Archive for February, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

In 1994, Nelson Mandela ascended to the Presidency of South Africa. In a stunning turn-about, the Afrikaner government officially rescinded the myriad laws of apartheid. F. W. de Klerk stepped down. Not many predicted success. As Dutch and Huguenots relinquished a tight fisted grip on a white-over-black government, the man who had been held prisoner for twenty-seven years stepped into the Presidential office. He took the reins of power, and the world watched with considerable skepticism.

Racism in South Africa had been a brutal, centuries old reality.

The nation braced for reprisals and revenge as the black majority gained control of the state institutions – education, law enforcement, military, taxation, tariffs; the harbors and interstate highways and railroad rights of way and infrastructure maintenance. Fear gripped the white minority. Rage seethed barely beneath the surface over a political process that called democracy’s bluff.

Who would have thought that a rugby match could unite a divided nation? How could a fledgling band of also-rans emerge as victors in the World Cup?

We get something of a hint from this most recent Super Bowl. Most every prognosticator gave the odds to the Indianapolis Colts and their veteran quarterback, Peyton Manning. Students of the game pointed to his superior experience and leadership skill. Certainly the Colts would win the biggest football game of the year.

But not so fast. The sentimental favorite would be the New Orleans Saints. We all watched the devastation of Katrina’s fury. If we didn’t go ourselves, we know someone who traveled there to assist in the monumental cleanup. We wondered if Bourbon Street would ever again come alive to that distinct brand of jazz that made the French Quarter a perpetual celebration. In years past, the Saints came close, but had never once appeared in the Super Bowl, much less took home a victory.

The Saints came marching in a couple weeks ago. They came to win. When Drew Brees teared up while holding his one-year-old son Baylen, who wore a headset deigned to protect him from the ear-shattering noise, it was a picture of hope. The city itself emerged victorious in the glow of a Super Bowl win. And even those Peyton Manning fans had to acknowledge it – a victory to savor. It brought healing and belief to millions.

Fifteen years ago, François Pienaar assumed that the Mendela victory most probably signaled the end of the good life in South Africa, and perhaps the end of professional rugby altogether. When the call from the new President’s office came, Pienaar didn’t know what to say. As captain of South Africa’s Springbok team, he felt torn. It was an honor to be summoned by his country’s President. But, for his people, this President represented defeat – a threat to everything he valued. Over his own reservations, he responded to the call, and traveled to the Presidential suite.

Mandela had a challenge with his own supporters. They were determined to outlaw the game they considered to be a symbol of suppression and separatism. He personally blocked their efforts.

In the office of the President, one on one, Mandela challenged the Rugby captain. He spoke of leadership. The wisdom came from twenty-seven years of harsh imprisonment and dreaming of a world that was not but should be. He quoted the words that nourished him during hard days of labor and confinement; the words of William Ernest Henley. Invictus. Henley’s phrase, “my unconquerable soul” got him.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

François Pienaar expected to be informed that his sport would be eliminated from South African life. Instead, the new President affirmed his role as a shaper of destinies. Mandela knew that this rag-tag rough and tumble collection of athletes could pull the nation together like no one else could. He challenged the captain to go after the World Cup.

It is a true story. Clint Eastwood’s Invictus opens the window on Mandela’s first tumultuous year as unlikely President. Mandela is played by the legendary Morgan Freeman; Pienaar by Matt Damon. The new President’s improbable support of Pienaar’s team, the introduction of a black athlete to the formerly all white squad, and then, the fabled victory against all odds, tells the story of how victory on that playing field in the stadium and can tear down the walls that divide a nation.

In 1995, stunning a watching world, the South African Springboks defeated heavily favored New Zealand before their home crowd. They took the World Cup.

As the integrated crowd roared, Mandela handed Peinaar the prize. The first year Chief of State would become a beloved President, recognized and respected around the world.

And now, we settle in for the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

We will be a witness to more of the same.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp

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Monday, February 8, 2010

From time to time, certain words and phrases emerge in our media age and catch on, almost like hit songs on the pop charts or the latest ninety second video on YouTube.  Once obscure, coming from a more scholarly or literary source, the single word goes viral.  It catches on in print and on the air with an aura of sophistication, as though the writer or speaker is documenting in the narrative that he or she has indeed been matriculated in some elite graduate school.

An example emerged way back when G. W. Bush ran for his first term as President.  Everyone asked, “Yes, but does he possess the gravitas to be the President?”  I tried to uncover who was the first to use this high sounding noun: gravitas.  I never did identify the source.  Back then, it was a new word to most of us.  Not even my spell check would recognize “gravitas.”  But that has all changed.  It became a standard line.  Gravitas emerged a primary qualification for high office.  (Definition: seriousness, dignity)  My electronic dictionary soon included it, thanks to an Internet update to my software.

These days, the word “icon” has achieved similar status.  We tuned in to the Grammy Awards the other night, and I heard the word repeated again and again to describe musicians who achieved “iconic” status.  He is an “icon.”  They even had a segment called “Salute to Icons.”  But what is an icon?

Yes, thanks to WYSIWYG computing, we all know what an icon is.  We click on it to open a program or a folder or a file.  Every day.  What would we do without icons?

Simply stated, an icon is a symbol.

But before Bill Gates borrowed the term for his new graphical interface, it had a much broader meaning.  In fact, icons are largely responsible for the first major church split – East and West went their separate ways.  The resulting mega-factions of the emerging religion called Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church.  Icons were central to the debate that never got resolved between the two.  Rome had their statuary.  Constantinople had their icons.  Never the twain shall meet.

At the entrance of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (the old Constantinople) is the oldest extant image, a mosaic fresco, of Jesus Christ.  It stems from the Constantine era, at a time when it was an extreme controversy to attempt to reproduce an likeness of the Son of God.  Not only was it an exercise in speculation, fraught with the danger of misrepresentation, but many considered such a portrait to be a blatant violation of the Commandments handed down to Moses on Sinai; specifically, the prohibition against idolatry.  Icons were doubly offensive because, as was the custom in the ancient city, they were gilded in pure gold.  Theologians argued long and hard over the question.  Some postulated that the image was a simple aid to worship, and since it was a representation of Jesus, it was certainly not an “other god.”  But that did not satisfy horrified critics.  Idolatry was forbidden in any form.  Pure and simple.

The Eastern Church went back and forth on the question.  Some bishops accepted the proliferation of “icons” as fine art and objects of adoration, reminders of the saints who had gone before and modeled purity and piety.  But others wagged and clucked their tongues and warned of harsh judgment.   It was the “iconoclastic controversy.”

The Eastern Church eventually accepted icons as an essential part of community life.  In the absence of written books, biblical stories would be preserved and told in a series of iconic imagery.  Heroes of the faith would be remembered from generation to generation.  Bright colors and gold edges enhanced the remembrance, and made houses of worship seem sacred.  Holy ground.

I cringe a bit when I hear rock stars and country legends called icons.  Even Mick Fleetwood.  But it goes further.  On the news, a way to pay tribute at the passing of a nearly forgotten celebrity is to call him or her an icon.  “An icon of the civil rights era…”  “An icon of literary moment…”  “An icon of the industrial age…” Well, you get the idea.

I prefer legend.  Or even luminary.  Or star.  Then are the variations on the star theme – mega-star; super-star.  We are a nation enraptured by the superlative.

But “icon” goes beyond hyperbole.  It connotes adoration.  Worship.  The sacred.

It really ought to be reserved for just that.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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