Nelson Mandela, from a terrorist to hero. The menace of the media in the service of government

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The legacy of Nelson Mandela includes a lesson much greater than the events of his amazing life. It illustrates the dangers posed to an unquestioning public by government-media alliances.

The subject of enormous adulation today, Mandela was condemned in the press 40 and 50 years ago as dangerous and subversive. The press did this in the service of governments that it should have investigated, not embraced.

Former South African president and former prison inmate Mandela passed away at the age of 95. Politicians and the media in the United States across the political spectrum poured praise on Mandela, calling him one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. Ironically, Mandela was once vilified. He and his African National Congress were placed on a terror watch list by the Reagan Administration. Future Vice President Dick Cheney, then a congressman, voted against a 1985 resolution demanding Mandela’s release from prison.

Mandela is not unique in his transformation from villain to hero; history is filled with examples of people who have risen from pariah to quasi-saint.

One of America’s most revered figures, Martin Luther King Jr., was roundly condemned by the press only one year before his assassination in 1968. He was especially unpopular with America’s political establishment after his criticism of the Vietnam War in his infamous “A Time to Break Silence” speech, delivered at New York’s Riverside Church. In that address, he labeled the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

After that speech, King, who had enjoyed relatively good relations with the media, became the target of a vicious smear campaign. Time magazine, which dedicated a cover story to King this year, had called King’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post piled on, saying that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and to his people.”

At King’s denunciation of the war, President Lyndon Johnson promptly uninvited the civil rights leader to the White House. For years after his death, until President Reagan signed Martin Luther King Day into law in 1983, politicians such as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms expressed opposition to the proposed holiday because King espoused “action-oriented Marxism.” Like Mandela, King met with opposition and reproach for his calls against unconscionable prevailing orthodoxy. Like Mandela, King is now revered. What changed?

Given the early treatment of King and Mandela, might we expect the eventual public rehabilitation of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden? Are they terrorists in pursuit of undermining American security, or are they, like King and Mandela, people of conscience called to greater suffering for a higher purpose?

Wikileaks founder Assange has been confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, unable to leave for fear that he will be arrested. Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley), will have passed half of her life in prison after being prosecuted for releasing classified documents to Wikileaks. Edward Snowden surrendered the comfort of his tropical home and girlfriend in Hawaii for the uncertainty of foreign asylum and the certainty of U.S. prosecution for exposing covert NSA surveillance programs.

Like Mandela and King, Assange, Manning, and Snowden have been the targets of personal attacks and accusations of subversion. The similarities of circumstance between Mandela, King, and the three current pariahs raises some questions: First, as a country, are we doomed to repeat our mistakes of the past — condemning people based upon the government’s fear-mongering characterization of them; and second, having responded with the knee-jerk reaction of “shooting the messenger,” how much time will pass before we are able to recognize the contribution and sacrifice of whistleblowers and activists?

Mandela leaves behind a rich legacy of self-sacrifice in a cause bigger than himself. Like King, he was smeared in the press, abused by the political elite, and labeled a subersive, a communist, and a threat to human decency. Both men are now revered as heroes. As Mark Twain explains, “In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

The largest lessons of the Mandelas and Kings of the world are yet to be realized: a call to citizens everywhere to think for themselves, acting on conscience and trusting in one’s own thoughtful conclusions over government or media indoctrination, for the betterment of all.

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