What do these three titans of spirituality and political prominence have in common? Well, let’s see. Nelson Mandela is a man of extraordinary personal integrity, a leader who suffered 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, humiliated at the hands of the white ruling class in his native South Africa who ruled their dark-skinned subjects with the casual cruelty and utter contempt of sociopaths. Mandela emerged from exile and hard labour with his ideals for a just society intact, and was either devoid of the “natural” human desire for vengeance and retribution or was able to override it with reason and compassion. He stands, perhaps alone in the world, as an exemplar of the philosopher king – although not quite, as he didn’t aspire to kingship, but rather to something far greater. He didn’t stand on anyone’s shoulders, but lifted everyone else up instead.
The Dalai Lama is a curious case study in what happens when a man who inherited his role as spiritual and temporal leader of a people who traditionally blurred the distinction between the two jobs, a pampered prodigy who expected only to serve out his life in the gilded cage designed to house his alleged gifts in Lhasa, was confronted with the real-world catastrophe of China’s territorial ambitions. At the age of 19, as his country was overrun by the Han Chinese, a people fired up with the sense that their new political system deserved to range further than their traditional borders, and that anyone who stood in their way – particularly a poor and backward people who allowed themselves to be ruled by a feudal remnant like the Dalai Lama whose head was in the clouds as his subjects either drove cattle over barren terrain to add dollops of yak butter to their diet of barley and stone soup or immured themselves behind the walls of their cliff-top monasteries worshiping dragon-faced deities instead of men of progress and 5-year plans, deserved, nay begged, to be scythed, chased, shot or otherwise brought to heel.
In 1959 the Dalai Lama, the scales fallen from his eyes, horrified at the cruelty and devastation wrought on his people, understanding that there was simply no way to push back the Chinese army, leapt into action, forsaking the serenity of his home in Lhasa, and led thousands of his people over the Hymalayas into India, seeking respite for the Tibetans who had followed him and a temporary home base from the Indian government. In the more than fifty years that have gone by since then, he has always and without exception, and entirely in keeping with his Buddhist beliefs, worked to maintain civil communication with the occupying Chinese. Despite his best efforts, most Chinese believe him to be a wily despot using honeyed words and manipulating international sympathies to further his ambition to wrest Tibet back from the Chinese and reimpose a feudal structure in that land.
In the face of opprobrium, contempt, and continued assaults on the language, culture, and faith of the Tibetan people jailed and harried in their own country, the Dalai Lama remains as disciplined as he was trained to be from the age of 4, as optimistic, kind, and stalwart in the belief that compromise and harmony are possible, and that revenge and mutual suspicion are losing propositions.
So what about Mitt Romney? What do we know about him, and what will history have to say about him someday? How does he stack up against Mandela and the Dalai Lama? Right, it probably isn’t fair to lump in this Mormon bishop and titan of commerce, this American presidential contender operating within the necessarily compromised rules of modern politics in an era of ideological attrition. And yet, even within the realm of US politics there remain pockets of idealism, slim openings for daring thinkers to say the magic words needed to raise a people up, rather than drag them further into the mud.
So far, things aren’t looking good for Mr. Romney. We don’t need even to touch upon his conservative religious background, or refer to the criticisms levelled at his faith, the disdain in which it is held if for nothing more than its comparatively recent entry into the religious encyclopedia. We won’t hold the accident of his birth into a culture against him any more than we will against the Dalai Lama or any other religious figure. But what of his enthusiastic embrace of heartless capitalism, the kind that venerates shareholder value above the productive lives of its workers? Okay, that too is a matter of debate. But what seems clear up to now is that Mitt Romney has not yet shown the kind of leadership that transcends politics, that elevates and inspires humanity, that seeks compromise and reason over personal ambition.
It probably isn’t fair to throw any contemporary politician in the moral and ethical ring with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. These two are outliers, hardly representative of typical human behaviour. And yet they are both only human, just like Romney, and Obama, and all the rest of us. They’ve shown us what can be done, and they’re in the public eye, not obscured by history or hidden away in Da Vinci’s code. We all get to watch them, and learn from them, and hope someone dares take up their mantle.