On Magnanimity, Leadership and Freedom

            I write on the day of the international memorial service for former South African President and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, which tens of thousands attended despite a steady cold rain falling on the soccer stadium where they gathered. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended the event at which America’s chief executive delivered a eulogy for the man he has called his personal hero. As if a paean to the remarkable reach of the influence of Nelson Mandela, President Raul Castro of Cuba, the leader of a nation often at odds with the United States, also offered praise for the South African’s many contributions. Like many who sought in the days following Mandela’s death to make sense of his long life and contributions to his nation and to humankind more broadly, President Obama highlighted the South African leader’s extraordinary courage and magnanimity in his tribute:

Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa—Ubuntu—that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. … He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

            Prior to Mandela’s death I had found myself pondering the role of openness and generosity in leadership when Pope Francis recently published an exhortation that emphasized the power of such an example. The Pontiff criticized many in the Roman Catholic Church for their lack of generosity and empathetic imagination. He struck out at those otherwise professing deep regard for the Catholic faith tradition who, in practice, behaved otherwise:

In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel has a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time.

            In the same document and similarly, the Pope critiqued those who unreservedly emphasize consumerism and individual advancement in lieu of the needs of their fellow men and women.

            The Pope’s arguments pointed to the pervasive consumerism and individualism in Western society (especially widespread in our own culture) and their implications for recognition, let alone sacrifice, on behalf of the commons, or to or for extra-individual claims. That argument in turn suggests the fact that social trust is a paradox and is born best of its own extension. That is, trust, as Mandela deeply understood, is encouraged by those willing to be vulnerable in the first place and to bear the scars of that openness when necessary, in order to keep the possibility of hope and cooperation alive. An all-encompassing individualism prevents such a possibility from emerging in the first instance. Meanwhile, personally maintaining the potential of daily acting on behalf of others is itself very difficult, raising the question of what it is that might sustain such a leadership perspective.

            For his part, Nelson Mandela realized, despite 27 years of imprisonment by a radical and imperious government, often at hard labor, that his nation’s people did not require a self-righteous self-regarding leader bent on vengeance, but one instead who encouraged them to address their deep-seated divisions and the challenge of reconciliation with empathy and openness for all involved. But that stance was an extraordinary one even to articulate, much less to realize, given all that Mandela (and those he represented) had suffered at the hands of the apartheid regime. To adopt such an orientation or perspective required the South African leader to discipline his outrage and fury at his and others’ maltreatment and to articulate a broader good for his followers against which to make the claim to do so. It did not require that he forget his imprisonment or imagine that the cruelties inflicted on him or his followers were anything but the often barbarous acts they were. But it did demand that Mandela the man substitute the easy argument favoring individual retribution for that of disciplining of self on behalf of the society he sought to serve. It seems likely that had he emerged from prison bent on reprisal, millions would have followed him in that course, with obvious consequences for the South African nation. That he did not so behave both avoided likely widespread violence and solidified a nation of law and democratic practice, whatever its continuing challenges (and those are many).

            So, it is fitting that Mandela is being remembered with accolades from around the world. But it is also somewhat odd to hear them arise from many of our nation’s leaders, given the character and tenor of the political debate here in the United States, which often finds Republican officials, especially, arguing for an ever more thoroughgoing individualism in American politics. More particularly, these leaders offer an array of arguments that suggest that citizens owe little or nothing to their fellows and that most of those individuals cannot be trusted to use assistance appropriately if it were offered. This is the argument, for example, underpinning curtailing nutrition benefits and also for eliminating unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. That is, not only do these officials not accord trust to many they formally serve, they work actively to persuade their constituents not to extend trust to many of their fellow citizens in the first instance. Put differently, these leaders are daily eroding the foundations of social trust by fraying the citizenry’s willingness to imagine itself as one commons or community. Bluntly, these leaders are assiduously undermining the American nation’s potential for realizing Ubuntu, the recognition that we are one people.

            These officials are also corroding the fundaments for any genuine exercise of social leadership. Why would one follow an individual whose arguments convince you that trust is a fool’s game antithetical to one’s own personal interests? Beyond this concern lies another: the invidious result an undermining of social generosity foreshadows for freedom. As Mandela’s powerful example illustrated, true liberty cannot exist in the absence of generosity and a clear idea of community. Nelson Mandela understood this deeply and disciplined his own emotions in pursuit of a communal good, and the result is a nation that otherwise would likely not have emerged peaceably from its long night.

            Small wonder then that this long-incarcerated and beleaguered leader is now being feted and mourned around the world. But Mandela’s behavior, however dramatic and historically significant, was, in principle, as Pope Francis and President Obama have argued, ultimately not different in kind from that which must daily obtain in a population to ensure freedom and democracy anywhere. The irony of the decision of many of our nation’s elected officials to celebrate selfishness in an imagined effort to secure freedom could not be deeper. Mandela’s genius and his mark of greatness were to honor personally the necessity of magnanimity to serve his nation’s people as a founding democratic leader seeking to ensure freedom. I remain hopeful his compelling example will not go unheeded or unexamined in our own country as our elected officials reflect on his legacy.

Note to Readers: Max Stephenson is taking a break. Soundings will return on January 6, 2014. Happy Holidays!