6 Dec

I can’t recall a time in my life when the world has collectively paused to remember the life of one person, nor can I remember anytime in my own life when I’ve been so moved at the death of a world leader. I’m not old enough to remember the major assassinations of our time, except I do remember the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuit priests at the Universidad Centroamericana, which was news if one followed events in Latin America, but the significance of the murders was generally underappreciated. But Mandela’s passing, even though it was long anticipated, has been one of those rare moments when the entire world seems to suspend breath and recognize the passing of one of the great figures of modern history. Charlie Rose just called him “perhaps the most admired man in the world,” and he is probably right.

I’ve been thinking about Mandela’s greatness as a leader and as a voice of conscience. I’ve been meaning to write about him for some time already, but now it is of course most appropriate. My own appreciation for him went up when I read John Carlin’s masterful biography disguised in part as a sports story, Playing the Enemy, which even more than the film emphasizes Mandela’s gift and genius for negotiation, strategy, and reconciliation. Part of Mandela’s great gift was the ability to shift from risking his life for the freedom of his people – in a way, more globalized, of all people – to embracing reconciliation and peaceful transition when peace was necessary. All this without compromise, or with a minimum of compromise. He embodied principle, conscience, collective action, and effectiveness is a way that few others have.

I’m particularly gratified when I see coverage of the fact that Reagan and Thatcher (the former being sanctified in American historical memory, despite everything we know about his actual record) were, as the cliche goes, on the wrong side of history, that they regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization and they opposed divestment, and that they come off now as dated, foolish, and yes, colonialist as they were even then when they were fooling and obfuscating their respective electorates.

But aside from the tremendous humanism of Mandela’s goals, the depth of his commitment, another valuable contribution (that will come out more in the histories yet to be written) is his strategic thinking. Although we as humans tend to see many things through an adversarial or warlike framework – or because we do – we can say he was one of the great tacticians of our time and all time. His leadership became the spearhead of a kind of revolution, a liberation.

In a wise remembrance, South African political science professor Richard Pithouse observes, “Mandela was also a man whose ethical choices transcended rather than mirrored those of his oppressors.” This is so much the crux of what made him different from other world leaders, and is perhaps the potential saving grace of individual activism.

Let me explain my position. I am generally one who believes in collective action as being more broadly and permanently effective. Though I know that “one person can make a difference” (and have seen it over and over not only in my life but in world politics and social justice), one of our tragic flaws as a species is to wait for, or expect, the one charismatic person to come along rather than recognizing that it will indeed take all of us working together to bring about social change and indeed effect our survival. For various reasons, this myth of the individual is promoted by our media – for example Rosa Parks gets the credit for the Montgomery bus boycott when in fact she was the most visible part of a larger movement – perhaps because promoting the strength of collective action is far more threatening, since it would be more effective if more people took up that banner. That said, we do have world leaders, we do have movement leaders, who make choices – policy decisions, strategic decisions, decisions about tone, humanism, and ethics – that have broader impact across the spectrum of political actors in any given situation.

As a leader of a movement, a very broad movement, Mandela made strong ethical choices (that he didn’t have to make), and imaginative choices (about strategy and reconciliation) that most people in similar situations do not make and historically have not made. And this is an individual thing. All of us are faced with hundreds of ethical choices about how we live our lives – and few of us have the fate of a movement or a people in our hands. The ethical choices we make affect mostly our lives directly, but indirectly are part of a larger body of tens of thousands of ethical decisions that end up statistically having an impact on the environment and the economy, and even on our foreign policy. What puts Mandela in that smallest of upper circles of prophetic leaders is that he made the more deliberate ethical choices even when he didn’t have to. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Bayard Rustin all come to mind in this same sense of ethical choice. Not just political choice and being on the side of justice, but doing so in a particularly steadfast ethical way. Leaving at the end of his first term, for example, is profound. (I remember the joy, the dancing in the streets, when Robert Mugabe was first elected. How differently that turned out.)

In the last day, I’ve come to realize that “compromise” has at least two meanings. One is the kind of negotiation, the way of giving up certain requirements in order to come to a consensus that enables people to progress in a more unified and less divisive manner: I’ll give up this if you give up that. There is at least the pretense of equality of power. The second meaning though is the sense of compromising one’s principles because the “office” (in the abstract) demands it, or those who hold power over you (like your employer) demand it. That is, compromising one’s ideals in the face of perceived greater power. The genius of Mandela is, in part, knowing the difference, knowing when the compromise over punishment and retribution will move the entire country, indeed the world, forward, but when not to compromise on principles like freedom and equality because doing so will move nothing forward and will sell out your own cause.

