Friday, December 6, 2013

Remember the Man, not the Icon

I found it interesting that both the Associated Press (in an article that appeared on the ABC7 News Web site) and the San Francisco Chronicle invoked the noun "icon" in reporting the death of Nelson Mandela, the latter drawing upon what may have been the largest font size the could muster. As one who has probably spent more time studying semiotics that was good for me, I have to say that I am acutely sensitive to the danger of confusing the signifier with the signified. In our own country we have often tended to allow our knowledge of the actions taken by Martin Luther King to be displaced by undue attention to the image. Earlier generations would have called this idol-worship; and, in many religious practices, "icon" is a working synonym (or, perhaps, a euphemism) for "idol." My guess is that Mandela staunchly resisted all forms of idolatry, whether they had to do with faith, politics, or simply deciding to follow a leader. As a result, he became a model for the philosophy of leading by your own actions; and I hope that at least a few of the ensuing memorial pieces will place those actions at the focal point they deserve.

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