Nelson Mandela's death means many things. I doubt anyone wants to read another ode to a great man, but it does mean that: the death of a great man. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on contemporary issues. CBC tried to do some of these things on The National last night, but not very well, to be honest. Their coverage was superficial and sensationalist. It moves too fast from one issue to the next (the legacy of apartheid, South African economic problems, the state of the current government, etc.) without getting into depth on any. Instead of trying to reflect on a whole bunch of different issues, let's pause to look at one issue that is worth considering because it is an opportunity to learn: those people in Canada and the US who supported apartheid and what they think now.
The problem with conservatives ... their fate if you will, is to be wrong. I don't mean wrong like you or I am wrong every day, forgetting your keys or buying the wrong present for someone at Christmas or voting for a candidate in an election and then having second thoughts about it. That is human; that is normal. What I mean is wrong in a big sense: where someone took a political stance that rationalized inequality and oppression. This CBC news story captures some of the dynamics of the post-Mandela era evolving in the US: Mandela's Gut Check. It makes the quite reasonable point that US and British conservatives refused -- simply and utterly refused -- to do anything to help end apartheid. They said stupid things -- like white rule made South Africa a good country (don't believe me, go look it up) -- and declared Mandela a terrorist. I remembering being shocked in I was in college when I met people -- few and far between thankfully -- who argued that racism was bad but ... well ... getting rid of apartheid that was just wrong. White people would be hurt by it and, after all, black people who just take vengeance. Yes, indeed, racism was bad, but ... well ... nothing can or should be done about apartheid. In the US this included people like Dick Cheney (no surprise there) but also the grandfather of the right: Ronald Reagan.
It is easy to laugh at these people now. It is easy to feel morally superior to them. But, that misses the point. The point is that they were wrong and they should not have been. Instead of laughing at them; instead of pointing out their moral failing (which, to be clear, were appreciable), we should be asking this question: why were they wrong.
They were wrong, in large measure, because they were conservatives. Because they looked on progressive politics with both disdain and abhorrence. They were wrong because they thought only in binary oppositions: we have to oppose communism and the proponents of racial equality in South Africa number communists among them, ergo, we have to support apartheid because because supporting apartheid we oppose communism. Tortured logic to be sure, but it is how they thought. They were wrong because they did not think in human terms. Indeed, the right often lambasts the left for being too soft, but since when is supporting equality soft? There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world putting their bodies on the line for equality right now. You might consider the advocates of equality in India who are risking imprisonment because of backward and oppressive laws that were just upheld by that countries highest court.
And, since when is it soft to have high moral ideals? Since when is it soft to care about other people, to want to end oppression, to want to stop the crass exploitation of others, to want to see the demise of police states? It is a bizarre definition of soft, is it not?
Most of all, however, the fate of conservatives to forever be wrong comes from the fact that they are conservatives. By definition, they hold to at the least the status quo; at the most, their goal is to turn back the clock. This means that as things change, conservatives always find themselves fighting against history. Things don't change in any one direction but fighting against the future is not an inherently good idea. Trying to direct the future, to organize it, to have it move in a better direction is something that we can and should do. Trying to stop it from coming ... well that has a bad track record. Where conservatives fail, then, in their inability to conceptualize the future, to see a more progressive and better world as possible. Every time they do this, they set themselves against a future that can be better than the present. This means that their fate is to forever be wrong.
We need to think clearly about this, and other things as well. One might, for instance, note that Canadian conservatives were oddly absent from the mix of conservatives who supported apartheid. There were some who sat on their hands and some who followed the American neo-con line but they were, thankfully, few and far between. Instead, Canadian conservatives took an active line against apartheid and rejected the positions staked out by the UK and the US. This does not make Canadians morally superior to Americans or Brits, but it does show us something. Exactly what might be the subject of another blog.
I am not trying to argue that the Left is always right. It isn't and we all know that. I am trying to argue that there is a time and a place to consider what one says and does before one says and does it. Conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s did not do this with regard to South Africa. Instead, they made a bunch of stupid decisions that were based on a tortured binary reasoning and back it up by saying still stupider things. What we should learn from Mandela's death -- or, one of the things we should learn -- is not to do this. There are issues that we confront today where, it will turn out, the decisions we make will place us on one or another side of history.
What might these decisions be? There might be a number but the big one that strikes me is environmental issues. This might be one where we want to think about the future (not in the sense of having a future) but in the sense of embarrassment. Those people -- those Canadians, those people in the Conservative Party -- who are busy ignoring the environment ... do they want to be embarrassed in the future the way their support for apartheid and their condemnation of Mandela is now a point of embarrassment for them ... a black mark against their names?