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13 December 2013

A Less Than Fond Farewell to Nelson Mandela: The United States' Disappointing Response at Home

December 10, 2013 marked the day South Africa and the world said good-bye to Nelson Mandela.

"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."

The memorial service in the rain-soaked Johannesburg stadium contained tens of thousands of South Africans and world leaders from over one-hundred countries, including four United States Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 

Long before Obama's speech, I got chills when the crowd merely reacted to the United States leader's entrance to the stadium. Just the sight of President and Michele Obama arriving brought about a spontaneous and rousing cheer from the crowd, the noise so loud the commentators on the BBC broadcast to which I was listening had to stop what they were saying and take it all in.  

That was a magical moment to which no other writer has referred but one I will never forget.

I might certainly disagree with President Obama on many political issues, but I couldn't help but feel the importance of his presence in that stadium and the world-wide and historical significance of the moment.

I was very proud of him for the speech he gave. I was also proud to be an American which is sadly a rare occurrence these days. 

I'm often disgusted with my country.

Take the less than rousing response to that historic day in the United States media, both broadcast and social for that matter; it was as if Mandela's death and, more importantly, his life were just minor blips on the journalistic radar.

The local New York news devoted a few minutes at the top of each broadcast to the event but hours to a small winter storm that dumped just 1.4 inches of snow in NYC, creating  minor travel delays and school closings.

Later, the Victoria Secret Fashion show (on CBS) gained number one television ratings in the United States for that Tuesday evening.

So where were the American tributes to Mandela? 

And why no in-depth exploration of his life and philosophy on American broadcast media? 

I wonder if one reason could be that so many huge figures in American politics didn't support Mandela in his struggle for justice. 

I remember back in the 1980s when the tensions over Apartheid had reached their zenith, yet the freedom fighter the United States was most enthralled with at the time was Osama Bin Laden. He was all over the US media portrayed as a hero for fighting against the Russians, then our most ardent cold-war foes, in Afghanistan. 

The US Government gave millions in aid and weapons to Bin Laden and his cohorts, mostly because "any enemy of our enemy is our friend," but to support a 1986 Congressional bill to use sanctions against South Africa required a debate with some notable dissenters.

Congressman as Dick Cheney who would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in modern American politics fully supported the South African regime calling the ANC (African National Congress) a terrorist organization. Nick Wing summed up the situation quite well in a recent Huffington Post article:

Cheney's staunch resistance to the Anti-Apartheid Act arose as an issue during his future campaigns on the presidential ticket, but the Wyoming Republican has never said he regretted voting the way he did. In fact, in 2000, he maintained that he'd made the right decision.“The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization. . . .I don't have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.'' 

As in so many other cases (instituting the Shah in Iran, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, death squads in El Salvador, supporting Saddam Hussein, before we later executed him, in Iraq) the United States has been on the wrong side of freedom and justice, frequently using the label "terrorist" to cement condemnation for anyone outside of the fold, ideologically speaking, but my argument here is that Mandela's ways of reconciliation and working with enemies still won't fly in the US. Is that why his message is being largely ignored?

We have a constantly deadlocked Congress that is so partisan they cannot agree on anything nor pass even the most basic legislation. 

We have a country of spoiled, entitled individuals, who ignore the most important and pressing issues of the day, like environmental sustainability, for example, with complete and purposeful oblivion. 

We don't encourage critical thinking within our schools or dissent within our democracy. Maybe women in underwear was a much better choice for American media that night.

Mandela's ways of forming coalitions with former enemies do not gain much praise on this side of the Atlantic. The idea of even talking to Iran (negotiating agreements of one kind or another) or shaking hands with Raoul Castro at the Mandela memorial has lately gotten the Obama administration in hot water.  Perhaps Obama was merely acknowledging the role Cuba played in supporting Mandela; but, seriously, he can't even shake hands with the man? That gesture is so threatening?

But President Obama certainly grasps Mandela's message quite clearly (quoting from his speech):

"Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and his passion, but also because of his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depend upon his."

These ideas align well with my teacher Susun S. Weeds' words in her world-wide, best selling book Healing Wise: "We make them [our enemies] our allies. In the Wise Woman tradition, we eliminate enemies. We eliminate them by accepting all their gifts, by feasting on the nourishment they offer. . . .we gain cooperation from our enemies by respecting their unique reality. They become our supporters." Can you think of anyone who embodies that spirit better than Nelson Mandela?

"Honor your enemies.
It is they who make you strong and wise."

Susun S. Weed

Even the story of Leslie Schwartz, chronicled so often in this blog, resonates with these themes; the former childhood Holocaust survivor who has found healing and peace (and recognition and respect) from students, educators and political leaders alike in Germany. Right from the earliest days of his imprisonment in Auschwitz and Dachau, he always sought to understand his relationship to his enemies, how their survival would one day be connected to his. It took almost 70 years for his ideas to gain resonance with a new generation of Germans, those seeking to heal from WW II in ways previously thought unimaginable, but the dreams of a 14 year old once slated for extermination in death camps have come true for the 83 year old man who has survived and thrived, long after his former enemies have passed away.

We should look to Mandela and all he stood for to make the world a better place. We desperately need what he offered. We must stop seeing "us" and "them." The nature of the difficulties we currently face on this planet requires cooperation and mutual respect. 

"Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."

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