Mandela and Lincoln

I wasn’t going to write anything about Nelson Mandela’s death. Not because of any lack of respect for the man, but, rather, the opposite. I didn’t know enough of him to contribute much that is new.

I was set on this course until I considered a parallel that works in a surprising number of ways: the similarities between Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.

On its face, this is a banal comparison. Two great men, statesmen of eloquence, intelligence, and character, who guided their nations through very difficult times, and are revered by their former constituents. But there was more to Mandela and Lincoln, and there are important lessons that we can take from their lives and choices.

There is quite a lot of good evidence that Lincoln was a racist, or at least held racist views against African-Americans for much of his life. He was a Free Soiler, opposed to the westward expansion of slavery on the grounds that it would deprive white men of the chance to set up a smallholding on the frontier. Lincoln seems to have disliked slavery as an institution, not regarded enslaved African-Americans as equal to whites, and been uninterested in emancipation for much of his career.

And we view him as the Great Emancipator, in spite of all that.

(There are many historians who insist upon the importance of self-emancipation. I have a lot of sympathy with this viewpoint, but I’d point to an essay by James McPherson on Lincoln’s role as the sine qua non of emancipation to support the conventional view.)

There have been rumors that Mandela was a racist–none of those that I have seen are credible. Rather, the parallel is that the choice which most defined each of these men stood in opposition to the stances they held for much of their lives. Mandela is remembered as a peacemaker, and he was a proponent of nonviolence in the most well-known part of his life, after his release from prison. However, in the early 1950s, Mandela became convinced that nonviolent resistance to apartheid was ineffective. (Who can blame him? The white state held all the cards and had no interest in reform.) While Mandela’s support for a violent overthrow of state racism is far more understandable than Lincoln’s racism, it is just as true to say that the attitudes for which he is remembered stand in contrast to ones which he held for a significant period of his life.

The lesson for people and politicians can be summarized as such: changing circumstances demand a new analysis of a situation. Consistency of position is only worth as much as the position itself. Emancipation was politically and strategically advantageous in 1862 (in addition to being a moral right, as it always had been). Nonviolence was the best course after the end of apartheid because it prevented civil war, in addition to saving lives.

Both Lincoln and Mandela (to differing extents) are viewed as unifying figures. Mandela, as I’ve just noted, played a very important role in the relatively smooth end to all-white government. Lincoln did as much as he politically could to avoid the war (the Republicans would have needed to renounce their Free Soil principles to have any chance of preventing secession, and Lincoln refused to do this), and he tried to set up a relatively lenient Reconstruction process.

If there is a message here for political figures, it is that people like unifying figures, although not always in their own time. Lincoln, for instance, was attacked by his own party in Congress over his Reconstruction plans. The Radical Republicans felt that the South needed to be punished. At the same time, the view from the present is often used to obscure the principles for which leaders became known. Note, for example, the relatively little emphasis placed on the brutality of apartheid in talking about Mandela, or the inhumanity of slavery when politicians raise Lincoln. Those are painful memories, and leaders generally don’t like to make their audiences visit such emotional places.

Mandela and Lincoln left mixed legacies, after one digs through the pile of anodyne tributes. Postbellum America, like post-apartheid South Africa, was beset by political corruption and cronyism. Using the powerful shield of the Republican Party or the African National Congress, government officials, politicians, and capitalists used the state to make a buck or a rand. More importantly, the scale of the processes of reconstructing each nation prevented either from leaving their nation fully free.

In terms of corruption, both 19th century America and early 21st century South Africa had/have serious problems in this area which go beyond their respective Presidents. At the same time, party hegemony, aided by a party’s association with a great cause or great leader, can beget more corruption than would otherwise be possible. The Republicans during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age had a weaker grip on power than the ANC has had since apartheid, but maintained enough control to monopolize patronage in much of the federal government (the Democrats behaved similarly in areas, such as cities, where they had control). The absence of political competition, combined with a culture of spoils, make for a dangerously wasteful system.

