12/08/2013 05:42 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

St. Madiba and the Curse of Canonization

When Nelson "Madiba" Mandela came to New York the first time we met, he exuded charisma combined with a rare modesty. He chuckled when I told him that he was responsible for my current career path, since a group of us were suspended and expelled from Liverpool University for occupying the Senate House in protest against the university's investments in South Africa. It was indeed edifying to be, in no matter how small a way, a comrade in arms of such a palpably heroic figure.

However, my skin crawled as I listened to the portentous yet vacuous platitudes that surrounded the announcement of his death. Once dead and canonized, our heroes' real lives fly out the window. Neither the media nor the public have time for feet of clay at the opposite end from the shimmering halo round the head. This cartoonish "goodies and baddies" view of the world is an understandable human foible, but it does become creepy when politicians and other public figures try to usurp the benign energy of those whom they would have had reviled, imprisoned, or even killed while they were alive.

British politicians revered Gandhi, after fighting his struggle for independence and locking him up. People speak unctuously of his passive resistance without mentioning that it was the British government, not least the equally revered Winston Churchill, whom he was resisting, who interned him during the war against fascism.

In the U.S. those who fought most bitterly against the socialist, anti-Vietnam subversive strike leader Martin Luther King once had nightmares but now, wow, they too have a dream. They even overlook King's philandering, just as they tend to forget that we know about his affairs because the genuinely reptilianly evil Edgar J Hoover was on his case.

Mandela's eulogies and epitaphs highlight what an awful curse it is to be canonized! You give your life for a cause, and then find your life distorted, rewritten and usurped to support people and causes that you reviled.

He was a charismatic, charming, humble, inclusive and forgiving leader who was prepared to embrace the former enemy and bring peace and progress. But forgiveness should not be confused with forgetfulness. He might even have been somewhat too forgiving of the behavior of his friends Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi at home. But gratitude is a virtue no less than courage, and being locked up for decades and oppressed for a lifetime surely enhances ones appreciation of those who supported you. It could equally incline you to doubt the moral authority of regimes like Washington's that puts you on a terrorism watch list.
Landing in Washington at an airport named after Ronald Reagan could easily make anyone question the good faith of a country that canonizes the president who crashed the economy, unwound the New Deal, traded with Iran to back the Contras and backed the Apartheid regime to the hilt.

The media eulogized the saintly Mandela, and imbued him retrospectively with an absolute commitment to non-violence, but it could not be farther from the truth. The Liberation leader did indeed advocate respect for the results of elections -- once the oppressed had been enfranchised, but he was actually the leader of an armed resistance group whose mandate was to force those elections upon the minority. Mandela's commitment to the Palestinians, like that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is rarely mentioned by the usual suspects because they cannily appreciate that any mud they throw at such towering figures is more likely to splash back at them, and more likely to bring attention to his views. All those commentators intoning platitudes about Nelson Mandela would be the first to join the ritual stoning of and casting out as "anti-Israel" any African American politician who had the temerity to support international law in the Middle East.

In that sense, Saint Madiba was indeed anti-Israel, and perhaps one reason that no one called him on it is that in doing so it might have brought up issues which are considered best buried. Mandela knew that Israel broke international sanctions on Apartheid, was the main conduit for laundering and cutting blood diamonds from South Africa and armed the regime there -- right up to an including nuclear weaponry.

Mandela was a giant of a statesman, whose passing leaves us with pigmies at the helm of most countries. But when someone dies after giving a lifetime to humanity, we should at least pay them the respect of addressing what they said, even if we disagree with them.