President Obama’s speech to the nation’s students earlier this week sparked an outcry (as well as some boycotts) from the far right over fears of “socialist indoctrination.” The administration did its best to assuage such fears by making the text of the speech available to schools beforehand. But what they didn’t prepare for was the question asked by a ninth grader named Lily: “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?”
Obama stumbled, forgetting that the correct answer was Ronald Reagan, and instead blurted out the name Mahatma Gandhi and called him, gasp, “a real hero of mine.”
Of course, the real joke here is not that Obama fell into the conservative trap by naming a radical like Gandhi as his hero. Hardly anyone took notice, perhaps because few people regard Gandhi as a radical. What little they know about him they associate with independence from Britain. And we Americans have no trouble embracing that notion.
The real joke, that seems lost on just about everyone, is that the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the history of the world looks up to perhaps the most staunch pacifist who ever lived.
Obama then laughed about the imagined situation of having dinner with Gandhi, saying, “Now, it would probably be a really small meal because, he didn’t eat a lot.”
Haha. That’s hilarious. What a funny joke about Gandhi’s practice of fasting to the brink of death so that his followers would stop using violence.
But seriously, don’t you think dinner would be strained for a different reason? Oh, say the fact that Obama is waging two wars, using drones to drop bombs on his Pakistani friends and increasing what’s already the world’s largest defense budget?
Obama is clearly familiar with Gandhi’s sayings since he borrowed one for his election campaign. So what doesn’t he understand about the one that goes: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”?
Of course, I’m being sarcastic. Obama is a smart man and I’m sure he’s well aware that Gandhi devoted his life to nonviolence. He did after all lightly trace Gandhi’s influence on subsequent generations for the students, explaining how “the non-violent movement in India” inspired Dr. King and César Chávez.
But as much as Obama may understand the importance of nonviolence, it doesn’t seem to translate into practice. He’s not exactly the right person to be telling students to learn from “people who are able to bring about change, not through violence, not through money, but through the force of their personality and their ethical and moral stances.”
At least not at this point in his life. The presidency has a way of forcing good men to do terrible things.
Take former President Jimmy Carter, for instance, who called the nuclear arms proliferation “a disgrace to the human race” when he was running for office. Then, as soon as he became president, he built the Trident nuclear submarine base in Georgia. His administration also maintained an enormous military machine and aided right-wing tyrannies abroad.
But in the years after his presidency, Carter has worked hard for peace, particularly through the establishment of his own non-profit organization that promotes nonviolence and social justice. In fact, he is set to receive the Mahatma Gandhi Global Nonviolence Award from James Madison University’s Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence later this month.
Perhaps Obama will find himself there too one day. And he will feel greatly honored to receive not just the award, but the accompanying replica of his hero’s shawl. It just won’t be for anything he’s done as president.