I’m not sure what kind of media/social-media environment you swim in, but in my world, nothing is happening this week except the death of Nelson Mandela. And that’s as it should be, I think — he was, by any reckoning, one of the towering figures of the late 20th century, an inspiration to many. His death and people’s responses to his death should be news.
That said, I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before people start popping up (in some quarters they probably already have, though it’s all dignified respect and mourning in the circles I inhabit) to remind us of Mandela’s personal shortcomings and political failures. The details don’t even matter now: he was human; he was flawed. As soon as people try to elevate him to the level of sainthood, others will be quick to expose those flaws and point to them as evidence that he’s really not worth our admiration.
To be honest I was thinking about this blog post even before Mandela died. I was showing my World Religions class the movie Luther as part of our unit on Christianity, and thinking about how much I admired Martin Luther. Then I thought about how in the previous unit, on Judaism, I’d been teaching about the roots of antisemitism, and thought, “Wow, what a shame Luther was so nastily anti-Jewish, and his words have been used to justify such terrible antisemitism.”
Then I thought about honouring one of my personal heroes, C.S. Lewis, on the 50th anniversary of his death, and thought about how he was a good old-fashioned misogynist who thought the patriarchy was a grand thing and didn’t even question his attitudes towards women.
And within the last couple of months I’ve seen Facebook friends post articles about how Mother Teresa not only suffered from depression that made her doubt God, but as a bonus, she may also have mismanaged funds, and prioritized helping the poor die over helping them live, and how Gandhi had these troubling sexual proclivities including exploiting young girls by making them sleep naked with him to test his committment to celibacy.
And that’s just a fairly random sampling of people I personally admire, who have been dead long enough that it’s safe to talk about their shortcomings.