Coates on judging Mandela and South:
There was a well-reported piece in the Times a few days ago on the disappointment that's followed Mandela's presidency. A similar note has been sounded in seemingly every obit and article concerning Mandela's death. It's not so much that these stories shouldn't be written, it's that they shouldn't treated the subject as though a man were biting a dog. That people are shocked that South Africa, almost 20 years out of apartheid, is struggling with fairness and democracy, reflects a particular ignorance, a particular blindness, and a peculiar lack of humility, about our own struggles.
On the great issue of the day, the generations that followed George Washington offered not just disappointment but betrayal. "The unfortunate condition of the people whose labors I in part employed," Washington wrote, "has been the only unavoidable subject of regret." Americans did not simply tolerate this "unfortunate condition," they turned it into the cornerstone of the American economic system. By 1860, 60 percent of all American exports came from cotton produced by slave labor. "Property in man" was, according to Yale historian David Blight, worth some $3.5 billion more than "all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together."
In short order, Washington's slaveholding descendants went from evincing skepticism about slavery to calling it "a positive good" and "a great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." And they did this while plundering and raiding this continent's aboriginal population. For at least its first 100 years, or perhaps longer, this country was a disappointment, an experiment which—by its own standards of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—failed miserably. America is not unique. It is the product of imperfect humans. As is South Africa. That people turn to the country of Nelson Mandela and wonder why it hasn't magically transformed itself into a perpetual font of milk and honey is a symptom of our blindness to our common humanity.