What we see over and over in the world these days – to a sickening degree – is that most people and most supposed leaders compromise their own ethical positions, their positions of conscience, because they think the position they now hold requires them to have a loyalty to a corporate entity (usually an amoral one), whether that’s a for-profit corporation or a government agency. I think I first noticed this personally in 1992 during Janet Reno’s confirmation hearing, when she testified that she was against the death penalty personally, but as Attorney General would support it because that was the official policy of the office. Now we see this everywhere. Morally, people somehow feel that accepted practice is that you adopt the morals and loyalties of the office you hold, not your own personal sense of conscience. There is no more conflicted figure in the U.S. in this regard than Janet Napolitano, who as Secretary of Homeland Security willingly carried out policies that deported more individuals, and broke up more families, than any other regime in American history, yet now as Chancellor of the University of California is expected to stand up for undocumented students or at least espouse a school policy that does not try to deport them all. Same person, completely conflicting morals determined by her professional office at the time (taking her current position policy at face value and assuming she is not working behind the scenes against the interests of her students whom she is charged to educate). The young Obama was a committed opponent of apartheid and an advocate for the community members whom he was working with, but as officeholder of commander-in-chief he is expected to carry out military and paramilitary policies that as a student activist he would have opposed. Same person – has he changed his personal beliefs, or does the role he find himself in circumscribe his ethical choices? That’s the question. He may be forced to compromise on some policies to get a bill passed with bipartisan support (although history is filled with examples of those who did not compromise and got their way nonetheless, like his predecessor in the office), but only he can choose whether to compromise on his ideals and principles because of how he thinks (or has been told, or threatened) he is expected to act in a given office at a given time. Protocol.

But very rarely we do have a leader – Mandela, and perhaps Pope Francis – who recognize that being a leader for the ages means tailoring the ethics of the office to a higher sense of social justice, rather than tailoring their personal ethics to the expectations of the role the way it has always been done. Continuity, especially in the wake of an oppressive or disastrous regime, is a pragmatic choice, not an ethical one. Mugabe was in a position to reshape his country and what the presidential chair would look like ethically in a new Zimbabwe. He failed. Mandela had a similar opportunity, and made much more strategically difficult, but ultimately morally prophetic and just, choices. And while one could argue that they had the rare situation of finding themselves at the helm of essentially new countries, every leader in truth has this opportunity to the extent he or she is willing to reshape this. In U.S. history, both Franklin Roosevelt (from the left) and Ronald Reagan (from the right) shaped the chair to fit their principles, not the other way around. Lyndon Johnson’s tragedy was that though he may have tried to do so domestically, he failed because he became ensnared in the dying ethics of colonialism and the Cold War mentality.

The challenge of a prophetic leadership, the kind that leads towards social justice and equity, is in reshaping the ethics of a seat of leadership to a higher sense of individual, even spiritual, ethics, within the larger framework of ethics not as circumscribed by the office and the power-holders, but by that of a larger ideal of justice and equity that in fact is collective while respecting the integrity and dignity of individual lives. This means exactly what Pithouse says Mandela accomplished, “transcending” rather than “mirroring” the ethical and moral choices of oppressors. This is also what the Pope is doing in rejecting the idea of living in wealthy quarters, in visiting prisons and the homeless around Rome.

Something is wrong with leaders when you know what they will say in advance because their office demands they say the expected thing that people in that role are allowed to say. When a leader says something that expands our imagination, something that adds to our way of thinking about what is possible and necessary to bring about a better world, something that provides an insight that goes beyond bromides, that enables hope as something real and powerful rather than a demand to keep waiting passively, that is leadership, rather than just filling a seat and wielding power – the power to keep things the way they already are – because someone has to.

I disagree with the conclusion in an otherwise excellent and insightful article by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker blog, which ends, “It was Mandela’s good fortune that his moment inverted the demands commonly placed upon a politician’s shoulders. His country needed him to publicly and explicitly act on his firmest convictions, not bend them on the altar of expediency. Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.” The problem is, this denies Mandela’s own agency and the choices he made, and could have made. We live in a time of mediocre men and women, leaders whose edge is ground down by the cynical and dulling impact of neoliberalism, when we assume that leaders can only act out of pragmatism. The leader who exhibits ideals and imagination is so rare, that even faced with one, we must find a more cynical explanation: it is necessary to look for a rationalization as Cobb does that it really was pragmatism after all that motivated even Mandela as well. No country needs its leaders to “bend [ideals] on the altar of expediency” – and indeed, the case can be made that the radical right (Reagan, Thatcher, G.W. Bush) chose not to do what was expedient either because they could make those choices and sacrifice nothing. Progressive movements around the world need to embrace idealism and support leaders with backbone, the ones who will choose principle over comfort and privilege. What is asymmetrical about this equation is that ideals and privilege are congruent choices on the right, so the forces demanding personal compromise are weak, but ideals require sacrifice among leaders on the left, and the personal rewards of compromise are so easy. Pragmatism becomes the easiest path.


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