Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"An internet museum of shame for future radicals": On the radical anti-Mandela memes

The title of this post comes from a colleague who was complaining about certain reactions to Nelson Mandela's death. I think you know the kind I mean, the ones from (mostly white) radicals who have greeted the death of Nelson Mandela as cause to ruminate on how he wasn't radical enough, and anti-capitalist enough. I say mostly white. Of course, the only examples I can find are from white radicals, and the ones who have been posting on my facebook feed have exclusively been white. There is, of course, famously the Zizek article in the Guardian. Weirdly enough, the Zizek piece is the one that has been the most respectful. But you can also see this post and this post. A lot of the people who have been sharing these posts are people I like, respect, and generally support. I have also been shocked by this.

First, we can certainly argue about Mandela's support and/or lack of opposition to neo-liberalism. There is a good chance the arguments about his support of neo-liberalism will win the day. Still, he certainly helped create a state that tries to spend significantly on healthcare, education, and housing. He spoke often and persuasively, even in the last years of his life, about ending poverty as an issue of justice, and and not charity. He spoke on behalf of unions, and against the war on iraq as merely a grab for oil. There should be real anger by radicals that Mandela, like other social justice leaders, are being sanitized and whitewashed. But regardless of all of that, what is implicit (or even explicit) in these critiques is the idea that ending apartheid is somehow less of an accomplishment than opposing neoliberalism. These critiques assume a logic in which racism is merely an extension of the structures of capitalism, rather than a social ill all of its own, and that capitalism and racism are structurally entangled, but separate evils. They imply a world in which the fight against racism is somehow less important than the fight against capitalism.

And I worry about the kneejerk reactions of radicals to take the death of someone like Nelson Mandela and go, "Yeah, well, he didn't topple capitalism while he was at it, so I don't know what the big deal is." Honestly, what is the psychic economy behind this immediate reaction to his death? I don't get it. Here is what I do get, however. The next time my white radical friends are confused why our radical spaces are so often overwhelmingly white, or when they get defensive that their radicalism and/or causes are not racist, I am just going to send them a link to this post. If your immediate reaction to the death of a anti-white supremacy leader who was also opposed to capitalism (even if not in the ways or degree you wished) is to question their radical bona fides, then you are obviously engaged in a sort of epistemic blindness and violence. I am not saying we need to turn Mandela into some sort of radical saint, or that no criticism is allowed or warranted. I am saying this sort of kneejerk reaction to his death both have consequences, and is deeply troubling.

EDIT: Jairus, in comments, pointed out my ableism in the term "epistemic blindness". I apologize. He argues convincingly for the concept of epistemic parallax, and you should just make sure you read his comments.