The Problem with President Obama’s Remarks on Nelson Mandela

by David French

In thinking about Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy, I agree with virtually every syllable of Deroy Murdock’s tribute. When he assumed power, I feared he would take South Africa down a blood-soaked path of despotism. I was profoundly, happily wrong. He was a great man who — through an incredible amount of graciousness and wisdom — accomplished a nearly impossible task. And lest we Americans look askance at South Africa’s many remaining imperfections, let’s not forget that we could not navigate out of profound, de jure racial discrimination without a ruinous civil war followed by a century of Jim Crow. 

When President Obama spoke at Mandela’s Memorial Service, he largely kept his focus on Mandela’s life and considerable achievements. He hit the right notes, and eloquently reminded the audience of Mandela’s commitment to South African unity, noting that Mandela not only fought against “white domination,” but he also fought against “black domination.” He properly credited Mandela for courage, fortitude, and wisdom. But then there’s this:

The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today. (Applause.)

And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. (Applause.) And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

Aside from the welcome words on freedom for dissenters, there is much mischief here. There is a tendency in our politics to tie our own efforts and crusades to the acknowledged greatness of past leaders and their causes. As a result, one isn’t just advocating for increased spending on public schools, or increases in the minimum wage, but instead continuing the legacy of civil-rights leaders of yore. But aren’t those matters far more debatable in their real-world effect than, say, ending Apartheid or Jim Crow?

Not according to some. To some, they are just “modest reforms” that people “passionately resist.” Yet I can (and do) embrace the titanic accomplishment of ending Apartheid without embracing all the social and economic policies of those who claim Mandela as their ideological brother. In fact, I can (and do) embrace the accomplishments of Mandela and our own Martin Luther King, Jr. while believing that conservative ideals on education, culture, and economics will be far more fruitful at repairing the lingering damage from centuries of repression. I’m a conservative because I want people to flourish, not because I merely want to preserve as much privilege as possible for myself.

Can’t we be more modest? Can’t we acknowledge the accomplishments of the past without presuming either that we stand in the shoes of the greats as we fight over incredibly complex and difficult economic and cultural challenges? Can’t we hold to our own ideals while acknowledging at the very least the virtuous intentions of our opponents?

Nelson Mandela was a great man. Politicians should exercise great caution before tying any of their meager efforts to his legacy.

The Corner

The one and only.