While Mandela and Lincoln probably set South Africa and the United States on eventual courses to fuller freedom, those tasks were certainly not complete in 1865 or 1999–or 2013. Statutory racism survived in the US, and social racism and self-segregation continue in both countries. The heirs of Lincoln in the Radical Republican caucus made some great strides toward equality, but were stymied by white racism, North and South. South Africa seems to be moving only slowly towards equality of life chances and services.

The various dignitaries at today’s memorial service will try to take a bit of the glory reflected from Mandela and American politicians will continue to mention Lincoln in order to burnish their own credentials. Let them prove by their actions, not their flowery speeches, that these examples are worth emulating. They are examples that do not only include magnanimity, but conviction for a just cause.

Getting What You Pay For

Sometimes capitalism works.

When I say that it “works,” I don’t mean that it necessarily produces positive outcomes. I mean that it produces the outcomes that its internal logic would predict. In a short caricature: if you offer more money for a product or job, you will get a better item or employee.

There are many caveats, but anyone who believes in rational, self-interested economic actors should agree that there is correlation between the salary of workers and the quality of candidates for a position. Better candidates should result in the selection of a better person to take up the job.

That should all be pretty clear. It raises an important question, though: what outcome do policymakers expect when they reduce the compensation of public employees? They usually claim that there will be little to no effect on services–or, more likely, they ignore the point entirely.

This simply does not make sense. Unless the government has a monopoly on the purchase of labor (very difficult to achieve and maintain), this will provide a disincentive to working for the government, reducing the size and quality of the talent pool available. There will still be excellent teachers, police, and administrators, but reduced compensation will tend to drive at least some of the best candidates into the private sector.

Only a small minority of politicians will be brave (or stupid, or callous) enough to attack, for example, public education as an institution and advocate hiring less qualified and less competent teachers. But plenty of politicians will advocate cutting the salaries of public employees, including teachers. They make these statements with no regard to the implications of their actions — or with the goal of weakening public education. There simply isn’t another explanation. If you believe in markets, then, other things equal, reducing compensation will tend to reduce the quality of the workforce.

Decisions have consequences. Be honest about them.

The Five Essential Elements of a News Report About Africa

Welcome to international journalism, young, impressionable American human! After those years of unpaid internships and grunt work, you have graduated to the BIG TIME: you are going to Africa to report on a news story you have never heard of!

[If the reporter is not a tyro, replace the above with: You’re going to Africa, pack your bags.]

Most Americans have never been to Africa and about half can’t find it on a map, so you have to cover this story that you’ve never heard of carefully. Follow the five points below and your report will be a sure-fire hit, inspiring vapid cocktail hour conversation and disinforming flippant comments about the country you’re about to visit.

Element #1: Show the audience where you’re going on a map, because they’ve never heard of the place before.

A vital part, this. Americans don’t know anything about African geography, so you have to baby them. Them? I mean yourself, since you’ve probably never been there either. Before you leave, check Google Maps and find the names of adjoining countries–you’ve never heard of them either, but it’ll make you sound like you know your stuff.

If you’re reporting for TV, make sure your producer includes a map with the country you are reporting from highlighted. If you’re on the radio, mention the countries around the country you’re visiting while your listeners open map apps on their smartphones or scurry off for the nearest atlas.

Element #2: Do not learn the language.

There was a time in college when you thought about joining the foreign service and spent two weeks in Berber/Xhosa/Swahili/Igbo class before dropping it to spend more time in the library….the library café. All you remember now is how to ask “Do you have wifi?” and “I am Canadian.” Some people may suggest that you actually learn the language of the place you’re going to report on, or at least try to develop a working knowledge. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES DO THIS. You’re an American! Don’t make your audience think you’ve gone native by learning how to speak with the people you’re interviewing. Hire a translator to speak with these noble savages.

Element #3: Find squalor. Describe squalor.

