This happened during a small gathering at a friend’s house.
One of the guests was a woman around sixty who, in the course of the conversation, began singing the praises of Mahatma Gandhi – a hagiography, if we’re being honest. And, me being me, I had to open my big mouth and set the record straight.
“No!” she shouted. “No no no! You’re lying!”
About the response I expected – swift and highly emotional denials.
“Where did you read that? On Google? You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”
That was phase two. The new information made her uncomfortable, so she immediately attempted to discredit the source of the information. Also, special props for the jab at my age because – as everyone knows – Millennials’ sole source of information is clickbait articles from their facebook feed. The final phase of her argument soon followed.
“I know Gandhi,” she said with absolute certainty. “I’ve felt him touch my spirit.”
Reason having failed her, she did what many people do when presented with evidence in conflict with their worldview: she dismissed the very concept of evidence in favor of feeling and intuition. Not that I’m surprised. For someone who grew up on Alan Watts and Carlos Castaneda, it makes sense she’d react that way to being told Gandhi was a domestic abuser, child molester, racist, and Nazi sympathizer.
It’s a process that has played out countless times. Whether it’s a politician (shudder), religious figure (ew), or artist (meh), people adopt icons as a projection of their own identity – or what they fantasize as their own identity. It’s hero-worship. And, it’s wrong.
Worshipping other humans is wrong because humans are flawed. It’s wrong because history rarely tells the whole story. It’s wrong because people, mostly men, who crave fame and renown often share a set of sociopathic tendencies that may propel them to success, but rarely make them decent human beings.
Don’t get me wrong, I respect the hell out of Gandhi. He was a deep, cunning man who had an uncanny genius for reading the public mood and attacking the political system. If you subscribe to the Great Men theory of history, he’s certainly one of the greatest. He was also kind of a piece of shit. Take this letter he wrote to the Parliament of Natal (South Africa), protesting the fact that Indians weren’t being recognized for their natural superiority to Africans:
“I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. … A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”
That’s racist as fuck. And it was by no means an isolated incident. He later elaborated on his grievances:
“(Parliament wants) to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
Gandhi, the saintly champion of the poor, oppressed, and persecuted… except he wasn’t. If anything, his main complaint about living conditions in South Africa were that Indians were not given the same level of mastery over blacks that whites enjoyed.
Gandhi also had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Hitler. While I think it’s safe to say that Gandhi was not a fan of Hitler personally, Hitler was absolutely wiping the floor with the English Empire and, as a cynical old power-player like Gandhi knew well, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. As Hitler burned Europe, Ghandi called for a peaceful resolution – in the form of Great Britain surrendering to the Nazis:
“This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man. . . .”
“Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds.”
And just in case you were wondering if he had anything monstrous to say about the Holocaust:
“Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions.”
Gandhi’s personal life also raises some eyebrows. While many see him as a kindly old man dividing his time between meditation and the spinning wheel, he was in fact a household tyrant and serial abuser of women. He openly admitting to hitting his wife. He slept on a pile of nude teenage girls. He defended this practice by claiming he was testing his vows of chastity. Even if there is no evidence of a sexual relationship with these children, at the very least he was using them in a highly exploitative and irresponsible way. For these girls, as well as members of his inner circle, Gandhi dictated their every action: when and how much they could eat and sleep, when they could use the bathroom, and how often they had to take enemas (he had a thing for enemas; one of the duties ascribed to his teenage harem was that they had to give him regular enemas). These were not the actions of a holy man. These were the actions of a cult leader, drunk on power and possessing no empathy for people he sees as tools.
However, most of the world regards Gandhi as a saint. Part of that can be credited to his masterful manipulation of the world media. Gandhi was keenly aware of the image he projected, and took pains to present himself as a deeply spiritual and empathetic man. In reality, his non-violence movement was a calculated strategy toward the goal of Indian independence. He knew he had no chance against the British Empire in a contest of arms, and the western world would not support an independence movement if it believed there would be retaliatory violence against whites. Like I said, Gandhi was a genius – but he was far from a saint.
But let’s move on the Martin Luther King, Jr.
I want to preface this by saying that, of all the names appearing in this article, King is, in my opinion, the best man on the list. Most Americans are familiar with his famous speeches. Read some of his lesser known interviews, letters, and speeches at small venues – the times when he was really able to intellectualize – and you’ll be blown away. The man was brilliant and possessed a deep understanding, and compassion, for the whole of humanity.
He also liked sleeping with prostitutes. So much that J. Edgar Hoover once attempted to blackmail King into committing suicide using evidence of King’s carousing.
Now, having a taste for hookers is hardly the worst thing in the world. It’s adultery, which is quite hypocritical for a Christian minister, and a potentially exploitative act toward women. But, we can’t be sure of what King’s marriage was like, nor the nuts and bolts of his religious beliefs, nor even if prostitution is an inherently abusive act toward women – some feminists would argue that it is not. The point I’m trying to make is that no mortal man or woman should be placed on a pedestal. Dr. King was the best of us, but even with his unparalleled wisdom and goodness, he possessed unsavory human traits that would disqualify him from any conventional notions of sainthood.
The list goes on and on.
You might not like to know that the guy whose iconic face you have on the wall of your dorm room, Che Guevara, was not a champion of the downtrodden. Guevara had a contemptuous attitude toward the peasants of Latin America and sought to impose a radical and punitive political system on them – whether they wanted it or not. He had no qualms about using nasty, brutish guerilla tactics in service of that goal. Think bombings, assassinations, torture, kidnappings, and massacres.
John Lennon was a wife-beating, child-abusing junkie. Though I won’t say one way or another, people close to the Beatles have made claims of explosive narcissistic rage, as well as a serious overestimation of his artistic contributions to the group.
Not that I’m only picking on Liberal icons. America’s founding fathers were a rogues’ gallery of slavers, drunks, womanizers, and rapists. Then as now, when (fairly reasonable) taxes conflicted with their business interests, they incited the rabble with cries of, “Freedom!” and, “Death to tyranny!”
Ayn Rand, darling of conservative intellectuals, was a sexual predator who would promise younger men philosophical insight in return for sexual obedience. She also had a nasty habit of praising serial rapists and murderers for ubermensch-like traits of living beyond empathy and conventional social values.
Ronald Reagan seemed to have led a relatively clean personal life, other than rumored affairs with the likes of Lana Turner and Ava Gardner – hey, tell me you wouldn’t if you had the opportunity. What people do forget is that he was responsible for perhaps the most despicable act ever committed by an American President: selling weapons to America’s worst enemy to fund right-wing terrorist groups in Latin America. As an added bonus, there are credible allegations that the operation was further financed by the importation of cocaine into American inner-city neighborhoods. Black communities still haven’t recovered from the surge of violence inspired by the crack trade, nor the mass incarceration policy a hypocritical Reagan Administration used to combat it.
And don’t even get me fucking started on religious leaders.
So before you hold someone up as a shining example of the best humanity has to offer, do your research. It’s important. Not just to avoid embarrassment and disillusionment down the road, but to prevent rewarding sociopaths with the adulation they crave. I could make an argument that blind hero-worship also enables their crimes, but some of you are probably feeling a little beaten-up by now, so I’ll spare you further sermonizing.
Instead of praising the Great Men of history, consider turning your love to the truly good people of the world. They are the people who never ask for power or recognition. They are the ones who never take up a cause that would impose their will upon others. These people do exist – though not in the history books. There is a kindly old man with the patience of a saint and purity of an angel. He’s just not leading a march to the sea. He’s pumping your gas and bagging your groceries.