Doing History Wrong

Was Gandhi-ji a saint, a devil, neither, or both?

Neoconservative historian Andrew Roberts has written a thoroughly dickish profile of Mahatma Gandhi in the Wall Street Journal, entitled Among the Hagiographers. Under the thin guise of a review of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography, Great Soul, Mr. Roberts unleashes an unprovoked, relentlessly cruel smear-piece on Gandhi-ji. The essay bristles with the sort of raw enmity one might expect from a man whose professional career has revolved around the lionization of Winston Churchill and who has unreservedly adopted the venomous loathings of the man he idolizes.

The facile way to read Mr. Roberts’s offensively negative presentation is as a smoking condemnation of Gandhi-ji: the father of satyagraha was a creep and a pervert. Indeed, the essay catalogs many of Gandhi-ji’s personal shortcomings and reversals of position; and Mr. Roberts’s project is to spin these into an unflattering portrait of hypocrisy, if not outright depravity. Roberts presents precisely the opposite portrait from that assembled in the usual, beatifying hagiography; and the true object of Roberts’s loathing may be as much the Gandhian canon as Gandhi-ji himself. But, in this detail, I see a shred of subtle value in Mr. Roberts’s malicious piece. It illustrates the absurdity and ruthlessness of a bizarrely one-dimensional mining of the historical record.

Mr. Roberts’s hatchet-job feels nasty because it is nasty, not because it is inaccurate. The characterizations he paints from the historical record are certainly gross caricatures; but they are effective in making an underlying point: we can parse the factual record in the service of whichever point-of-view we choose to advocate. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.” I know this as well as anyone, having made my career persuading civil juries why the facts of a lawsuit compel my favored result, rather than that urged by my adversary.

If Mr. Roberts’s true motivation was to make a general historiographical argument — intending the reader to find his own mean-spirited synthesis as ridiculously dumbass as the fawning portrayals favored in the Gandhian literature — rather than to draw specific historical conclusions, I would have to confess some appreciation for his aggressive presentation. (Those who know me will recognize my fondness for provocation as a literary tactic.) I am often annoyed by the deification and worshipful reconstruction of narrative employed by hagiographers of all stripes, from the biographers of Ronald Reagan of the American right to those of Gandhi-ji within the international community of his admirers. If I find the latter group marginally more frustrating, it is only because I fall within their camp; and I believe that nothing has done as much damage to Gandhi-ji’s legacy as the well-meaning, but tone-deaf messaging of Gandhians ourselves. The power and magic of Gandhi-ji’s ideas have been eviscerated by association with an absurd, god-like portrayal that effectively removes them from the realm in which people of ordinary human capacity might find them to be instructive.

The self-seriousness of Gandhian hagiography is extremely unforgiving. I have drawn withering, if generally incoherent criticism for a suggestion I find to be obvious: that Gandhi-ji intended a subtly confessional, comedic irony in the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhians seem to have a rough time with the idea that Gandhi-ji, a consummate politician and immense wit, might have been poking a little fun at himself and at the complicated exigencies of the political process, as well as delivering his more resonant, philosophical lessons. It doesn’t fit the righteous narrative.

The saintly whitewash of Gandhi-ji reached a cartoonish apogee in the popular Munnabhai films a few years back. Making-up in hipness what they lack in nuance, the idiotic movies have probably done more to popularize “Gandhigiri” within his homeland than any of the serious (and self-serious) discourse of the preceding half century. It is not a bad thing that the public received a minor civics lesson in the popular cinema; but it’s a bit like learning communitarian values through re-runs of Gilligan’s Island. It represents a trivial success of the superficial and highlights the failure of the appropriately rigorous to engender significant social transformation.

There is a tendency and desire among Gandhians to spiritualize Gandhianism. While this is not my approach, I certainly recognize the easy affinity and compatibility between Gandhi-ji’s profound and reference-shifting ideas and whatever-the-heck spiritualism turns-out to be. Gandhi-ji himself was not shy about urging the connection between the political and ethical, on the one hand, and the spiritual, on the other. The avoidable – but seldom avoided – hazard in this attitude is falling into a state of blind reverence.

Reverence is broadly considered a virtue. Its practitioners adopt their worshipfulness with a feel-good, self-righteous sanctimony that finds full support in many of our oldest and deepest cultural traditions. Still, I find its social utility, humility, and joy-producing self-sublimation utterly outweighed by the pernicious, willful ignorance it imposes.

One might think that the astigmatism of the deferential gaze would be at complete odds with the admiration of truth professed by Gandhians; and yet, we apply ourselves to reverence with a thoroughgoing stubbornness. This was perfectly illustrated by the formidable Gandhian, Nirmala Deshpande, both in her life’s work and in the glowing eulogies penned in the wake of her recent passing. She was a complicated figure, whose actions were often as brainless and deplorable as they were commendable and inspiring. Yet, she was remembered in uniformly saintly terms, depriving future generations of the opportunity to correct or to learn from the many profound errors she made.

