Sometimes when we build a funeral pyre, we can’t burn the dead properly unless they are wrapped in a comforting cloth of nuance.
Nelson Mandela has died.
In February of 1990, when Mandela walked out of Robbin Island as a free man after 27 years, he told a crowd of 250,000 before him and countless millions on television that he fought equally against both white domination and black domination. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity,” he said. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Most of what I knew about him had come from Model United Nations in high school. My team had role-played South Africa’s Apartheid government at the national meeting the previous year. I had no idea that my father would move permanently to South Africa a few years later after a chance meeting with Andrew Young on a flight to Nigeria.
I wept at the speech, of course. It was my first exposure to truly idealistic sacrifice. I marveled at his dignity, at the lack of rancor, the grace with which he had apparently borne his incarceration.
For the last 20 years or so, he has continuously provided evidence in support of the “great man” theory of history — that extraordinary individuals can fundamentally shape the course of human events. It’s not hard to imagine the hell that Africa would have been without him. We know now that real reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed is possible. We really didn’t know how to do that very well before. But, we do now.
At some point over the years since his release, humanity sainted him. It’s unofficial, which somehow makes it more legitimate. We’ve decided collectively, unconsciously and quite firmly that Nelson Mandela was the best man alive. We need people like Mandela to show us not just how to politically reconcile, but how to be … good. He’s the modern benchmark now.
The complexities of his life, the nuance, will be cast away because we need those complexities to be invisible and irrelevant. In the weirdly dystopian cyberpunk of the modern world, we need to know that there are unambiguously good men in it.
That’s unfair to him and to history, of course. Even CNN today notes that it was his flaws that made him great. Quieting the background noise of his humanity does rob us of a clear-eyed sense of his failings, and it robs him of something human. I suppose that loss might be the final price he paid in pursuit of a just world. I think he paid it gladly.