The stories we tell ourselves are more powerful than we ever like to admit.
With the recent death of Nelson Mandela, news media has been celebrating the man, myth and legend of one of the world's greatest and mos heroic leaders. I do not pretend to be very knowledgeable about Mandela. I've never read anything about him other than a few news stories, I know very little about the history of South Africa, or how Apartheid even came to be. I only know what I've been told about him. And so I think my view of Mandela is probably similar to that of most Americans my age.
As a child growing up in the US in the 1980s I certainly remember the fall of Apartheid, the release of Mandela, and his subsequent presidency. In my mind's eye it all occurred some time around the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger shuttle disaster, and Mike Tyson. As a school boy we were told that Mandela was a political prisoner and he was released because he was an enemy of Apartheid and now Apartheid was no longer seen as morally right. It made perfect sense to a child. What was once legal was now illegal, so what was once illegal was now legal. And of course Mandela will be president of South Africa. Afterall that's what happens when political prisoners are released -- they become president. I don't think I ever really thought about how unbelievable that story really was.
In his death we see the global celebration of Mandela's life. He is a hero, a freedom fighter. A man who devoted his life to his fight for social justice. Today all world leaders are coming together to remember an honor a man who helped change the world.
Seeing this my mind wanders to an encounter I had this summer with a racist guy in a pool in Naples, Florida. He told me, "They don't tell you guys this, but Nelson Mandela is a terrorist." I looked at him incredulously. He clarified "The ANC was a terrorist organization and he was their leader." This same "fact" has surfaced in the conversation around his death, but mostly in a shameful way. Journalists wonder how Mandela could remain on the US terrorist watch list until 2008. Newt Gingrich apologizes for it. Most people assume it must have been an error. Of course, it wasn't an error. The US viewed Mandela as a terrorist because he fought violently against Apartheid and his white oppressors. Was jailed for it, and was "friendly with Moscow". None of these things play into the story of Mandela. He was a hero. He suffered in jail for nearly 30 years. He forgave his jailers and emerged victorious. It could all have turned out much differently for him. The story could have ended a long time ago with the execution or assassination of a terrorist, an enemy combatant. Mandela could easily have been killed in jail. Or died in combat. Or been murdered by his enemies in the name of the Cold War, Minority Rule, or keeping the peace. There would have been no salvation for a man who will go into the annals of history as one of its greatest leaders.
Our desire to see our heroes as pure