Nelson Mandela died today, at age 95, after a long illness. He was one of the most extraordinary figures of our time — a selfless man in an increasingly selfish world, a man whose example was so deeply powerful that it brought down a wicked regime, and a man whose compelling life story was inspirational to millions around the world.
Mandela fought against the evil of apartheid, which legalized and institutionalized racism in South Africa. He was jailed for his efforts, spent almost three decades in prison cells, and became the most celebrated political prisoner in the world. He was freed, immediately became a leading voice in the country, and was elected president when South Africa held its first all-race election in 1994. Crucially, Mandela did not use his ascension to power to obtain vengeance for his years of wrongful imprisonment. Instead, he supported a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to expose the wrongs of apartheid and heal his divided country. His actions demonstrated his commitment to peace and inclusiveness and made him the most deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in a generation.
It is interesting that this astonishing historical figure bore the name Mandela — pronounced in the same way as the mandala, a Buddhist and Hindu concept that represents the universe as a circle. In those religions, a mandala is an instrument of peaceful meditation and a gathering point for essential universal forces. Nelson Mandela, too, was a gathering point for universal concepts of peace, and freedom, and equality, and he served in that role with decency and without rancor. A true giant has left the world stage.
It’s nice to know that, in a world where popular culture seems to grow irreversibly coarser with each new performance of a song or comedy routine, there are still some lines that can’t be crossed. Of course, drawing the line at statements that someone should perform a gross anatomical act in the mouth of a political figure doesn’t exactly say a lot about our current cultural boundaries. Such statements may be off limits — for now, at least — but where does the line lie? Why didn’t Bashir immediately realize that his contemplated comment was “ill-judged” and then refrain from saying it in the first place?
This isn’t a question of free speech, or rough-and-tumble politics, or rejecting antiquated Victorian notions of correct behavior. It is a deeper issue that strikes at the core of our society. It isn’t improper to insist that people treat each other with respect and propriety and recognize that not every public performance or statement needs to push the envelope. If political figures, Democrat or Republican, have to endure appalling, mean-spirited, over-the-top comments as the price for their involvement in the political world, people who might otherwise help us find our way out of our current predicament aren’t going to throw their hat into the ring. That’s obviously bad for everyone. We need to show that we can disagree with each other in ways that are proper and dignified and reflect well on the maturity and fundamental decency of our culture.
I’m glad Martin Bashir realized that he crossed the line with his comment, even if it took him a while to recognize that fact. I’m hoping that this incident helps to establish a stronger, clearer line that all radio and TV hosts and pundits, regardless of their political affiliation, recognize and respect — a line that falls well short of the crassness, vulgarity, and unseemly personal attacks that we seem to see with increasing frequency these days.