A subversive for our times

Sam Smith

In the movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela proposes the outrageous notion that one of the best ways to deal with ethnic conflict is to get both sides doing something they mutually find more important than disliking each other. This is not a popular idea among liberals, black or white, too many of whom prefer to scold, outlaw or regulate, as if all respect, decency and friendship required was enough frowns or the proper legal terminology.

Nelson Mandela knew better and used rugby, rather than rules, as an early tool for remaking South Africa. In doing so, he had to overcome not only the resistance of whites but of blacks who saw rugby as an evil symbol of the land under apartheid. Mandela managed, nonetheless, to turn the game into pride that was mutually shared.

Although we seldom notice it, we have more than a little evidence in this country that Mandela’s approach works. Consider that sports teams are among the most integrated institutions in the land or that a shared search for goods at a shopping mall does a better job of bringing ethnicities together than many law firms or the US Senate have managed. Or how we take cross cultural experience for granted when eating at an ethnic restaurant.

But as with so many things these days, when we think about such matters we tend to impose institutional and regulatory solutions even though the conflict is based on beliefs and assumptions as personal as one can find.

Mandela’s approach was subversive of prevailing values but not unique. After all, Saul Alinsky’s organizing efforts were based in part on bringing normally separated or antagonistic groups together to take on the establishment. Earl Long’s power in Louisiana was based in part on his success in getting blacks registered in one of the most segregated states in the union. And Martin Luther King Jr. said that “Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.” He told his colleagues that among their dreams should be that¬† someday their enemies would be their friends.

Two years after the riots in DC, when the gap between blacks and whites in the city was enormous, a small biracial group of us formed the DC Statehood Party. It was years before I realized how strange that was because, at the time, we thought nothing of it. Political equality just seemed far more important than ethnic divisions. Besides, our leader had shown us how. Julius Hobson lived a life beyond such divisions. As a Marxist he knew he knew money was the driving cultural force. And he was a black man married to a white woman who was also a mentor to black nationalist Stokley Carmichael. Like Mandela, he refused to live by the cliches.

Mandela was subversive in another way. He was an existentialist. While even intellectuals tend to trivialize existentialism as simply an obsession with angst and despair, that is gross misreading.

Existentialism is the idea, as Sartre put it, that one’s existence precedes and defines one’s essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. It is also at greatly at odds with the assumption of ethnic or cultural impermeability.

In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Wrote Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”

In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon, “a sensibility . . . an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one’s world, an attitude towards one’s behavior.”

Mississippi writer Tom Lowe put it this way, “The truth lies neither in the left or the right or in some middle-of-the-road position that borrows from both sides. The truth is that we are responsible for everything we do and for everyone and everything our behavior affects, and that responsibility extends to our collective, as well as our individual, behavior. Responsibility is like a seamless web — we are all connected with each other and ultimately with the entire world. It encompasses the choices we make in our capacity as spouses, as parents, as voters, as stockholders, as corporate officers, as employers, as public officials, and as purchasers of goods, but it extends to the entire planet.”

This sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. “What if I’m wrong?” And when he spoke of rebellion, like Mandela, he also spoke of moderation:

“There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history . . . Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. . . The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.”

This existential combination of what Alfie Rohl described as “both affirmation and rebellion” goes to the heart what Mandela was about.

As the poem Invictus was being recited in the film, I found myself mouthing the words to myself. I was suddenly taken back to the table where, as a young boy, my father used to make us recite poems at Sunday lunch. Invictus had been one of my favorites.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The same poem Mandela gave rugby team captain Francois Pienaar,  my father had given me. And I suddenly realized why I had always liked Mandela. It was not just for what he had done but because of a poem we had both read that had helped us grasp the still subversive idea that the best way to overcome overbearing negative cultural forces is by the personal witness of individuals demonstrating another way.

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