America is a nation that loves heroes.
The recent death of South African leader Nelson Mandela spawned an outpouring of tributes from President Obama to the average American on the street. Mandela first led a decades-long fight to end apartheid in South Africa and then headed that nation in its democratic infancy with wisdom and compassion.
Mandela's death sparked an almost forgotten allure toward hero worship. That was once reserved for outstanding Americans, who epitomized Americans' understanding of history and heroism. In this context, our president led the way. At his funeral on Tuesday, Obama spoke of Mandela's "heroic life."
"His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy."
Even before Mandela's death, Obama had described him on many occasions as both a personal and historic hero. When the South African leader first took ill in late March, the president stated: "He's a hero I think to all of us."
In the preamble of a book written in the early 1890s by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge entitled Hero Tales from American History, the authors wrote of the importance of admiring champions of democratic ideals.
"It is a good thing for all Americans, and it is an especially good thing for young Americans, to remember the men who have given their lives in war and peace to the service of their fellow-countrymen, and to keep in mind the feats of daring and personal prowess done in time past by some of the many champions of the nation in the various crises of her history."
In the 21st century, where much of the world still lives in economic hopelessness and under dictatorial rule, many Americans still consider it our responsibility to bring liberty to those subrogated under tyranny.
Mandela is one the few modern statesmen who deserve to be called a "giant of history," a true hero both in Roosevelt's and Lodge's American meaning and even in the mythological Greek "god" sense. Newt Gingrich probably stated it best upon Mandela's death that he "will be an inspiration for generations to come and an historic leader worth studying for as long as people want to learn about greatness in serving others."
And after drawing criticism from the far right for that remark, Gingrich went on to compare Mandela to George Washington and Patrick Henry.
"Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that 'all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' Doesn't this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?"
A lesson to be taken by 21st century Americans from the life and death of Nelson Mandela is that we must not only carry on our traditional commitment to fight for freedom for others, but to recognize those who fight to preserve our freedoms here at home, too.
For example, Edward Snowden, who unmasked the NSA, may in fact be a new American patriot in the sense that Roosevelt and Lodge wrote about. Viewing Snowden's actions in the context of Mandela's life, is there really much difference between the two?
The truth is that in this country, our President, most members of Congress, and many business leaders preach the same virtues as Mandela while they work to erode the liberties Mandela espoused.
To preserve an evolving American economy that exploits cheap labor (foreign or domestic) and where business trusts merge with political oligarchies, there's really not much difference in using the threat of terrorism to decrease personal liberties than there was when the scourge of communism was used by the South African government to justify apartheid.
The legacy of Mandela for Americans should be to serve as a model for some good old-fashioned American heroes to preserve our diminishing democracy in this country.
This article was published in Context Florida on December 11, 2013