Nelson Mandela’s Stolen Spoon

Thank you, Madiba, for pardoning my family, me, the whites of South Africa. You’re 100, so let’s celebrate your example.

.. Anyone harboring the dangerous illusion of humanity’s perfectibility should remember: A tourist stole Nelson Mandela’s spoon.
.. The spoon-stealers are out there. Sometimes it seems these thieves with their airs, their acquisitive self-importance and their capacity for cruelty to children, are taking over the world.
.. The 27 years stolen from Mandela by people with white skins, the suffering inflicted on tens of millions of black South Africans over decades, would not be repaid in blood.

Perhaps white South Africans, like my family, got off too lightly. Theirs was a “picnic in a beautiful graveyard,” as Nadine Gordimerwrote.

.. They could say, “I never voted for torture!” and forget their complicity in South African policing by pigment — the segregated schools, the forced removal of blacks from their homes, the banishment of blacks to invisible townships of dust and drudgery.

..  A cry rises from young blacks directed at whites — “Expropriation without compensation!” It’s popular enough to have an acronym, “EWC.”
.. Yet most Jews went along with apartheid — by no means all, however, including several of Mandela’s lawyers. There are more bystanders than heroes in times of oppression. That’s part of the survival gene — even if humanity’s ultimate survival depends on the few who will resist.
.. Then I ask him if whites got off too easily.

“Mandela forgave them,” he says. “We must trust him. If the people who suffered most forgave, why shouldn’t we?” You feel no anger? “None whatsoever.”

.. Don’t worry, you’re 100, we’ll find that spoon thief. Their kind will not inherit the earth.

Beyond anger

Anger is the emotion that has come to saturate our politics and culture. Philosophy can help us out of this dark vortex

 .. Even when people acknowledge its destructive tendencies, they still so often cling to it, seeing it as a strong emotion, connected to self-respect and manliness (or, for women, to the vindication of equality). If you react to insults and wrongs without anger you’ll be seen as spineless and downtrodden. When people wrong you, says conventional wisdom, you should use justified rage to put them in their place, exact a penalty.
.. Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback.
.. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.
.. the angry person doesn’t need to wish to take revenge herself. She may simply want the law to do so; or even some type of divine justice. Or, she may more subtly simply want the wrongdoer’s life to go badly in future, hoping, for example, that the second marriage of her betraying spouse turns out really badly.
.. Whatever the wrongful act was – a murder, a rape, a betrayal – inflicting pain on the wrongdoer does not help restore the thing that was lost.
.. There is one, and I think only one, situation in which the payback idea does make sense. That is when I see the wrong as entirely and only what Aristotle calls a ‘down-ranking’: a personal humiliation, seen as entirely about relative status. If the problem is not the injustice itself, but the way it has affected my ranking in the social hierarchy, then I really can achieve something by humiliating the wrongdoer
.. Nelson Mandela. He often said that he knew anger well, and that he had to struggle against the demand for payback in his own personality. He reported that during his 27 years of imprisonment he had to practise a disciplined type of meditation to keep his personality moving forward and avoiding the anger trap. It now seems clear that the prisoners on Robben Island had smuggled in a copy of Meditations by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to give them a model of patient effort against the corrosions of anger.
.. So he did things, in that foul prison, that his fellow prisoners thought perverse. He learned Afrikaans. He studied the culture and thinking of the oppressors. He practised cooperation by forming friendships with his jailers. Generosity and friendliness were not justified by past deeds; but they were necessary for future progress.
.. When the ANC wanted to decertify the rugby team as a national team, correctly understanding the sport’s long connection to racism, Mandela, famously, went in the other direction, backing the rugby team to a World Cup victory and, through friendship, getting the white players to teach the sport to young black children. To the charge that he was too willing to see the good in people, he responded: ‘Your duty is to work with human beings as human beings, not because you think they are angels.’