Conservatives Struggle with Mandela Tributes

If you've been perusing conservative websites, Facebook pages, and the like since Nelson Mandela's death was announced, you would have seen two things: some kind of tribute to Mandela, and a series of comments following that tribute denouncing Mandela as a communist, a terrorist, or worse, and expressing all kinds of vile racist sentiment. It's happening not just at magazines and blogs, but to politicians as well, who are getting denounced by some small minority of their supporters for praising Mandela. That's not their fault; no one is completely responsible for their fans, after all. And as I've read through a few of these threads I've also seen some people pushing back against the racist comments. Even if, say, the National Review was for many years a fierce defender of white supremacy in both South Africa and the United States, if nothing else they're doing their best to claim that they were on the side of the angels all along, which is better than nothing.

But I'm wondering about those comment threads. As our former colleague Adam Serwer writes, "after the radicals win, we try to make them safe and useless to future radicals by pretending our beloved secular saints were never radical at all." There are always going to be some people who don't get the memo, and I think it's valuable to be reminded that they're still there.

It's also perfectly appropriate to point out that what we now view as consensus figures weren't always thus, and everyone in public life has to be accountable for where they stood before the consensus emerged. Most conservatives were wrong about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, just as they were wrong on essentially every question touching on race in our own history. It would be great to hear one of the people who were around then say, "I was wrong," and explore what they've learned from that. But that may be too much to ask. After all, it's one thing to offer a few anodyne sentences in tribute to a leader on the occasion of his death; it's another to draw people's attention to who stood where back when it mattered.

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