Bob Dole once made a droll crack to the New York Times about Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House. “Gingrich’s staff has these five file cabinets, four big ones and this little tiny one,” Dole said. “Number one is ‘Newt’s ideas.’ Number two, ‘Newt’s ideas.’ Number three, number four, ‘Newt’s ideas.’ The little one is ‘Newt’s Good Ideas.’”
Here’s one from Gingrich’s little file: he has been pushing back against some of the more thoughtless conservative reactions to the death of Nelson Mandela. The backlash has ranged from the merely tone-deaf—think of Rick Santorum drawing comparisons between Obamacare and apartheid—to the morally obtuse.
Gingrich issued a statement entitled “What Would You Have Done? Nelson Mandela and American Conservatives.” Like most of his commentary, it’s not entirely sound—but in this case, it’s worth taking seriously.
“Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country,” he argued. “After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.”
“As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny,” Gingrich continued. “We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.”
Newt didn’t flinch from the c-word, noting that Mandela “turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.”
“In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government,” Gingrich observed, “you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.”
He might as well have mentioned the help received from Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in defeating Hitler.
Interestingly enough, some liberals display this sort of myopia when discussing the Founding Fathers. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, full stop. Nothing else to see here. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are irredeemably tainted, and that is where the conversation should end.
The Founders’ sins are worthy topics of discussion that should not be whitewashed out of American history. But neglecting the context of the times, the specific injustices they fought, the institutions they built, and the principles they imperfectly embodied is ideologically motivated malpractice.
Similarly, it is right to point out that many fawning Mandela obituaries ignore the injustices he tolerated himself, his kind words for terrorists and dictators, the violence of the ANC toward blacks as well as whites, even the sins of post-apartheid South Africa and the virtues of the country before it was transformed. But any reference to these things that neglects or minimizes the injustices of apartheid is woefully incomplete—and unlikely to result in a meaningful dialogue about the very facts such contrarian commentary hopes to expose.
The right tends to have one of two responses to figures like Mandela abroad or Martin Luther King, Jr. at home: suggest their radicalism is more important than the struggles of the people they championed or to try to claim them as conservatives. Neither approach will do.
The lack of empathy many white conservatives feel toward communities of color may not be the only barrier between the right and minorities. But it is an important barrier.
Many conservatives who have been supportive of civil-rights struggles overseas err in another direction: expressing their concern through bombing and sanctions, as if the people and their leaders live in separate hermetically sealed containers. Condoleezza Rice once compared the war in Iraq and the fight against Jim Crow, an analogy that may strike many Iraqi refugees as inapt.
Conservatism at its best has an appreciation for human nature, including a realistic assessment of man’s inhumanity to man. That means attempting to conform to a just moral order while realizing that history isn’t always a simple morality tale.
At the very least, it’s a thought worth saving in Newt’s good ideas file.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?