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Clio's Temple

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Sanitizing history

Posted on December 8, 2013 at 3:50 PM
The death of Nelson Mandela has given rise to a debate of sometimes primal ferocity about how we should remember him.  Some have likened him to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King Jr., and other heroes of nonviolent resistance. Others have pointed to his expressed admiration for unsavory types such as Gaddafi and Castro. Apparently, he must be either clad in robes of the brightest hues or consigned to everlasting historical darkness.

Reality is inconvenient. Even heroes have feet of clay. It is true Mandela let his admiration for some tyrants be known. Of course, the perspective from a prison cell, when one is not even allowed to set foot on the mainland of one's own country may be a bit skewed. That, I believe, is the remarkable thing. Mandela sanctioned violent resistance to apartheid. In doing so, he had friendships of which we don't approve. Yet he emerged from his long imprisonment as a changed man. As a leader of his newly freed people, he eschewed the path of vengeance and score-settling. Zimbabwe would be a happier country if Mandela's fellow leader Robert Mugabe followed his example.

How soon we forget. While Gandhi always followed the path of nonviolence, the national passions he aroused were accompanied by bone-chilling sectarian ferocities. At the time of Martin Luther King's assassination, he was concerned about the challenge to his leadership that more militant prophets posed. There is no reason to sanitize history in an effort to remove these facts. Let us give Nelson Mandela no less. A man capable of hatred who rose above it, a man of war who became a man of peace. May his homeland learn the lesson that there is a time of war, a time of peace. We could all use a refresher in that principle.

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