The problems posed by reverence in both the writing and reading of history is not unique to Gandhians. For example, devotees of Sri Aurobindo from around the world are currently twisting themselves into painful contortions of outrage at perceived slights found in the largely innocent biography, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. The sad irony of the ideological battle, which scars this once-tight-knit community, is that the author, Peter Hees, has penned nothing short of an adoring hagiography. His principal sin was the ham-handed inclusion of rather lame, easily rejected, straw-man counterpoints to lend the book the veneer of even-handed objectivity. Reverence brooks no dissent – or even the implication that dissent might exist elsewhere.

This is the ultimate value of Mr. Roberts’s obnoxiously poisonous tirade. It demonstrates, by putrid example, the dishonesty and danger of selectively reducing depth and complexity to flatness and over-simplification. This is just as often a vice of those with whom we concur as those with whom we disagree, of those who admire as those who detest.


8 Responses to “Doing History Wrong”

  1. 1 Rick Brooks 29 March 2011 at 6:15 am

    Excellent piece on the Gandhi contoversy. Your observations can be easily applied to other commentaries and commentators. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk all across the American political spectrum, for example. And on the flip side, the reverence thing…we idealize people and buy into the hero worship all the time. I used to be really good at it, mostly because I wanted to think that there were people in the world who could serve as role models because they were “better” –more ethical, competent, compassionate, patient, attentive; whatever–than me.

    Naturally, I have often been disappointed. But love has its value. I seem to be unable to avoid admiring people, imperfect as they may be, dang it.

    I’ll be reading and thinking about your blog a few more times…

  2. 2 rb 29 March 2011 at 9:07 am

    As someone prone to “the astigmatism of the deferential gaze,” my corrective lenses have often been gentle skepticism and slow-experimentation with the good messages and instructions I receive from those I admire. The approach is inefficient at worst and hesitant at best, so I mitigate by cultivating my own clarity and insight through meditation while becoming a disciple of my own experience.

    Since you have long abandoned deferential gazes (but not love and admiration) and never picked up the sometimes messy habit of spirituality :-), what is your tool and recommendation for clarity and seeing things as they are?

  3. 3 mbjesq 29 March 2011 at 11:26 am

    It’s funny, Rahul, but my methodology seems almost the mirror compliment of your strategy.

    I start from a position of skepticism and reason, and temper the harsh pragmatism with a mindfulness of the way in which morality and passion must also inform any assessment. This is where love and admiration come into play, I suppose. I also try to filter my notions through a membrane of humility and an awareness of the limitations of my knowledge, experience, expertise, and judgment. This, of course, is my weak link.

    Even my humility is modest.


  4. 4 mbjesq 30 March 2011 at 1:15 pm

    I just noticed that the title I’d quickly chosen for this essay (in the sleepy wee hours, when I wrote it) looked familiar. It turns-out, I used something similar several years ago, in an essay criticizing the Dalai Lama, called Doing Peace Wrong. In that piece, I suggested that His Avuncularness didn’t fully understand the Gandhian dynamic and wasn’t using nonviolence as effectively as Gandhi-ji might have.

    That essay has an interesting lesson in the context of the present discussion. I argue in the current piece that the excesses of hagiography and the thin-skin of those whose saints are being questioned are the same on on both sides of the left|right ideological divide. That may be unfair. My criticism of the Dalai Lama didn’t receive a broad reading (553 views) or generate much comment (2 respondents); but that which was received was extremely even-tempered. And my rather harsh (but completely honest) remembrance of Nirmala Deshpande was also received with a degree of ho-hum (only 317 views), but with astonishing equanimity by the two (admittedly brilliant) fans of Didi’s who commented. It seems the left, true to its ideology, really does countenance a diversity of opinion far better than the right, notwithstanding hard feelings on the subject.

    This doesn’t explain the insane pandemonium over The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, of course. But then, that battle has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with spiritual fanaticism.


  5. 5 mbjesq 1 April 2011 at 11:05 am

    I seems Narendra Modi has just banned Lelyveld’s book in Gujarat. This is a laugh-and-a-half. The CM, who has always stood for the violent communalism against which Gandhi-ji’s life was dedicated, has called the book “perverse” and “an affront”. Ever the populist, Mr. Modi has acted without ever having read the book (it has not been published yet anywhere in India) or endeavoring to understand that the controversy was sparked by Mr. Roberts’s dumbass piece in the WSJ, rather than by the book itself. All that’s beside the point. The fact is, banning the book scores political points among Indians who, notwithstanding their tacit-but-thoroughgoing renunciation of all that Gandhi-ji believed in, are only-too-happy to muster outrage at insults, real or imagined.


  6. 6 Bernard Badilla 12 April 2011 at 3:54 am

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  7. 7 littleplasticbags 17 April 2011 at 9:15 am

    Your analysis is excellent, thanks for the link.

  8. 8 surajsanap 20 April 2011 at 1:58 pm

    hi…i know what you’re talking about…when you’re young, you seek a role model who embodies those same ideals that you hold dear, and inspires you…for me it was Robert F Kennedy when i saw the film Bobby…after i read up on him preliminarily, i was a li’l shaken…but what i realized with someone like RFK, at least for me, is that a person’s good deeds far outweigh the imperfections of his character…i still fully admire him for the man he was tying to be, and what he achieved…i don’t care much if he slept around; fine, he’s not the best husband…the point is he did things that inspired a lot of people to look up to in life, at a point in time when they didn’t really have someone understanding them in the public space, after MLK Jr died…

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