret their choice, but we may not deny it to them. Or am i wrong again?

            • Not wrong. It’s complicated, with moral and ethical gray areas everywhere, which is why calling Mandela, as Bishop Tutu did yesterday, a “colossus of unimpeachable moral character” is irresponsible, rhetorical negligence.

              • Does not successful navigation of such gray areas require such a colossus? And to the extent that Mandela did give a struggling nation some degree of a chance by exactly that navigatiion does he not thereby qualify to an extent? Diplomatic and politic overstatement is not exactly the same as negligent. Bishop Tutu wasn’t born yesterday. And as it is his country not ours – who is the likely better judge of what is responsible?

                • The last sentence is a yuck. If anything, he’s incapable of being objective; he has no special insight if he’s going to engage in hyperbole like that. Here’s an absolute: no “moral colossus” praises Gaddafi or Fidel Castro. Period. That’s a disqualifier right off the bat. Any supoosed moral exemplar who wastes his stature like that lacks some measure of integrity.

                  • Your first two senetences are unfounded allegation and then somewhat paradoxical. Famously there are no honest diplomats, hyperbole is a frequent tool of such. Political figures at the head of a socialist/communist movement must be diplomatic – especially to Fidel and co.

                    As for the rest are the virtuous to be excluded from political office entirely? At some point virtue must confront realpolitik and concede victory to the enemy. Unless you would have a moral colussus who sacrifes his people to serve his individual moral scruple? I politely decline your offer of consistent fastidious statement as an absolute rule in politics.

                    In such a dilemma the greater man would compromise, effectively, and redress any hurt later if possible and if necessary. As it is, Mandelas soft words did no great harm. That makes him a good judge of necessity. A good example.

                    To lead a democracy virtuously is to honestly represent a broad consensus of views, and interests including those with which you greatly disagree or are opposed to, more often than to act as a ‘majority of one’. That’s a moral relatively absolute.

                    If you wish to continue I think you should name some great leader you entirely approve of, to establish the measure against which you believe Mr. Mandela fell short..

                    • Being indignant isn’t an argument, and claiming that a supposed human rights “colossus” just HAS to suck up to brutal dictators and terrorist like Castro and Gaddafi is laughable. Don’t change the subject—I never challenged the credentials of Mandela as a leader. The post involved rewriting a complex history to misrepresent him as a saintly moral exemplor, which he was not. Stick to the topic.

                    • I’m sorry if my last message sounded indignant. If we agree about invective not being argument i’m glad. I want to stick to the topic.

                      If a political practioner decides it is politically advantageous to ‘suck up’ to a monstrous dictator i think we must accept that as it stands. But can a virtuous moral examplar do so ethically given the moral absolute you wish to endorse? It is possible, i think, if all agents in the world of international diplomacy accept that such ‘sucking up’ is the stuff of diplomacy and treat such statements and positioning lightly. In some circumstances the harm done by such words or gestures becomes so low and the good done so large that to stick to the absolute line becomes unethical or at least questionable. In such circumstances the greater practical ethicist compromises. No harm – no foul.

                      I’m not sure if examining the public words of a public figure is going to get us much further. Public figures fib, suck up, dissemble etc. It muddies the waters.

                      Mandela’s deeds (destroying property etc) when out of office might be a stronger point of attack?


          • And quite sepearately and respectfully, targetting civilian areas in a sincere effort to shorten the war at significant rsk to allied airmen may be illegal, ruthless, inhumane and even shameful but it must be kept separate from the state sponsored political kilings, rape of nanking, abuse of POWs and the holocaust, crimes against humanity. We can’t use the same words to condemn both sets of actions. They are clearly distinct. Winning power by foul means in a desperate and bloody vilolent conflict is not the same as the abuse of victors monopoly on the use of violence. Surely?

            • Hi Jack, I know I’m late to the party here, but this whole discussion raised the question of who and what is a hero and what factors are absolute disqualifiers for heroism. I think you and agree that anybody and everybody should be judged on his whole record, and that glossing over dark points in someone’s past is wrong. I guess my question is two-fold: Does a dark past, or the use of morally questionable tactics wipe out whatever good a person did, and where is the tipping point where someone becomes irredeemable as an exemplar?

              I consider Charlemagne, who set Europe on the road out of the Dark Ages, to be a hero, but he also beheaded 4,500 Saxons who had rebelled and was pretty ruthless at times. I also consider Ronald Reagan to be a hero for winning the Cold War, but a lot of people on the other side point to his economic policies as institutionalized hard-heartedness and quotes he may or may not have said about people with AIDS. Do the wrongs they committed wipe out their worthiness? Michael Collins was in some ways the father of modern assymetrical warfare, and used tactics that can only be described as terroristic against the UK, however if you say something bad about him in Ireland prepare to be badly beaten up, he’s a god there. Kemal Ataturk led Turkey into modern democracy, but also fought on the wrong side during WWI, took no steps to prevent massacres of the few remaining Armenians in Turkey (though the worst were in 1916 while he was still just a military officer), and allowed the uprooting and exchange of two whole populations in the accord with Greece designed to safeguard a Turkish majority in Turkey. However, if you say anything bad about him in Turkey you can be arrested and jailed.

