Friday, February 20, 2009

Gandhi He is Not.

This month, Martin Luther King III, leading a delegation of prominent civil rights leaders, retraced the Indian path that his father traveled in 1959. King Jr. went to India to learn methods of nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi before taking these lessons back to America and leading one of the most successful nonviolent campaigns in history. 

King III's trip was described recently in a Washington Post article. At the end, the article discusses the nonviolent struggles of Gandhi and King being continued by Barack Obama. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga), a leader during the civil rights movement, was quoted as saying, "Many years ago, Gandhi showed the world that nonviolence was one of those immutable principles in the struggle for justice. Today, everybody in the world feels, 'If Barack Obama can do it, so can I.' " 

Barack may yet still prove to be an historic leader of social change. But Gandhi he is not.

These comparisons of the president to King and Gandhi, about which I have too often heard and read, need to stop. 

You might wonder why I would take the time to make a fuss about this. And my reason is simple: Obama is not nonviolent. As admirable as Obama's rhetoric and many of his actions have been, the courage to lead a nonviolent campaign in the face of severe hate, blatant oppression, and death threats exists on another tier altogether. 

It is incredible that the success of the Indian independence movement, American civil rights movement, and Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution was driven by the suffering and instinctual fear overcome by millions. These struggles were a refusal to meet cruelty with cruelty, hate with hate. At its core, nonviolence is the most honorable of strategies. It is both an appeal to your aggressor's humanity as well as an adamant conviction to keep your own. 

President Obama has already allowed three Predator drone attacks in Pakistan since he took office, killing dozens of people. And he will continue to fight the war in Afghanistan with military force. Implicitly, then, Obama is supporting social change through violence -- obviously the opposite of nonviolence. 

This is neither meant to be an indictment of Barack Obama nor a discussion of whether or not nonviolence is realistic on the international level. (Though it may be.) Indeed, as the political leader of the most powerful country in the world, you can be sure that Obama would have never been elected if he had declared on the campaign trail that the US would eschew all violence under his presidency (see: the campaign of Dennis Kucinich).

That said, stop comparing the nonviolence of Gandhi, King, and others to the political movement of Obama. I admire the president for many of his principles, but none of those is the refusal of violence as an instrument of change.   

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