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.