James Antle spotlights it:
The right tends to have one of two responses to figures like Mandela abroad or Martin Luther King, Jr. at home: suggest their radicalism is more important than the struggles of the people they championed or to try to claim them as conservatives. Neither approach will do.
The lack of empathy many white conservatives feel toward communities of color may not be the only barrier between the right and minorities. But it is an important barrier.
Many conservatives who have been supportive of civil-rights struggles overseas err in another direction: expressing their concern through bombing and sanctions, as if the people and their leaders live in separate hermetically sealed containers. Condoleezza Rice once compared the war in Iraq and the fight against Jim Crow, an analogy that may strike many Iraqi refugees as inapt.
TNC chimes in:
As Sam Kleiner demonstrates in Foreign Policy, apartheid would ultimately draw some of America’s most celebrated conservatives into its orbit. The roster includes Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Jesse Helms, and Senator Jeff Flake.
Jerry Falwell denounced Desmond Tutu as a “phony” and led a “reinvestment” campaign during the 1980s. At the late hour of 1993, Pat Robertson opined, “I know we don’t like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don’t have it all that bad.”
Not all prominent conservatives were so dishonorable. When Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions of South Africa, Mitch McConnell, for instance, was forthright—”I think he is wrong … We have waited long enough for him to come on board.” When Falwell embarrassed himself by condemning Tutu, some Republican senators denounced him.
But the overall failure of American conservatives to forthrightly deal with South Africa’s white-supremacist regime, coming so soon after their failure to deal with the white-supremacist regime in their own country, is part of their heritage, and thus part of our heritage. When you see a Tea Party protestor waving the flag of slavery in front of the home of the first black president, understand that this instinct has been cultivated.
Chotiner diagnoses conservatives’ history with Mandela as mostly Cold War fever:
Conservatives today—or at least those writing pieces, rather than commenting on them—don’t speak up for the apartheid regime, but they also don’t show much of a desire to think about the Cold War, and the moral costs of having fought it. … It is not simply that the United States waged nasty military campaigns like the one in Vietnam, or supported death squads throughout Latin America. Nor is it simply that the United States backed undemocratic regimes everywhere from Pakistan to South Africa to Greece. It’s also that the war prevented many of the people fighting it from viewing Mandela in anything but Cold War terms. Think about it this way: Isn’t there something tremendously wrong with a war which requires your side to miss the importance of a figure like Mandela? Isn’t there something tremendously wrong with a war that requires you to view apartheid-era South Africa as part of the “free world?” (It should also be said that the position being defended here is strategically inept too. The Soviet Union did not fall because America supported the South African government and various other unsavory regimes.)
Serwer adds his thoughts:
The point of remembering all this is not mere point-scoring. It is to remember that sometimes the radicals are correct, that in the heat of the moment, movements for justice can be easily caricatured by those with authority as threats to public safety, and those seeking basic rights and dignity as monstrous villains. And then 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.
It’s tempting to pretend we’ve all always agreed about Mandela, or about racial equality, or about South African apartheid. It would avoid awkwardness or hostility to join together in mutual admiration and mourning for a figure who was indispensible in so many senses of the word, without recalling those who stood against him.
Mandela believed in forgiveness, but he also believed in truth and reconciliation. And the truth is that many self-proclaimed champions of individual freedom in the United States refused to champion the individual freedom of black people in South Africa and at home.