CALIFORNIA, December 13, 2013 — Nelson Mandela, one of the most important historical figures of the 20th century, died last week at the ripe old age of 95. While the vast majority of the world mourns the death of this legendary figure, American conservatives have largely found themselves attempting to trash Mandela’s prolific legacy.
Many conservatives continue to point out that Mandela aligned with communists. They observe that Mandela, at one point in his lengthy and complex public life, advocated violence as a means of achieving the goal of liberating South African blacks, who lived miserably under the dictatorial thumb of white supremacist apartheid rule.
The conservatives who attack Mandela almost never remember that many Western conservatives either supported or condoned apartheid in South Africa. Conservatives who did not support apartheid were looked at as the RINOs of their day. Ronald Reagan, the hero of the American right, vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. He resolutely refused to place sanctions on South Africa’s morally reprehensible apartheid government.
The American right’s pointless invective directed towards Mandela at his death essentially demonstrates the shallowness of ideological thinking. Indeed, this pitiable worldview can be called juvenile conservatism.
Juvenile conservatives believe that all that needs to be proven is that Mandela aligned with communists at any point in his life, hence his entire rich legacy as a freedom fighter for the human rights of Africans can be disregarded with history’s garbage. This is a pitifully simplistic analysis.
Juvenile conservatives are incapable of understanding that the real world is not divided by pristinely straight ideological lines. They are incapable of understanding that authentic conservatism does not simply mean taking whatever position is the opposite of the left. This kind of reasoning leads conservatives into trouble.
Communists were right to support both the African National Congress and the cause of ending apartheid. Conservatives were on the wrong side of history on the issue. The true conservative position on apartheid should have been to oppose it.
How many conservatives today are willing to brook a discussion as to whether any positions communists held were right? Such a conversation descends into name-calling. It is as though one cannot simultaneously believe communism is abhorrent and agree with communists on one moral point.
Racial discrimination and oppression of people is fundamentally wrong; it violates fundamental conservative principles. Inasmuch as the conservative movement reveres the Founding Fathers and their quest for freedom from a tyrannical British government, they should be attuned to the subjugation of others.
The oppression of blacks under apartheid was far more morally odious than the oppression that the Founding Fathers opposed — and fought the Revolutionary War to destroy. It is repulsively hypocritical to maintain that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist for fighting for the freedom of his people, while reverencing the Founding Fathers of America for doing the same thing — under an indisputably less oppressive regime.
As Newt Gingrich aptly said in his rejoinder to conservative critics who were outraged over his consolatory comments about Mandela and his passing, “What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression?”
Indeed, Newt Gingrich was one of the few center-right politicians in the 1990s with enough moral courage to oppose the mainstream, iniquitous conservative position of supporting apartheid. He pushed for sanctions against the South African state.
Interestingly, there was apartheid-like oppression in the United States against blacks, and many conservatives were again on the wrong side. William F. Buckley, the editor and founder of National Review — the most influential American conservative magazine — was a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There is a racial element to explore here: Many conservatives can seem indifferent to the suffering of blacks while showing acute awareness of the slightest suffering of whites. That element has been explored many times, but this juvenile conservatism that the American right has adopted has not been properly explored.
Juvenile conservatives reduce conservative logic to simple opposition to everything that liberals posit. That is not constitutive of deep moral reasoning. It is simply the kind of pointless polarization that arises from thoughtless anger and adversarial politics.
Liberals are not on the wrong side of everything. It is possible to hold the same position as a liberal, but for completely different reasons. It is also legitimate to hold the same position as the left for the same reasons. Doing so at rare points does not mean that we forfeit the right to be called “conservative.” It recognizes the fact that not everything has to be polarized. Partisan political glasses are not required for every world issue.
Juvenile conservatives have shown their inability to reason by trashing Nelson Mandela. However, Mandela-bashing is only one example of this trend.
When liberals build a bastion in academia, juvenile conservatives turn around and bash academia as if education, especially in the liberal arts, has nothing useful to offer and should be eliminated. When liberals suggest ending the War on Drugs, juvenile conservatives furiously oppose that effort and accuse them of promoting drug use. When liberals correctly argue that Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die, juvenile conservatives feel obliged to paint him as a drug-crazed thug.
There are countless examples of conservatives rushing to adopt unreasonable positions on issues, simply because always being diametrically opposed to liberals is more important to them than adhering to conservative principles.
Compromising on principle in order to placate political opponents is unnecessary and unacceptable. However, to abandon principle just to take the opposite side of an argument from political opponents is also unacceptable.
Juvenile conservatism is not an ideology of careful moral reflection, and it harms the sensible ideology of conservatism. Juvenile conservatism is an unthinking movement of hyperpartisan political posturing and groupthink. It is what we should expect when the ideological leaders on the right are college dropouts with radio shows that are driven by shock. Indeed, their livelihoods thrive on disputation and rancor.
If conservatives cannot develop empathy skills and stop reacting like Pavlov’s dogs to the words “communist” and “Marxist,” the conservative movement will continue to add to a history of taking morally deplorable stances on critically important issues. As a result, the legacy of the right will suffer more historical blemishes.
Nelson Mandela was on the right side of history, and juvenile conservatives continue to be embarrassingly wrong.
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