              I also have to take issue with your characterization of the Dresden raid as terrorism – it was a brutal act of retaliation for the eariler bombing of Coventry, and it’s certainly been debated at some length, but I hesitate to use the same word for the actions of Sir Arthur Harris and his pilots, military officers engaging in a military operation, albeit one where there were some moral and ethical questions, as we use for the actions of bin Laden, an unlawful combatant to whom the violence was not a means to an end but an end in itself.

              Looking at all of this, where does the tipping point lie that disqualifies someone from being a hero and makes him unredeemable?

              • I don’t deny that Mandela is a hero—he is obviously a hero. His endurance of his imprisonment was heroic, and his refusal to be vengeful was heroic. He was courageous. He’s a hero. Heroes don’t have to be perfect, and none of them are perfect. What is wrong is to falsely portray them as perfect.

                • I agree, I also agree WHOLEHEARTEDLY with the statement that saints make rotten leaders and leaders make lousy saints. Perhaps the same is true of heroes.

  4. “That is great leadership, no question about it. Praise him for that”

    To elaborate, he resisted the urge to start a major revenge campaign against the whites. That was ethical in itself, and (at the risk of consequentialism) saved his country from Zimbabwe’s fate.

    How do you tell the difference between hiding bitterness (leadership, as you said) and overcoming bitterness (an admirable spiritual achievement)? I can’t.

    Jack, one of the issues I’d enjoy reading your analysis of is the ethics of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On the one hand, it allowed criminals to escape punishment. On the other hand, it created a public record that would undermine any attempt to re-establish a white dictatorship. On the third hand, it created a dangerous incentive for criminals to confess to political crimes. On the fourth hand, like the post-Civil War amnesty in the US, it contributed to social stability and rebuilding.

    • Jack, one of the issues I’d enjoy reading your analysis of is the ethics of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On the one hand, it allowed criminals to escape punishment. On the other hand, it created a public record that would undermine any attempt to re-establish a white dictatorship. On the third hand, it created a dangerous incentive for criminals to confess to political crimes. On the fourth hand, like the post-Civil War amnesty in the US, it contributed to social stability and rebuilding.

      There was a fifth hand “If you do this again, expect no mercy.”

    • It’s still too early to tell if it “saved his country from Zimbabwe’s fate”, and the signs aren’t all that good. After all, “there’s a deal of ruin in a nation”, and it even took Zimbabwe decades for its failure to be definitive.

  5. Hagiography has always been the rule; the only question is who is getting the halo painted on at any given time.
    To be fair re: “Freedom fighters,” the Washington empire’s definitions of “freedom fighter” and “terrorist” are notoriously slippery. It boils down to: “if you’re on our side, you’re a freedom fighter; if you’re n ot, you’re a terrorist.” We’ve funded and supported absolute butchers far worse than Mandela when it suits “our” interests, as dictated by foreign policy elites behind closed doors.

  6. Those on the left seem to ignore inconvenient truths: Like Mandela being pals with Castro and Gadaffi. Also, his inaction in combating the hiv epidemic which effects at least 10% of the population. His failure to stem the violence that ravages the country: 500,000 women are raped in South Africa every year. I probably won’t miss him at all except President Jacob Zuma looks worse.

  7. Perhaps it is not the image of Mandela that is the problem but the image of democracy.

    Mandela governed as a democrat, in this real world i expect to find none better. But democracy does not ensure that politicians will not discharge ‘debts of honour’ to foreign backers who helped put them in office, does not instantly impart legitimacy to the courts or police or the legacy system of law, does not reform all criminals, end corruption, or put food on the table, water in the taps or jobs in the neighbourhood – or insure that those in power are always wise and virtuous – or create a consensus from which to govern.
    Condemning the man for the limitations of the system we advocate seems churlilsh, petty, mean. Are we to only have heroes who follow our own manifesto to the letter?

    • Huh? The system is not responsible for the man. The man is not required to sin as the system urges him to do. Leaders make compromises and must, which is why saints make lousy leaders, and leaders are never saints—unless we pretend they are.

      • For the sake of clarity I’ll accept your ‘huh?’ as final judgement. I’ll wait for another opportunity to put the point more clearly. I did have one, but made a bog of it. sorry

      • Eh, once in a while the two cross over – St. Joan of Arc (though she’s slightly over-rated), St. Ferdinand (conquests against the Moors), St. Louis (maybe, maybe not, he kind of fell short as a leader) , St. Stephen of Hungary (conquests against the pagan Slavs). But it’s the exception rather than the rule, and all of these medieval personages have less than complete records of their lives to be judged on. Today the first might be deemed a schizophrenic and the latter three might be shown up as simply fighting leaders.

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