Richly deserved tributes and beautiful, understandably emotional eulogies poured in from all over the world after the passing of Nelson Mandela. He justifiably has been praised for his courage, strength of character, determination, patience, ability to forgive, and for his belief that the power of love, peace, and reconciliation will finally prevail. He brought freedom, liberation, democracy, and the spirit of redemption and dignity to a people too long colonized, oppressed, dehumanized, and rendered virtually voiceless by legalized apartheid in South Africa — all because of the color of their skin and competing claims to share their country’s natural resources.
Some have rightly called Mandela the “moral anchor” of South Africa, reminding us of the claim of Martin Luther King, Jr. that the arc of the universe does bend toward justice. Yet despite his self-confessed human frailties and mistakes, he merits, alongside Gandhi and King, recognition as a moral anchor for our contemporary world. His passion for human dignity moved him from fierce revolutionary, to a 27- year prisoner, to a loving peacemaker, liberator, and reconciler. What better reflects a path of moral insight, commitment, and growth?
But now we must ask the question: Has our country – our people, our government, and our politicians, in particular – internalized or attempted to “live” his legacy? My regretful response must be “no.” Our country, born racist, remains racist in spite of our more recent legislation and some resulting institutional improvements. Black people continue, in distressing disproportion, to dominate the ranks of the homeless, poor, marginalized, and humiliated. While proudly proclaiming that we are the beacon of moral light, comfortable Americans continue to live complacently in a pretend “democracy” which fails to take note of a seemingly compassionless capitalism that violates the very meaning of justice and equality.
Too many devotees of this system are neither shocked nor embarrassed by figures showing that the income of the top few percent in this country exceeds the total income of all wage earners; or that the poverty rate in America is twice the European average. Not to mention Mark Rank’s calculations (in Changing the American Dream) that one half of all American children, at some point in their lives, will be living on food stamps. What has happened to America’s claimed compassion, community concern, and brotherly love? Our proclaimed “democracy” has been corrupted by a profit-driven and me-focused economic system. America appears increasingly to have become — to invoke Thoreau — a “patron of virtue,” rather than a virtuous nation.
Mandela’s life has been reduced to mantras, not a resolve for national self-examination and redistribution of our resources. Hardly anything makes more of a mockery of Mandela’s ideals than what has been happening in Washington politics. Vitriol abounds. Bipartisanship has largely disappeared. A prominent senator heralds the election of an idealistic, young president with a vow to do everything he can “to make Obama a one-term president.” From that moment on, no listening, no genuine negotiation, no compassion, no attempt at reconciliation, no bipartisan unity. And this stance is not confined to only one party. Democrats, in response, have sometimes acted similarly with respect to their own pet grievances and projects.
In following their respective party leaders and voting in unison — sometimes against any resolution, bill, or action from the other side — politicians are damaging any credit that the first elected black president of the United States might earn and deserve. Never mind the good of the commonwealth! But better mind the futures of banks, corporations, and the wealthy! And this is called “democracy”?
President Obama is right. We shall perhaps never again see the likes of another Nelson Mandela. But the least we can do is to nurture in us the best of what we see in him — which might turn out also to be the best in and for us.
Ronald E. Santoni is the Maria Theresa Barney Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Denison University and Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He is an external member of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Ga.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Denisonian and The Newark Advocate.