Mandela’s Memorial Was All About Us

How do you pitch a foreign funeral to a nation of Homer Simpsons?
Manufacture America-centered controversy.

Nelson Mandela’s public memorial service was held Tuesday in a vast stadium in Johannesburg. Leaders from all over the globe attended, and several of them spoke about Mandela, his significance in history, and how his life inspired people around the world.

The mood was generally upbeat, more like a New Orleans jazz funeral or an Irish wake than the somber kind of remembrance. But still you can imagine Homer Simpson pointing his remote at the TV and announcing his judgment: “BOR-ing.” A day devoted to some dead guy on the other side of the world and the stuff he did in some other century? Where’s the drama?

Khrushchev and Kennedy

So instead American news networks made the story all about us: The big news out of Johannesburg wasn’t anything about Mandela, it was President Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro.

To me, it looked like one of those awkward running-into-your-ex’s-new-boyfriend moments you might have at a wedding reception, and Obama handled it graciously. He’s shaking hands as he makes his way to the podium and suddenly there’s Castro, so Obama just keeps shaking hands like it’s no big deal.

Nice save, Mr. O.

Except — OMG!!!! — he’s shaking hands with Raul Castro! Rev up the outrage machine. It’s, like, Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler or something!

Mao and Nixon

For the everything-Obama-does-is-an-outrage crowd, two bizarre ideas are at work: First, that Cuba’s government is something special among dictatorships, and second, that until now American presidents have maintained a hands-that-hold-whips-shall-never-hold-mine purity standard when it comes to tyrants.

The first point is best left to comedians like Jon Stewart:

[singing] Raul Castro is not Adolf Hitler. [/singing] … Raul Castro is not even Fidel. He’s like Cuba’s Jim Belusi. … And by the way, Cuba’s not the only country with a spotty record of imprisoning people in Cuba.

Second, not only is there a long history of American leaders meeting and greeting Communist dictators — Nixon and Mao, Kennedy and Khrushchev, and Nixon even gave Brezhnev a Lincoln Town Car — but we also have a long history of supporting some of the world’s most brutal dictators: Stalin was our ally in World War II, and who can forget such friends-of-America as the Shah of Iran, the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, General Pinochet in Chile, Saddam Hussein, or even the current regime in Turkmenistan?

So the only thing outrageous here is the outrage. When it comes to tyrants, America’s hands haven’t been clean for at least a century.

The other Obama-outrage from the funeral was this picture:

So here’s Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron taking a selfie with some red-hot blonde described by The Daily Mail as “flirty” and by the New York Post as a “Danish tart”. Fox News couldn’t stop chortling. The Post decided Obama-and-the-white-chick was a front-page scandal.

Who’s the mystery vixen? Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark, a country where neither blondes nor powerful women are so rare as to make headlines. The selfie is of three world leaders, not Obama and some blonde.

I’m not sure what’s worse: The racist where-the-white-women-at angle or the sexist who’s-that-slut angle. What’s a girl gotta do to get some respect?

On Michelle’s apparently disapproving expression, Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta offered a more mundane explanation:

[It’s] the look of a person with jetlag who flew halfway around the world overnight, spent four hours at a hotel early in the morning, and then had to go to a memorial service.”

Maybe that explains Laura Bush’s similarly sour expression when her man had a similarly animated conversation with an attractive female world leader, Jordan’s Queen Rania. (Oddly, that triangle drew virtually no international media attention.)

Salon’s Roxane Gay finds a race/gender issue in the media’s focus on and interpretation of that one image of Michelle (as opposed to others where she seems to be having a good time):

More than anything, the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry. The black woman is ever at the ready to aggressively defend her territory. She is making her disapproval known. She never gets to simply be.

Ted Cruz walked a fine line in Johannesburg. On the one hand, he wanted to appear statesmanlike on the world stage. But earlier in the week he got stung by his supporters when he tried to be gracious to Mandela on his Facebook page. So Cruz made his own Cuba moment Tuesday by walking out during Castro’s speech. Because that’s what the memorial services of great peacemakers are for: expressing your disapproval of the other mourners.

PolicyMic points out how differently the memorial might have been covered, even if you wanted an America-centric angle. The Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas all traveled together on Air Force One. Pictures suggest they got along and were even chummy. But again, where’s the drama in that? BOR-ing.

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  • Kenneth Sutton  On December 16, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Thank you for finding that photo of the Bushes and Queen Rania. Wonder what the event was, because Archbishop Tutu looks bored.


  • By Constructs | The Weekly Sift on December 16, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    […] Featured posts this week are “White Santa, White Jesus, White Christmas” and “Mandela’s Memorial Service Was All About Us“. […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2013 | The Weekly Sift on December 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    […] wasn’t just history that put race on the agenda. We also had the Zimmerman trial and verdict. Nelson Mandela died. The Supreme Court let Jim Crow out of his cage, and the former Confederate states seized their […]

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