“Truth is like a vast tree, which yields more and more fruit the more you nurture it. The deeper the search in the mine of truth the richer the discovery of the gems buried there, in the shape of openings for an even greater variety of service.”—Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869-1948), Autobiography:The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1929)
He was born Mohandas K. Gandhi 150 years ago today in northwest India, but by the end of his life he had richly earned the title “Mahatma,” or “great soul.” He was the crucial link between Henry David Thoreau, who came up with the concept of civil disobedience in New England in 1849, and Martin Luther King Jr., who applied it in the struggle for freedom in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and 1960s.
At the time of the release of Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning biopic about his life in 1982, a sizable contingent of neoconservatives (perhaps best typified by Richard Grenier with The Gandhi Nobody Knows).tried to throw hot water on Gandhi’s legacy by looking askance at some of his more unusual ascetic practices,
Perhaps the best rejoinder to that may have come in early 1949, when George Orwell’s Partisan Review essay, “Reflections on Gandhi,” took a perspective on the Mahatma’s spiritual practices that was not far removed from the neocons’, but came to a radically different conclusion:
“If, by 1945, there had grown up in Britain a large body of opinion sympathetic to Indian independence, how far was this due to Gandhi’s personal influence? And if, as may happen, India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air? That one even thinks of asking such questions indicates his stature. One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”
Contrast Gandhi’s “smell” with that of another lawyer who made a great impact in the political life of his country, Roy Cohn. Gandhi led a nonviolent movement that resulted in something like the “decent and friendly relationship” between India and Great Britain that Orwell envisioned, and inspired a worldwide civil rights movement based on passive resistance.
On the other hand, Cohn’s baleful influence began when he served as a youthful aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy in his assault on civil liberties. Decades after his death, America is still coming to grips with his legacy, as client and all-too-eager protégé, Donald Trump applies his tactics of smearing opponents and engaging in endless diversionary tactics.
In 1999, Time Magazine, in its end-of-the-century issue, had named Gandhi, along with Franklin Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, as “Person of the Century.” In contrast, the political atmosphere in the wake of Cohn requires, to use Orwell’s useful metaphor, a thorough disinfectant.
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