It’s generally poor form to offer up a hot take after someone passes, it’s one of my greater gripes with the Internets as we know it, but the passing of Muhammed Ali has conjured up the same feeling that I felt during the aftermath of the passing of Nelson Mandela. It’s a feeling that doesn’t sit particularly well.
In both cases, stirring eulogies are offered up praising the valor of these individuals. And if that were all that happened, it’d be rightfully so, great men and women ought to be paid their respects on a grand scale for living honorable lives.
But what seems to be lost along the way is an appreciation for how radical their ideologies may have been. Mandela, for instance, was a Marxist, yes identifying as a democratic socialist but also ultimately advocating for a classless society. At times, he advocated for violent protests when he saw no alternative before him—of course sympathetic to nonviolent means if he deemed it to be politically viable.
I do not wish to pontificate here—everyone can and should read the full account of Mandela. Human life doesn’t get richer than his. But if one also felt weird about the fact that conservative politicians around the world were able to embrace Mandela after his death as if they were always on the same team fighting for the same shit, well I am happy to tell you that you’re certainly not alone. Mandela and the rightwing did not see eye to eye on anything, Reagan, the conservative hero, of course backed the South African apartheid regime, he vetoed a bill that called for sanctions to be imposed on the apartheid regime. Congress overruled the bullshit.
The point here is not that one can only eulogize someone if they were ideologically aligned with the deceased, this isn’t fair and to impose a monopoly on who can eulogize who is inherently unsettling, but it’s the fact that the entire account seems to be whitewashed altogether. A casual observer would’ve thought that everyone with sense would’ve always sided with Mandela, that a minority of monsters were the ones that caused all the problems for him. That it was a minority of monsters that kept him imprisoned for three decades. No, an international system in fact has to be complicit for that to happen.
When Western leaders pretend that they saw the world the same way as Mandela did, like, duh equality is good, it’s frankly disingenuous. On a less nuanced level, sure, maybe you think people should be treated equal in a way Mandela would agree, but true equality, classless society based on Marxist principles, African nationalist thought, non-interventionist foreign policy, these are all things that are fundamentally opposed in the West. There is little to no common ground here, and yet based on all the speeches and commemorations you’d think everyone had always played for the same team.
And it’s not just the right that’s guilty of this either. In the aftermath of Ali, liberals seems to forget that he advocated for violent riots in order to confront oppression. Just this week, a journalist at Vox was suspended for toying with the idea of calling for riots in opposition to Trump. If Ali, liberals’ champion, were calling for the same violent riots today, I guess liberals would have to censor him. I guess he’d be labeled unpatriotic across the political spectrum for draft-dodging.
Liberals send mixed messages. They call Trump an existential threat, on par with Hitler, and then chastise anyone who actually takes the message seriously. Would violent riots be justified in order to prevent Hitler from becoming Hitler? If that answer is an affirmative one, then what the fuck else are people supposed to do? They heed the message of their signal callers only to be scolded. And people wonder why everyone is so damn disillusioned by the political process.
The overall dilemma that seems to arise when these radicals of yesteryear pass is that the consensus in the present is that these people were history’s greatest warriors. In the eyes of the public, the historical record has proven their calls to be right. So, in turn, journalists and politicians must embrace them because it would be suicidal to not do so. Imagine anyone giving Mandela or Ali a scathing review posthumously. It just wouldn’t happen.
But, in order to do so and keep a straight face, they are forced to whitewash the historical record. Otherwise, the hypocrisy would hit everyone in the face. So at the commemoration ceremonies, Mandela is no longer a Marxist. Reagan and Thatcher never considered Mandela’s ANC a communist terror organization. It was all a big misunderstanding, you see! In the end, we united! We all love human rights, man, don’t dig any deeper please!
Today, Ali never praised the Attica prison riots. That might imply true revolutionaries embrace means that go beyond the milquetoast. Let’s not get drastic now, leave the sick burns of Drumpf to John Oliver, watch from your couch and by all means don’t take to the streets. Where were we? Ah, yes, Ali, what a boxer and such a quality social activist to boot!
In the end, I wish the entire account was told. That people were big enough to acknowledge that they disagreed with guys like Mandela and Ali. That, in many cases, they still do disagree with them on just about everything. It is possible to both disagree with someone on many fronts and still remember them fondly, but deliberately masking that the former was true seems to be the play to make.
The spectacle doesn’t feel any less cringe worthy than it did two and half years ago.