Anti-Western, or post-colonial, intellectuals and activists bring up the West's rap sheet not because we were uniquely complicit in slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, but because we are uniquely vulnerable to such guilt mongering. "I think it would be a good idea," Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi famously replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization, as if Indian civilization was without sin. To this day, left-wing poseurs have this line stuck to their refrigerators or use it for yearbook quotes as if it is a brilliantly insightful and humorous bon mot, when in reality the joke is on them.
Gandhi was in many respects the pioneer of exploiting Western self-loathing. For many pacifists, "What Would Gandhi Do?" is a more important question than "What would Jesus Do?" and for good reason. Jesus did believe that violent self-defense was sometimes justified (that's why he instructed his followers to carry swords). Gandhi did not.
Undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic world leaders in modern memory. Particularly given the prevalence of New Age pieties these days, he has become a saint of sorts. A true ascetic, Gandhi voluntarily eschewed luxurious pleasures. He found satisfaction in more humble pastimes. Indeed, among his greatest joys and fascinations was the successful bowel movement.
Paul Johnson notes that the first question he asked of his female attendants every morning was "Did you have a good bowel movement?" One of his favorite books, which e reread often, was Constipation and Our Civilization. Deprived of a sense of smell, which no doubt impaired his sense of taste his vegetarian diet was centered around the goal of a successful digestive cycle.
His advice on both personal diet and public agriculture was not merely impractical and gloomy. Had his ideas been translated into public policy they would have subjected millions of Indians to even worse starvation and even more pervasive poverty than they were already enduring. Gandhi's social and economic vision was perhaps best described as Tolkienesque. Technology was the enemy of decency, the perfect political unit was the Arcadian village, a subcontinental Shire where, instead of hobbits, Hindus would work individually on their tiny looms.
Of course, you would not know this from the film that helped cement the Gandhian legend. For instance, in Gandhi the movie, audiences are led to believe that his first hunger strike was to protest the British police's horrific slaughter of a crowd of peaceful Indian protesters. But Gandhi's first hunger strike was devoted to protesting a British effort to grand the Untouchables-India's lowest and most oppressed caste-greater rights and freedoms, including providing them with access to a form of affirmative action. That wouldn't play as well on the big screen, alas.
The filmmakers were merely picking up on a practice begun by the British foreign office. Simply put, Gandhi was a creature of the system he sought to overthrow. For years the British Empire used Gandhi as the most convenient nationalist. Unlike other anti-colonial activists, Gandhi worked assiduously to prevent violence. "The true oddity," writes Richard Grenier, "is that Gandhi, this holy man, having drawn from British sources his notions of nationalism and democracy, also absorbed from the British his model of virtue in public life. He was a historical original, a Hindu holy man that a British model of public service and dazzling advances in mass communications thrust out into the world, to become a great moral leader and the 'father of his country'."
Gandhi's accomplishments were great, but absent the context of a liberal empire, he would have accomplished little or nothing. He was "not a liberator, but a political exotic," writes Paul Johnson, "who could have flourished only in the protected environment provided by British liberalism." (Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 471) The reason there was never a German Gandhi to stare down the Nazi regime is that the Nazi regime was immune to such appeals. Orwell observed that "it is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? (George Orwell, Reflections on Gandhi," Partisan Review (January 1949)
Hence, Gandhi's brand of nonviolence was not a universal standard for all of humanity but was instead an exceedingly parochial, even backwater, idea. The Gandhian conception that violence never solves anything worked because nonviolence was an effective tool against the British conscience and a country exhausted by war with Germany. Violence wasn't the answer for colonials in India. But, suffice it to say, violence was the answer for American colonists dealing with the same British Empire a century and a half earlier.
Gandhi's commitment to nonviolence led him to what can only be described as an incandescently dumb positions. The Mahatma implored the British to surrender to the Nazis (and not the other way around). "I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity," he told the British. "Let [the Nazis] take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds." (Mohandas Gandhi, "To Every Briton," Radio Address, New Delphi (July 2, 1940))
Fortunately there were no takers.
A starter illustration of the futility of Gandhi's prescriptions can be found in his advice to the Jews. Asked what the Jews should do in response to the cruelty visited upon them by Gandhi's "friend" Adolf Hitler, the answer was simple: Commit mass suicide. Gandhi-who despised the idea of a Jewish homeland in "Arab Palestine"-believed that the Jews shouldn't allow the Nazis to bully them out of Germany. Hence he advised Germany Jewry to stand up to the Nazis with Gandhian civil disobedience. He believed that such defiance would "have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." When his biographer asked him, "You mean that the Jews should have committed collective suicide?" Gandhi replied, "Yes, that would have been heroism."(Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi")
Even after the war, when the full extent of the Holocaust was being realized, Gandhi never recanted his position that "the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from the cliffs" The Jews died anyway, Gandhi explained; at least if they'd followed his advice they would have died significantly. Theologians, ethicists, and philosophers can debate which aspects of this response are the most offensive. Heroism, after all, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. What is not open to debate is the stunning naivete of Gandhi's universal philosophy of peace. How likely is it that Jewish mass suicide would have "aroused the world" to Hitler's violence, when the mass murder of the Jews did not. Moreover, of what use is arousing world opinion when Gandhi's preferred course of action is surrender? If all you propose is to call attention to violence but do not believe that force is ever justified to stop it, why bother?
Still Gandhian nonviolence is preferable to the sort of violence employed by today's self-proclaimed anti-imperialists: Muslim terrorists. If the Palestinians, for instance, took Gandhian nonviolence to heart, they'd be living in their own state already. But instead they've opted for terrorism and bloodshed. When Hamas blows up pizza parlors or sends assassins to slit the throats of babies in their sleep, the "violence never solved anything" chorus remains remarkably mute. When Israel takes lawful action to prevent or punish such attacks, that is the cue for the very same chorus to kick in. That's because, as ever, the claim that "violence never solves anything" is not a universal truism; it is a selective attempt to manipulate the conscience of those with might not to do right.
I recently read about this in The Tyranny of Clieches by Johan Goldberg (above is Shamelessly paraphrased)