For today’s entry, I’m coming back to the message that Barack Obama sent to India to mark Mohandas Gandhi’s birthday last week. The Times of India’s coverage focuses on a passage that bothered me last week, and also a couple of e-mailers who pointed it out as well:
As the world celebrates International Day of non-violence, US President Barack Obama on
Thursday said America has its “roots in the India of Mahatma Gandhi.”
“His teachings and ideals, shared with Martin Luther King Jr. on his 1959 pilgrimage to India, transformed American society through our civil rights movement,” Obama said on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Americans owe enormous gratitude to Gandhi, he said.
“The America of today has its roots in the India of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent social action movement for Indian independence which he led,” Obama said in a statement.
This is minor but aggravating point, but it’s annoying when people try to make everyone relate to each other in false ways that serve to insult more than compliment, especially in this case — and I mean insult India, in a sense. First, America does not have its roots in Gandhi’s India, as any fool who ever studied history could tell you, not even the “America of today.” It has its roots in a completely different tradition, and even the civil-rights movement King led took its inspiration from American and Christian roots. And for that matter, so did Gandhi’s.
Gandhi got at least some of his inspiration from the American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who wrote a series of essays on passive resistance before the American Civil War that were later collated into Civil Disobedience in 1866. Gandhi wrote a detailed apologia of Thoreau’s work in 1907, crediting it perhaps too generously with ending slavery in the US, about a year after he had begun resisting the South African Boer government on behalf of people of color there. Gandhi also credited some of his philosophical development of nonviolent resistance to the New Testament.
Obama refers to the nonviolent civil-rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, but that non-violence had its roots in Christianity, not Gandhi, who never pretended to invent it in the first place. Also, while Obama gives Gandhi credit for Dr. King’s philosophy, Dr. King was also first inspired by Thoreau in his years at Morehouse (1944-8), as he wrote in his autobiography, long before he traveled to India in 1959:
During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
After reading that passage, how can anyone claim that King’s movement and the “America of today” had its roots in India? Did Obama ever bother to read King’s book or study him at all?
Both Gandhi and King had the same initial inspirations: Thoreau (an American) and the New Testament. Gandhi also had other influences, such as the Bhagavad Gita and perhaps some pursuit of Buddhist philosophy as well.
Finally, as I mentioned, this idea might tend to offend some Indian admirers of Gandhi’s nonviolent movement. Barack Obama is currently conducting a war in Afghanistan, helping Iraq militarily, and in general using military might to pressure other countries into behaving better. Those are good policies for the US, but it makes a mockery of the notion that the “America of today” has any kind of roots at all in Gandhi’s vision of a nonviolent India.
Update: A few people who can’t read for comprehension think I’ve said that King was not inspired at all by Gandhi. Of course he was; so were a lot of people, because Gandhi was an inspirational figure. But the roots of nonviolence don’t start with Gandhi, and Gandhi never claimed they did. The America of today does not have its roots in India.
Got an Obamateurism of the Day? If you see a foul-up by Barack Obama, e-mail it to me at [email protected] with the quote and the link to the Obamateurism. I’ll post the best Obamateurisms on a daily basis, depending on how many I receive. Include a link to your blog, and I’ll give some link love as well. And unlike Slate, I promise to end the feature when Barack Obama leaves office.
Illustrations by Chris Muir of Day by Day. Be sure to read the adventures of Sam, Zed, Damon, and Jan every day!