The Paragon: Nelson Mandela Meets Phil Robertson
Quick quiz: What is the main similarity between the recent “scandal” generated by Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” and the general left-wing American response to the death of Nelson Mandela?
The answer, of course, is that both are relying on a stereotype: the perfect, non-threatening Black man. Phil Robertson points out that he grew up in the Jim Crow South (pretty similar to Apartheid South Africa), and Black people were happy. They sang!
My friends on the American left talk about Nelson Mandela, a paragon, a man of peace – and they get very angry and defensive when it is pointed out that Madiba was not *just* a man of peace. Why not see him as an ideal figure to look up to, when he has been so vilified by the right?
Simply put, the problem is that one can’t look up to or model one’s life after an ideal; the Mandela who was a perfect man is the same as the happy Black American in the Jim Crow South. He can’t threaten your beliefs. He can’t challenge your prejudices, because he is so nice. But as Sondheim and many others (including a priest I once had) have pointed out, “Nice is different than good.”
Nelson Mandela was not nice, and he was not God. He was not perfect. He was better than that; he was a man. I am lucky enough to be one degree of separation away from Nelson Mandela, and those who knew him told a story that feels much more human – the story of someone who was sure of what was right, and stubborn enough to insist on his own way. This was an imperious personality, not always easy or pleasant to work with, who could and would steamroll anyone whom he believed to be wrong or unproductive.
This was a man who used violence because he believed it was the only way to get change, and who later learned to get what he needed in other ways. His personality did not change; his methods did. He was not always attentive to the people around him. He was not always caring toward the White population of South Africa as a whole, though the ANC was always an integrated movement. And he was not always pleased with the results of what he did.
The Mandela who can be emulated is like you or me: a flawed human being who has hurt others, will hurt others in the future, and keeps going. The Mandela people love to lionize is a trap. They love him because he doesn’t threaten their prejudices or make them look at themselves in new ways.
The perfect Black man is a trap. It allows people to dehumanize others by putting them on a pedastal. Humans are flawed; this person is not flawed; therefore, this person is not a human being and doesn’t need to be treated like one. In the case of Phil Robertson’s happy Jim Crow workers, he or she doesn’t need the rights that come with desegregation. In the case of Perfect Nelson Mandela, this person’s life is to be celebrated, but is not a cause for action on my part; I can rest, knowing that he has solved the problem and I couldn’t have done so anyway.
Making someone perfect, a paragon, a model, means robbing them of the human experience. This is the same process that allows us to take rights from whole groups. I prefer to remember the real Mandela, a flawed human being, a fighter, who showed us the power of turning our own lives around and gave us an example we can actually follow. I prefer to remember real history, where songs are sometimes born of pain and people protect themselves physically and emotionally from those who would do them harm. Here is your call to action: confront the difficult, imperfect parts of yourself, constantly. Strive to listen to those who tell you that the world is not what you think it is. Use your mind to understand how you are participating in systems that hurt others.
The real battle against atrocities is in the work you are willing to do on yourself.