This Western arrogance is as broad as it is insidious. There was a well-reported piece in the Times a few days ago on the disappointment that's followed Mandela's presidency. A similar note has been sounded in seemingly every obit and article concerning Mandela's death. It's not so much that these stories shouldn't be written, it's that they shouldn't treated the subject as though a man were biting a dog. That people are shocked that South Africa, almost 20 years out of apartheid, is struggling with fairness and democracy, reflects a particular ignorance, a particular blindness, and a peculiar lack of humility, about our own struggles.
On the great issue of the day, the generations that followed George Washington offered not just disappointment but betrayal. "The unfortunate condition of the people whose labors I in part employed," Washington wrote, "has been the only unavoidable subject of regret." Americans did not simply tolerate this "unfortunate condition," they turned it into the cornerstone of the American economic system. By 1860, 60 percent of all American exports came from cotton produced by slave labor. "Property in man" was, according to Yale historian David Blight, worth some $3.5 billion more than "all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together."
In short order, Washington's slaveholding descendants went from evincing skepticism about slavery to calling it "a positive good" and "a great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." And they did this while plundering and raiding this continent's aboriginal population. For at least its first 100 years, or perhaps longer, this country was a disappointment, an experiment which—by its own standards of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—failed miserably. America is not unique. It is the product of imperfect humans. As is South Africa. That people turn to the country of Nelson Mandela and wonder why it hasn't magically transformed itself into a perpetual font of milk and honey is a symptom of our blindness to our common humanity.
Nowhere is that blindness more apparent then in the constant, puerile need to critique Mandela's turn toward violence. The impulse is old. "Why Won't Mandela Renounce Violence?" asked a New York Times column in 1990. Is that what we said to Savimbi? To Mobutu?
Malcolm X understood:
If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.
Martin Luther King Jr. agreed:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems ... But, they asked, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
As did Mandela. Offered the chance to be free by the avowed white supremacist P.W. Botha if he would renounce violence, Mandela replied, “Let him renounce violence.” Americans should understand this. Violent resistance to tyranny, violent defense of one's body, is not simply a political strategy in our country, it is taken as a basic human right. Our own revolution was purchased with the blood of 22,000 nascent American dead. Dissenters were tarred and feathered. American independence and American power has never rested on nonviolence, but on the willingness to do great—at times existential—violence.