A few weeks ago, the world lost Nelson Mandela, one of the most highly respected men among international politics, who gained fame and notoriety for his fight against apartheid in South Africa during a huge chunk of the 20th century. Now, I fully understand why he is so highly respected, and to a certain extent believe it is not unearned, however there are many details of this man’s life and his widespread veneration that say quite a few things about people at large.
It is not my intent to bash a recently-deceased man. However, the man was not perfect, no saint. No man is. However, we as a race seem to have knack for simply forgetting details that we don’t like about people just after their deaths. For starters, people forget many of the negative things about his life, such as he had huge Communist sympathies and helped found a terrorist organization, making his imprisonment not unjustified. Now, we can argue the morality armed revolt, however from the perspective of a government, armed insurrection is not something that should be tolerated.
As I mentioned in a previous column, we like to put our leaders or our party on some infallible pedestal that is absolutely incapable of errors. I would like to expand that by saying that actions themselves are objective. By that I mean something does not cease to be wrong by virtue of who does them. There are subjective factors that may influence one’s moral culpability and there is a reasonable debate to be had over the idea of whether the ends do in fact justify the means, but in the end a wrong is still a wrong.
If you are familiar with G.R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”, you must think of the moral philosophy of Stannis Baratheon. Without boring you with the details, his view is that all crimes must be punished and all virtues must be rewarded. For example, he had his most trusted friend’s fingers cut off on the same day he was knighted, both simultaneously punishing him for his crimes as a smuggler and rewarding him for his loyal actions during a war.
To an extent, I think there is a lot to be learned by that, if it’s not taken in too literal a way. Mandela, as revered as he is for a fight against racism, cannot be let off the hook or have his other moral faults ignored. This tendency of ignoring faults of either people or ideas does not extend to any one particular group, but to all of them. Republicans ignored crimes against humanity done by South American right-wingers in the name of anti-Communism, Democrats ignored Soviet expansion during the 1970s in the name of peace, we all seem to forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s many extra-marital affairs or the fact that the Libertarian icon Thomas Jefferson believed in anti-sodomy laws.
The overall point I am trying to make is that facts don’t cease to be facts because we don’t like them. When judging the actions of some historical figure, we have to take everything they have done or believed in into consideration and not just the parts we find appealing. We cannot ignore evil in a man because there is good alongside it. But simultaneously, due to the fallen nature of all men everywhere, we cannot discount the good they have done because they may also have done evil.