“Selfie”-Absorbed

The latest thing to apparently go “viral” is a series of photos of President Obama, his wife Michelle, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela yesterday.

The President, Cameron, and Thorning-Schmidt joked and took a picture of themselves with a cell phone — called a “selfie” — while Michelle Obama sat to the side.  Countless bits of space on the internet have now been filled with debate about whether taking a “selfie” and sharing a joke during a memorial service is appropriate behavior, interpreting Michelle Obama’s demeanor as depicted in the photos, and trying to read whether she is irked that her husband is chatting and chuckling with the Danish leader.

This incident, in a nutshell, is one of the things about the internet that I find maddening.  So many things go “viral” that viral status seems to be the norm these days, and people fixate on trivial things at the expense of understanding the significant matters.  It’s a shame that anyone running a Google search on the Mandela memorial service will have to wade through commentary about the silly “selfie” incident rather than stories emphasizing the extraordinary fact that leaders from across the world — including the current American president and three former Presidents — traveled to South Africa to pay tribute to a former prisoner who is now regarded as a great historical figure.

So I’m not going to criticize President Obama for posing for a “selfie” and I’m not going to speculate about whether and how his wife Michelle reacted to his behavior.  That’s their business, not mine.  The significant thing is that he and former Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Carter saw fit to attend and honor the memory and life of Nelson Mandela, and I’m glad they did.

Nelson Mandela

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.