17 December 2013

Gingrich, Mandela and the American Right

South Africa under apartheid worried many Americans. Many recognized the apartheid regime as a form of tyranny, but feared that whatever might come under black rule would be worse. Back in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich was no less opposed to international communism than any other young Republican, but he didn't let any fears about Soviet influence over the anti-apartheid movement or rumors about the Communist ties of then-jailed resistance leader Nelson Mandela get in the way of his outrage over apartheid. As liberal op-ed columnist Cynthia Tucker reported, Gingrich was a consistent supporter of sanctions against the apartheid regime, despite resistance from President Reagan. This month, Gingrich noted Mandela's passing by calling him "one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime." For this, Tucker reports, Gingrich was flamed by the right-wing internet. The nearly-universal praise of Mandela hasn't sat well with some on the right who believed him a Communist or else felt that Mandela had never renounced Communism or Marxism to their satisfaction. The man had, after all, shaken hands with the Castro brothers far too many times in his life. For these post-mortem party poopers, Gingrich's tribute was only further proof that Newt was committed less to ideological orthodoxy than to his own opinions, whatever they might be. Gingrich had an interesting answer for them: in Tucker's paraphrase, he challenged fellow conservative Republicans to "consider what they would have done had they been in Mandela's place." This, too, was heresy, since the place you're in should not determine what you do when unchanging moral principles dictate a correct course. A hanging judge might well have found the former Speaker of the House guilty of "moral relativism" if he said anything like what Tucker writes.

Cal Thomas addressed the Mandela dilemma, without mentioning Gingrich, in a recent column. Thomas had the opportunity to interview Mandela when the leader was still in prison, back in 1985. He recalls that Mandela denied being what we'd call a card-carrying Communist, but insisted that communism was preferable to apartheid, on the understanding that communism meant "equal opportunity to everybody." Thomas cites scholarship pointing to an early Mandela affiliation with the South African Communist Party, and can't help gently chiding Mandela's 1985 assumption that under communism, "everyone would be living better." The fact remains, of course, that Mandela did not carry out a communist revolution in South Africa, and for that Thomas gives Mandela the credit he deems due. A note of ambivalence remains:

Many violent revolutionaries became peacemakers once their oppressors were removed from power. Whether Mandela experienced a “conversion” after we met him, or simply adapted a more pragmatic path to his goals, I cannot say. Let us charitably assume the best about a man revered by many who ended an evil and gave his country an opportunity to build something better.

It's clear that Thomas would be more sanguine about Mandela had the late leader thrown Thomas and his kind the bone they wanted: a comprehensive repudiation of Marxism.  Thomas closes on a curious note, calling a memorial tribute to Mandela from F. W. de Klerk, the white leader with whom Mandela negotiated the end of apartheid, the highest praise the black leader could receive. From the context you can tell Thomas means that de Klerk's actual words -- Mandela was one of South Africa's "greatest sons" -- were the highest praise, but it couldn't help seeming as if de Klerk's praise was necessary to help validate Mandela in Thomas's eyes.

Mandela and South Africa may help us differentiate types of conservative Americans. Some seemed to want to stick with the apartheid regime back in the day on the assumption that at least some people were free, while under communism no one would be. A degree of (to be euphemistic) cultural conservatism probably factored into anyone's support of white rule in South Africa, if not into enduring reservations about Mandela's place in history. Other conservatives, like Gingrich, seemed to recognize that apartheid was a system of state-mandated and state-enforced segregation in which no one, regardless of race, really was free. I suspect that conservatives of a more libertarian bent were more likely to oppose apartheid for that reason, if "cultural" issues didn't distort their perspective. It just goes to show that some people may see things more clearly the further away they are.

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