The news: As you're probably aware, internationally beloved former South African President Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid freedom fighter and the first black leader of the formerly segregated nation, passed away on Thursday at the age of 95.
And as the hagiography machine goes into action, many have been cautious to remind us to avoid misportraying his legacy. As Professor Omid Safi at Religion News Service writes, much like posthumous representations of Malcom X, there's a real risk of "whitewashing their radical prophetic legacy into nonthreatening champions of 'reconciliation,'" and encourages us to instead celebrate Mandela the radical and Mandela the radical foregiver, as well as refuse to forget Western colonial powers' complicity in keeping him in prison in South Africa for decades. (British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, infamously derided the freedom fighter's African National Congress as a "typical terrorist organization.")
But even the worst extreme right-wing white-washing of his legacy, streamlined to remove his criticisms of the West and colonial power structures, pale in comparison to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In a Facebook post to his supporters, the blood-soaked dictator's regime called Mandela's life a lesson to tyrants.
The post called Mandela "an inspiration in the values of love and human brotherhood."
"His history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world, in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers."
Assad, of course, is responsible for over 100,000 deaths in his country during an unspeakably brutal civil war in which regime forces have used chemical weapons against insurgents and the surrounding civilian population.
Wow. Yep. What a jerk.
Does Assad get the irony? Probably not. Perhaps The Onion said it best in a satirical op-ed written from the perspective of the tyrant taunting President Obama:
"I'll leave you with this: I am insane. Not insane enough to generate worldwide unanimity that I cannot remain in charge of my own country. That would make this a lot easier. No, unfortunately, I'm just sane and stable enough to remain in power and devise cunning military and political strategies while at the same time adhering to a standard of morality that only the most perverse and sociopathic among us would be capable of adopting. But nevertheless, I am insane, so do with that information what you will."
Most dictators believe at least some of the roots of their own propaganda. Hitler probably didn't believe in every anti-Jewish slur and accusation that escaped from his vile mouth, but he was still a rabid anti-Semite. Likewise, Assad is doubtless complicit in covering up unjustifiable, horrific atrocities committed against both insurgents and his own citizens, but he probably genuinely believes he's the freedom fighter holding back a tide of radical jihadis from taking over his country - that he is the one defending the "vulnerable" from the "oppressors and aggressors."
And dictatorial regimes, who have little inclination to speak to anyone but their own loyalists, aren't adverse to putting on the blinders and doubling down on ridiculous, logic-free rhetoric. As Der Spiegel wrote in October, Assad's tyranny is uniquely tuned to the modern world, with full P.R. teams churning out fabricated reports of "acts of terror against Christians, al-Qaeda's rise to power and the imminent destabilization of the entire region." Those reports eventually filter out to the Western media, by which time it's very hard if not impossible to disseminate truth from propaganda. (And of course the rebels have their own less sophisticated operation.)
But that facade began to fade after the regime's use of chemical weapons was revealed. Today, even stalwart Syrian ally Russia is eyeing the possibility of a future without Assad.