Part I, On the Ideal Dinner Guest
26 September 2009
Earlier this month, as Barack Obama prepared to deliver a national address to school-children, conservative politicians, radio talk-show hosts, and many ordinary citizens went on the offensive at the thought that the President was proposing to indoctrinate young minds with communist ideology. School boards were instructed in a number of states that parents who wished to spare their wards the ordeal of being addressed by a sitting President of the United States could withdraw their children for the day from school or at least from a live viewing of Obama’s address. Indeed, the White House even made the speech available to schools before it was broadcast, lest anyone should have occasion to accuse the President of secretly hoisting dirty or radical ideas upon the young. (No lesser a person than Socrates, let us recall, was compelled to consume poison after he was found guilty of leading the young astray.) As it transpires, Obama gave a harmless little speech, venturing forth, as he often does, to inspire the nation’s youth with sunny thoughts about the virtues of schooling, the gains to be wrought from hard work, the importance of education in shaping a bright future, learning from one’s failures, and the desirability of dreaming. This talk should be described as an improvement of sorts upon the efforts of his predecessor who, at a commencement address, I think at his alma mater Yale, lovingly described how he had managed to secure the Presidency of the United States even as a ‘C’ student in his undergraduate days. (And then we’ve been told that in banana republics high elected offices are for sale, when not appropriated at the barrel of a gun.) We might say that Obama’s speech is in a similar mold, if more elevated in style, substance, and elegance of delivery: dream the best dreams, and they may well come true. The road to the White House is less crooked than is imagined.
Leaving aside for the present the question of whether there is anything more than a liberal bone in Obama’s body, and the even more interesting question as to why this kind of political comedy is peculiar to the United States, there is a little detail about his visit with 32 ninth-graders at Wakefield High School in Arlington before his address that demands attention. One girl by the name of Lily posed this question to the President: “And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” The room shook with genial laughter. “Well, you know, dead or alive, that’s a pretty big list,” Obama replied to more mirth making. “You know, I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine.” Had Obama said Marx, Mao, or Che – let us stick with the dead, with known ‘revolutionary’ figures, and with those who are of foreign vintage – there would have been an uproar, to say the least. But Gandhi: isn’t he the harmless little chap, Jesus-like, who spoke about turning the other cheek, and giving away the cloak (not that Gandhi owned one)? So, though Gandhi has his detractors, as I recall from some of the vitriolic reviews of the hagiographic film by Attenborough that appeared in late 1982, for the most part he is viewed as the champion of non-violence, the apostle of peace, the messenger of love, and so on – pick your favorite cliché. In the received version of what Gandhi wrought, he used non-violence successfully against the somewhat gentlemanly British, who having failed to hold on to their colonies on the east coast of America moved on to India. (And, here’s a small history lesson from a history professor, all this is captured in the figure of Lord Cornwallis, who disgraced himself by conceding defeat to George Washington – see the painting by John Trumbull, ‘Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown’, 1797 — and was at once sent to India to lord it over the natives, which Cornwallis proceeded to do with a reckless piece of legislation called the ‘Permanent Settlement.’) If Obama had picked a somewhat unusual figure as his ideal dinner guest, at least he had picked a charming if somewhat quixotic world historical figure.
In a complementary piece, available on this site, I have turned my attention to the idea of Gandhi as one of Obama’s heroes. For now, let us try to digest the idea of Obama dining with Gandhi. What would the evening have looked like? Obama himself elaborated on the possibilities: “Now, it would probably be a really small meal because, he didn’t eat a lot.” Indeed, Gandhi ate very little, often nothing more than small raw or boiled vegetables, a small bowl of curds or yogurt, and, apparently, quite a few nuts. It is the nuts, which are not the poor man’s food, that might have prompted Gandhi’s close friend, the poetess Sarojini Naidu, to quip, “It costs a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty.” Had Obama wanted to make his audience go nuts with laughter, he could have cited Naidu, but among the hordes of his advisors there is evidently no Gandhi specialist. Now let us continue with Obama, who immediately added the following: “But he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King, so if it hadn’t been for the nonviolent movement in India, you might not have seen the same nonviolent movement for civil rights here in the United States. He inspired César Chávez”, the last a reference to the eminent Chicano political activist and labor union leader. So Gandhi ate very little, “but he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in.” Obama’s use of “but” is, to put it gently, bizarre: the supposition is that though Gandhi ate very little, it is still possible to be inspired by him. Perhaps, in a land where food is plenty, one has to be a huge or at least generous consumer of food to be taken seriously?
Copyright: Vinay Lal, 2009