How The Right Missed The Point At The Mandela Memorial

Terrance Heath

While conservatives obsessed over “selfies,” handshakes, and pseudo-symbolic statements, President Obama honored legacy of Nelson Mandela, and underscored how relevant and urgently needed it is today.

The “Selfie.” So What?

A handful photos of President Obama chatting and posing for a “selfie” with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thoring-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s memorial have almost been elevated to the level of an international incident.

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The internet exploded with criticism over the appropriateness of the photo-op. (More of it aimed at President Obama, rather than Cameron or Thoring-Schmidt.) Interpretations of Michelle Obama’s facial expressions and body language attempted to turn it into a domestic drama, complete with Michelle Obama chasing Barak Obama with a rolling-pin.

A picture may be worth “a thousand words,” but according to the photographer none of the pictures tells the whole story. Agence France-Presse photographer Roberto Schmidt provided the context that the criticism lacked.

  • It was a memorial, not a funeral. Schmidt says that at the moment he snapped the photo, all over the stadium thousands of South Africans were “dancing, singing and laughing to honor their departed leader,” in what he called a “carnival atmosphere. That’s far from the subdued atmosphere of a funeral, but befitting a celebration of Mandela’s life. The ceremony had gone or for two hours, and had another two hours to go. Schmidt said the atmosphere was “very relaxed.” So, this wasn’t an instance of people disrupting a somber moment to take a “selfie.”
  • Photos can lie. Much was made of Michelle Obama’s facial expressions in the photos, but as Schmidt says,“photos can lie: ”In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.”
  • It’s one moment, interpreted in isolation. Schmidt said the image was one of hundreds the AFP produced, and that this one has been interpreted in isolation: “At the time, I thought the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium. For me, the behavior of these leaders in snapping a “selfie” seems perfectly natural. I see nothing to complain about, and probably would have done the same in their place.”

Not that any of this will cool down the most far-flung regions of the right-wing fever swamp. Look for the “selfie truthers” to arrive any minute now.

Sometimes A Handshake Is Just A Handshake

As he made his way down a receiving line of world leaders gathered to honor Mandela, President Obama shook hands with Cuban president Raoul Castro.

The American right promptly lost its mind. Fox News host Todd Starnes tweeted  that Obama shook Castro’s hand but did not attend “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Sen. Paul Rubio (R, FL) complained that President Obama didn’t stop the proceedings to lecture Castro on human rights. Breitbart.Com’s John Nolte wrote that the handshake was “more than a little unsettling.” Over at The Corner, Mona Charen mourned it as, “Shameful day to be an American.”

Conservatives have forgotten 75 years of history, including: Truman shaking hands with Stalin, Roosevelt sitting with Stalin, George W. Bush holding hands with Saudi King Abdullah, George W. Bush Shaking hands with Hosni Mubarak, Nixon shaking hands with Fidel Castro, Nixon shaking hands with Mao Zedong, Nixon “palling around with” Nicolae Ceausescu, etc.

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Conservatives also missed an important point. Fox News asked whether Obama’s handshake with Castro was “disrespectful to the spirit of Nelson Mandela. If the question of the day was “What would Nelson do?”, shaking Raoul Castro’s hand would have been correct.

The unplanned handshake was exactly what Nelson Mandela would have done. Cuba under Fidel Castro opposed apartheid and supported Mandela’s African National Congress, while America still stood on the wrong side of history. That support meant so much that Mandela flew to Cuba in 1991, in one of his first international visits after being released from prison, to thank Castro for support he felt was crucial to ending apartheid.

If he were alive, Nelson Mandela — who shook hands with South Africa’s last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, and even his own jailers — would certainly have shaken Raoul Castro’s hand, if only to say “Thank you,” one more time.

Running Defense

While the rest of the world celebrates Mandela’s life, conservatives running defense. Newt Gingrich complained that Mandela’s death was just another opportunity for “liberals” to “smear” Ronald Reagan. Since Mandela’s death, conservatives have been preoccupied with defending Ronald Reagan.

Focusing on “selfies” and handshakes, gives conservatives a beak from being defending their own record. The American right has a lot to be defensive about when it comes to Nelson Mandela and apartheid.

Mandela’s death is cause for reflection upon his life, his struggle against apartheid, and his eventual triumph. That’s got to make conservatives uncomfortable, because it means revisiting where America stood during Mandela’s struggle against apartheid.

President Reagan opposed the African National Congress, labeled both Mandela and the ANC as “terrorists.” He vetoed sanctions against South Africa’s pro-apartheid government. As a member of Congress at the time, Dick Cheney voted against legislation calling for sanctions against South Africa, the repeal of apartheid laws, and the release of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela. Cheney also voted to uphold President Reagan’s veto. Years later, Cheney still defended his vote.

Reagan’s embrace of South Africa not only extended Mandela’s prison term, but also extended the life of apartheid in South Africa by continuing the flow of aid and ideological support. It delayed the changes that were already in the works, gave the apartheid regime hope that the U.S. would stick by the South African government, and contributed to the violent crackdowns that followed in 1986 and 1987.

That’s a pretty dismal record to have to defend. Fortunately, conservatives have on their side at least one black guy who will defend apartheid itself.

WorldNetDaily columnist and regular Fox News guest Erik Rush told his radio show’s listeners last week that while he opposes apartheid, South Africa may have declined since the fall of the racist system, adding that the late Nelson Mandela “didn’t do much.”

“You know I hate to rain on the parade here, but there really isn’t a whole lot to celebrate aside from this synthetic symbolism that is being made out of someone who, you know, didn’t do much,” Rush said. “Apartheid went away, great. There are South African blacks who have told friends of mine they wish it was back because the country was safer, if you can believe that.”

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Missing The Point

When, President Obama stepped up eulogize Nelson Mandela, he put Mandela’s mission in a context that underscored how relevant and urgently needed it is today. Towards the end of his speech, President Obama linked Mandela’s legacy and South Africa’s struggle to all struggles for equality.

We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice — the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.

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.

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. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

The questions we face today — how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war — these things do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows that is true. South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.

I don’t know if Sen. Cruz made it back to his seat in time to hear President Obama’s remarks, or how many on the right paused their defense of Reagan and their “handshake hysteria,” to hear what President Obama said about Nelson Mandela.

I do know that anyone who missed it, missed why Mandela’s caused touched so many people, why his passion still inspires, and why his life is and will always be celebrated by people all over the world.

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