Your editor or producer may have ostensibly sent you to report on some news story, but they really want you to talk about squalor. For your viewer, Africa = squalor. Also AIDS and civil wars, but we’ll get to that. Huts with dirt floors are good squalor, so is any kind of challenging cooking situation. Sick and/or starving children get serious brownie points, as do girls under 15 who are married (especially to men over 30). Terrible medical facilities are also a big ratings boost.

Element #4: Mention HIV/AIDS and/or malaria and/or civil war.

No matter what, you have to find a way to crowbar these elements in, even if you’re in a country that hasn’t had a civil war since independence. Example: if you’re in Ghana, mention the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. They’re next to each other, so from Pennsylvania they look to be pretty much the same place. If you couldn’t find a lot of squalor, this is where you have a chance to make up for that and confirm all your viewers’/listeners’ stereotypes. Mosquitoes are a good snap shot if you are talking about malaria (which was a problem in Washington, DC until the mid-19th century, but don’t mention that). If you can find any child soldiers or former child soldiers from a civil war, your ratings are going to be awesome. Also acceptable are people in New England Patriots Super Bowl XLII Champions t-shirts.

Element #5: Close with tribal dancing and drumbeats.

What could be more African (for Americans, and besides squalor, AIDS, malaria, and civil war) than tribal dancing with a great drumbeat? You have to find a good “African” endcap to your report, and this is the best that there is.

If you have made sure to include all these elements, congratulations! You can look forward, after a few more near-identical reports from various parts of Africa, to get bumped up to reporting on somewhere like Italy, so you can swap out these stereotypes for greasy men, images of pasta, allusions to the mafia, and soccer hooligans.

The Totalitarianism of Santa Claus

He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake,
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!

Constant surveillance of your activities, judging everything you do, a police state headed by an amply-proportioned old man. North Korea in 2005. Also Santa Claus. He sneaks through your house at night and takes the food that you leave out.

He’s making a list, checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naught or nice

Not only does he know what you’re doing at all times, he acts on that information. If you stay on his good side, you will receive patronage. If not, he will publicly shame you. While everyone else is celebrating their presents, you have nothing but a lump of coal–useful in the 19th century, but not much good any more. And whenever anyone asks you what benefaction the Supreme Leader bestowed upon you, you have to fess up to your ignominious gift.

You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why

No dissent will be tolerated, all complaints will be punished. You do not have the right to free speech and expression; unacceptable comments will result in censure. Be afraid–look out, he is coming, coming to dispense punishment on your body and soul.

Okay, okay, I’m kidding. Sort of. It’s a holiday song that we probably shouldn’t take too seriously. But there are some pretty clear totalitarian messages (they’re too strong to be undertones). Santa is pretty clearly keeping tabs on us, and I’m not a fan of surveillance.

Another problematic aspect of this song is the moral message. Don’t be “good” because you should, or treat people properly because that’s the way you would want to be treated–do it to get STUFF. That’s not a strategy that will lead to harmonious human relations. If people (kids) are told they should only behave well to get free things, and they internalize that process, then good luck getting them to behave morally without a carrot.

Christmas in America isn’t mainly about the birth of Jesus. And it’s less and less about giving gifts to people about whom one cares. It’s more and more about buying STUFF. iPhones, flatscreen TVs, game consoles, clothes, etc. With a small part of overeating and watching college bowl games tacked on. In a sense, this is good for the economy: it relies on demand for stuff, so if more people buy more stuff that increases incentives for hiring and/or productivity increases (let’s be honest, it’s more of the latter).

At the same time, the festival of capitalism and consumerism leaves me, at least, wanting something different. It’s a very individualistic holiday, and it brings out some of the worst traits of Americans: fighting other people for cheap electronics. I’ll have more about this in the coming weeks, but I think there’s a link between teaching kids to obey so that the Supreme Leader will magically grant them an XBOX One™ and adults brawling for sale items.