Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gandhi and other saints

Salman Rushdie is one of my favorite writers. Although, like Virginia Woolf, one of my other favorite writers, sometimes I like his essays more than I like his novels, probably because they make me think.

His review of the film Gandhi in Imaginary Homelands "Attenborough's Gandhi" really made me think. The implications of the essay have been with me for quite some time. The essay itself is so good I'm tempted to just quote all of it, but I'll restrain myself. Rushdie asks the question of why the British would want to deify Gandhi and then answers himself.

The answer may be that Gandhi ... satisfies certain longings in the Western psyche, which can be categorized under three broad headings. First, the exotic impulse, the wish to see India as the fountainhead of spiritual-mystical wisdom. Gandhi, the celluloid guru, follows in the footsteps of other pop holy men. The Maharishi blazed this trail. Second, there is what might be termed the Christian longing, for a 'leader' dedicated to ideals of poverty and simplicity, a man who is too good for this world and is therefore sacrificed on the altars of history. And third, there is the liberal-conservative political desire to hear it said that revolutions can, and should, be made purely by submission, and self-sacrifice, and non-violence alone.

The most interesting point, to me, was the third point. Because it sounded quite familiar. Isn't that what we learn in elementary school when we learn about Gandhi? It's a simplistic story, but it's one that's been fed to schoolkids in America for decades. And often the story that we hear is the one that Rushdie cites, that through non-violence, and shall we call it submission, the civil rights movement or Indian independence, or whatever struggle of your choice, was accomplished. What kind of effect has this had on our thinking? On the strategies of activists? It seems slightly conspiracy theorist-ish but really, does the American education system choose to valorize this type of thinking on purpose so that when the masses rebel they're easier to squash?

The message of Gandhi is that the best way to gain your freedom is to line up, unarmed, and march towards your oppressors and permit them to club you to the ground; if you do this for long enough, you will embarrass them into going away. This is worse than nonsense. It is dangerous nonsense. Non-violence was a strategy chosen for a particular people against a particular oppressor; to generalize from it is a suspect act. How useful would non-violence have been against, say, the Nazis? Even in India, the leaders of the independence movement did not succeed because they were more moral than the British. They won because they were smarter, craftier, better fighting politicians than their opponents. Gandhi shows us a saint who vanquished an Empire. This is a fiction.

Rushdie's discussion of Gandhi puts me in mind of America's treatment of Martin Luther King. Their stories are remarkably similar if you think about it. Men dedicated to nonviolence who were assassinated by someone. Both of them had rather significant character flaws, but were later sanctified by history. This seems like a variant on The Noble Savage. The native nobly demonstrates his dedication to a strict set of ideals, which which results in his death at the hands of his own people. And in the end the white man survives to tell his story, The Last Samurai is an excellent example of this.

This is not to say that Gandhi and Martin Luther King themselves would have advocated this. But after their deaths, their images have been manipulated in order to fit this model of martyrdom. Whereas revolutionaries who advocate violence, such as Malcolm X, or Nelson Mandela are not handled with the same ease. They make people nervous, and generally they find acceptance only by their late conversion to nonviolence. Why mus all good revolutionaries be nonviolent?

What does this mean for us exactly? I think it raises some interesting questions on how we've been taught to think about acceptable resistance. For example, most left wing activists use peaceful means of self expression. How much of this is due to the rhetoric of nonviolence? Maybe we should rethink how we think about resistance and the struggle and how we intend to go about this.

1 comment:

exangelena said...

Well, I'm not any good at identity politics or the humanities in general, but I would guess that using violence, except in self-defense, taints the justice of one's cause. If you're fighting for something just - and it's widely acknowledged today that Gandhi and King fought for just causes - then somehow it seems much less just if you go out and hurt someone (two wrongs don't make a right).
I mean, I guess that terrorists of all stripes think it's ok to kill someone if you think that what they're doing is extremely wrong, but many people, including those who agree with them in their ideals, do not condone lawbreaking or violent acts. For example, most anti-abortion activists generally oppose murdering doctors or bombing clinics, even though they oppose what the clinics and doctors do.