Friday, December 6, 2013

Was Nelson Mandela a cheap tipper?

Probably not. But after countless tributes to selflessness, patience and high-mindedness -- all of which I'm sure he had -- I'm starting to wonder if he spent 27 years on Robbens Island without once cussing a prison guard.

The film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" comes out later this month, and advance word suggests it depicts the title character as a saint. I'm willing to believe he had deep wells of kindness and dignity, but I don't want to sit through a canonization. I'm looking forward more to "The Mountaintop," the Katori Hall play that Blumenthal Performing Arts will import in February. It depicts Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his assassination as a brave, conflicted, intelligent but imperfect man.

I don't expect anyone to pay tribute to Mandela a day after his death by saying he liked to punch kittens. But this constant flow of lofty praise washes away his humanity. Was he bad at ping-pong? Addicted to car-chase movies? An irritating kibitzer at poker games? Likely to loll around the living room when company came and refuse to put on a decent shirt? The person emerging from this adulation isn't a person at all: He's a symbol.

On the day after Richard Nixon's obituary ran, a reader asked me why the news about Watergate had to be placed so high in it. Now that Nixon was dead, why not simply report the good qualities he had? I pointed out that Nixon was the only president chased out of office by his misdeeds, however significant or trivial one considers them, and that was enormous news. (As the caller was a staunch Republican, I promised that Bill Clinton's obit would mention Monica Lewinsky prominently. I'm sure it will.)

Nobody forced Mandela to quit the presidency of South Africa, of course, and one needn't wash every piece of dirty linen in public. If Mandela had screaming arguments with his brother-in-law over Christmas dinners, who cares? But worshipping at the base of his tomb -- especially in the case of a man who, by all accounts, would have been embarrassed by such attention -- doesn't do this great man a service.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that you would enjoy hearing that a man who negotiated a peaceful transition in South Africa and prevented thousands of deaths in the process, is bad at table tennis.

Glad you used Nixon as the example you and you thought the reader would identify with this.

Are there others that share your pain, " Oh no, a
movie that might praise one of the great men of our times!"