I heard the tail-end of a story on the radio this morning — something to do with Nelson Mandela being in hospital. (I’m very happy he’s still alive.) It got me to thinking about the amazing things that have happened in my lifetime and are happening today (in Egypt and Tunisia) which I certainly never saw coming.
The world I grew up in was the world of “Mutually Assured Destruction”. Dr. Strangelove. I remember chatting with friends in college about the fact that Canberra (where we were) was full of what we were sure were first strike targets (important communications and intelligence facilities shared with the US). We tried to be cleverly sardonic, but I, for one, certainly expected we were all doomed to die in a nuclear war, and not of old age.
By the end of the 80s, thanks to (depending on whom you ask) Ronald Reagan, Mikhael Gorbachev, John Paul II, Lex Walessa, or the inevitable failure of command economies, those fears were largely assuaged. The Soviet Union, which everyone simply assumed would keep on going forever, imploded. (It’s a lot like a game of Master of Orion. You want to conquer the galaxy by defeating the enemy’s death star, but instead there are one or two good fights early on, a long drawn-out period of one-sided skirmishes, and then your enemy’s economy collapses.)
Some time in the early 90s, one of my favorite science fiction writers (in fact he was “number two” on my list at the time) — Joe Haldeman — showed up in Australia and gave a writing workshop at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Friends of mine told me about it and I drove there to attend. In the end it wasn’t so much a writing workshop as a standup comedy act (his description of the making of Robot Jox was, in particular, one of the funniest things I have ever heard).
When we broke for lunch my friends and I were a bit annoyed that other people monopolized Joe’s time, so at dinner we had a plan. We practically jumped him with a bottle of wine, settled down to dinner, and spent the entire evening with him and his wife chatting and drinking. (Lunch and dinner were both at the pub across the road from the museum.) I remember the entire day, and that evening in particular, as one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.
Perhaps the most depressing turn of the conversation came when we discussed the likely fate of South Africa. Mandela had already been freed at that point, but no-one could have predicted that South Africa would peacefully transition from minority white rule and apartheid to majority democratic rule without a bloodbath and exodus of both people and money. We all assumed there would be a bloodbath.
I mention all this only because it’s easy to forget just what a stunning thing Nelson Mandela did. He changed one of the most wicked regimes in the world into a democracy pretty much without a shot being fired. He did it with forgiveness. (Let’s not forget the incredible Truth and Reconciliation Commission afterwards.)
On Martin Luther King’s birthday NPR was playing Dr. King’s incredible speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The fragment where he talks about the descendants of slaves and plantation owners playing together one day amazed me. Congresswoman Giffords had just been shot and liberals* were pointing at inflammatory rhetoric from the right while the right tried to label the (alleged) gunman a Marxist.
It struck me how petty the concerns of the political classes in the US are (more or fewer gun rights, lower or higher taxation, health benefits) compared to those of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, and how the former have no compassion or forgiveness or — it seems to me — much desire for reconciliation while the latter can both speak eloquently to the point and, in the case of Nelson Mandela, actually live up to their own rhetoric and be graceful in victory.
Note: * I’d say that I’m one of them, but when the Republicans can call the US Senate majority the “far left” without being laughed at, I’m clearly not actually on the US political spectrum.
John Paul II has just been beatified. It’s the first major step on the path to “sainthood”. (Eventually he’ll have to perform some “miracles”.) Is there anyone alive more deserving of the title “saint” than Nelson Mandela? And surely the transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy without bloodshed is one of the great miracles of our age.
Perhaps my next proposed saint will be Zuckerberg — his miracles will include the reform of the New Jersey school system and the victory of democracy in the Arab world. Wouldn’t it be funny if an American website created by a Jew/Atheist turns out to do what George W. Bush’s Evangelical Neocons so spectacularly and expensively and bloodily failed to do?