Bad Takes: We should celebrate Desmond Tutu's whole legacy, not just the parts that feel comfortable

Desmond Tutu speaks in Germany in 2007. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / ELKE WETZIG
Wikimedia Commons / Elke Wetzig
Desmond Tutu speaks in Germany in 2007.
Bad Takes is a periodic column of opinion and political analysis.

"The cure for Los Angeles is in South Africa. You motherfuckers need truth and reconciliation with one another. Because the end of apartheid should have been a bloodbath by any metric in human history, and it wasn't. The only reason it wasn't is because Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and others figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system and are incentivized by that system are not criminals, they are victims. And the system itself must be tried. But because how systems work is so compartmentalized as far as information, the only way we can figure out what the system is is if everybody says what they did."— Dave Chappelle, "The Bird Revelation," 2017

I had the privilege of hearing Desmond Tutu speak when he visited San Antonio in the autumn of 1999. He died of cancer the day after Christmas in Cape Town, South Africa, where he had served as Archbishop of the Anglican Church for 35 of his 90 years. His funeral was New Year's Day, allowing time for mourners to pay their respects to one of humanity's most revered nonviolent freedom fighters. 

During his talk at Trinity University, what stood out most for me was his zeal for restorative justice as opposed to retribution, and how greatly such a message contrasted with the bipartisan "tough on crime" consensus that still predominates American life. His characteristic magnanimity, both preached and practiced, contibuted vitally to bringing shame, and then defeat, to the brutal South African regime of racial segregation known as apartheid — or "apart-hate", as he preferred to pronounce it. Already a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, he would cast a ballot for the first time in the land of his birth in 1994 at the age of 63. 

Tutu, an excellent dancer, was also generous with his high-pitched laugh and Peter Sellers grin and had a talent for rolling his Rs that any Spanish speaker could envy. But thinking back on his jocose manner should not cause us to forget just how biting his criticisms often were.

Take his opinion of President Ronald Reagan. "Your president is much more interested in helping Republicans to be reelected than in ending the bloodshed," Tutu said in 1985 after meeting with Reagan to persuade him to impose sanctions on South Africa. "He has no real interest in the welfare of Blacks. He has really been saying Blacks are expendable. I said in an interview last week he was a crypto-racist. I think I should say now he is a racist, pure and simple."

If Tutu was in solidarity with Black Lives Matter before it was cool, he was also a proponent of LGBTQI equality well before majority opinion caught up. "I would reject Jesus if he was amongst those who wanted to exclude people because of their sexual orientation," he stated unequivocally. "Because I know that my Jesus would be there with those who are ostracized, who are treated as if they were rubbish."

Nor did his advanced years diminish his candor. An outspoken defender of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Tutu wrote in 2014, "Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of 'normalcy' in Israeli society, are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo. The pursuit of freedom for the people of Palestine from humiliation and persecution by the policies of Israel is a righteous cause."

As I write, a Palestinian businessman in Houston has taken the state of Texas to court over his right to express similar support for the Palestinian cause, submitting Texas' ban on BDS boycotts to constitutional review.

Right now, it's also illegal for any Texas teacher to read the following quote from Tutu aloud in a public school classroom. 

"The superior can have a callous disregard for others, easily justifying the unjust dispensations from which they benefited so much. Our white compatriots — all of you, all of you — have to accept what is so obvious: you all benefited from apartheid. We don't say you supported it, but just the fact of your being white — your children went to good schools, you lived in posh suburbs. And yet so many of our white compatriots get very upset when you say so. Why? Some are crippled by a sense of shame and guilt. They deal with it by self-justification or just indifference. Both attitudes are responsible for our being less than what we can be."

Not only is calling out white privilege often met with backlash in our society too, but teaching that an individual, simply by virtue of their race, might bear historical responsibility for benefiting from an unjust system of racial subordination explicitly violates Texas' controversial anti-Critical Race Theory law that took effect in early December.

Tutu also called out President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair as war criminals who should be "made to answer for their actions in the Hague" when it came to the invasion of Iraq. The South African cleric agitated for a wealth tax, staunchly opposed capital punishment and drone warfare, and in an era in which young climate activists are castigated to stay quiet, he reminded us that so much of the progress we take for granted would not have transpired without students across the globe demanding justice.

So, amidst all the perfunctorily fond remembrances in the media for Tutu, let's not settle for a sanitized caricature of a radical egalitarian. To express fidelity to the vision he dedicated his life to — a world where we don't waste trillions of dollars on weapons of war while children starve — we should instead ask, what can we who also aspire to build a multi-racial democracy in intensely polarized times learn from his moral example today?

First, perhaps we should take away that "violence begets violence" is little more than a fortune-cookie wisdom if our analysis doesn't begin with addressing systemic cruelties. Before we condemn the sporadic rioting that ensued in the wake of the George Floyd's murder, for example, we ought to first condemn the quotidian violence of police brutality that assaulted far too many peaceful protesters

Second, we must challenge ourselves to empathize and forgive. To forgive to the limits of our ability, to confess those limits in hopes that we too may be forgiven our own inadequacy — that was the essence of the Archbishop's Christianity which even the most devout of atheists can learn from.

What would it mean to create a politics that held every person, even the worst and most guilty among us, to be of infinite worth? What would it mean to never give up on anyone?

We should acknowledge that this dimension of forgiveness and reconciliation has been notably lacking from recent and otherwise valiant campaigns to raise our standards of decency. That's why I opened this column with an excerpt from an artist whose anti-trans views I find repugnant.

Desmond Tutu had every reason to never again speak to a white South African, yet he broke bread with them, ministered to them and marched with them. It is rare indeed for a soul as beautiful and brilliant as his to attain much influence, but the planet he leaves behind is a better place because he lived and loved us.

Selections from Tutu's speeches and interviews are available online from Democracy Now. Please consider making a donation.

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