Litmus Test

By Sheila Kennedy

[Originally published at on December 13, 2013]

Nelson Mandela
I’m not a fan of litmus tests, mostly because the world is a complicated place, and a person’s position on a single issue is unlikely to shed much light on that individual’s overall philosophical approach or analytical depth. 

But I think reactions to the death of Nelson Mandela come pretty close to giving us a window into a person’s worldview, if not his soul. 

In the late 1980’s, even prominent Republicans like Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich were acknowledging the injustice and brutality of Apartheid. Dick Cheney, however, continued to characterize the ANC as a terrorist organization and to insist that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist leader who belonged in jail. 

It’s one thing to be wrong about a contemporaneous situation; another to maintain a clearly erroneous position after everyone else in the world has recognized how wrong it is

The problem with people like Dick Cheney isn’t that they make dangerously bad judgment calls. It’s that they stubbornly cling to their initial opinions no matter how much evidence emerges to rebut them. They are incapable of admitting that they were wrong, and thus incapable of evolving and learning–the very capacity that makes us human. 

History will treat Nelson Mandela as the extraordinary human he was. 

History will not be kind to the self-important, self-serving, delusional and very small man named Dick Cheney.

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana's ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI's Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..