Obama, Gandhi, and King: Reflections on His Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

As a lifelong advocate of peace and non-violence, I listened to President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address with decidedly mixed emotions.  On the one hand, as someone who was arrested on a civil rights sit-in, I had rejoiced and wept tears of joy upon seeing this gifted man assume the previously almost unthinkable position as a duly elected president of the United States.

And yet, I cannot bring myself to concur with the conventional wisdom from liberal commentators on the left — for example E.J  Dionne Jr., Jules Witcover, Eugene Robinson — to Sarah Palin and Karl Rove on the right that the Obama doctrine on war is commendable.

Rather, despite his customarily eloquent and informative oratory, I think he omitted many of the tenets of the Just_War doctrine. This, regrettably, effectively marginalizes both Martin Luther King, Jr., and   Mahatma Gandhi. In this commentary, I cite the words of King and Gandhi to illustrate my concerns.  Please refer to the full text of the Obama address here.

On the Practicality of Violence
Obama: (after acknowledging agreement with King that violence does not bring permanent peace or solve problems, and may create new and more complicated ones]

“I cannot be guided by their [Gandhi and King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is . . . force is sometimes necessary.”

Although I doubt that Gandhi and King would have concurred with Obama’s decision about the escalation of troops, it should be acknowledged that Gandhi himself was not a believer in unconditional non-violence either: “I do believe where there is a choice only between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”   He notes: “I am not a visionary. I claim to be a practical idealist.  The religion of non-violence is not meant merely for . . . .saints.  It is meant for the common people as well.”  And also: If the race for armaments continues it is bound to result in a slaughter such as never occurred in history.  If there is a victor  . . . the very victory will be a living death.” In a parallel remark, King states:  “If we succumb to the use of violence,  “unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of chaos.”

On the Root Causes of Violence

Obama sees the root causes of violence in the very nature of man:  “War, in   one form or another, appeared with the first man,” he states, an allegation is disputed by some anthropologists.  He endorses the view of former President Kennedy, who advised a focus “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”

In contrast, King cites not only the “fierce urgency of now” but also emphasizes that time, per se, without action, serves as an ally of the status quo and works against the disadvantaged.

Moreover, both King and Gandhi emphasize the role of greed and differences in wealth and power as the driving agents of war.   In this context, it might be noted that the U.S. has about 5% of the world’s population, while using about 25% of the world’s resources.  Perhaps this is why the U.S. spends more on weapons than any other nation and forty percent of the total worldwide.  As Gandhi notes: “If there were no greed, there would be no reason for armaments.”

Indeed, despite the bi-partisan consensus across the political spectrum for escalation of troops in Afghanistan, the key weakness of the neo-liberal and the neo-conservative views is their virtually total and complete attribution of evil exclusively to our enemies.  The concomitant assertion made by Obama is that America seeks only peace and stability, that it has “never fought a war against a democracy,” and that it is motivated solely by “enlightened self-interest.” To note but one current example, the present regime in Iran would almost certainly qualify by any standard as an “evil regime.” But in the neo-liberal and neo-conservative worldviews, the previous U.S. overthrow of Iran’s popular and entirely peaceful Iranian leader by the CIA in 1953 — and the installation of a dictatorial Shah with its dreaded secret police force–never figures into the equation anywhere as having set the stage for the “blowback” that ensued.

There are numerous other examples of the U.S. overthrow or military defeat of popularly elected governments, including recent examples in Haiti and Honduras, when their governments challenged our self-defined right to access their oil and other natural resources or if such regimes were considered unfriendly. This practice also includes America’s treatment of indigenous Native Americans who were forcibly removed from the very land most Americans proudly call their own, and after the U.S. government failed to live up to virtually any treaty or agreement signed by them and these tribal peoples.  Unlike Australia, which hosted the recent World Parliament of Religions, the U.S. has never formally apologized to its native people for its massive human rights violations.

Beyond Criticism: Progressive Alternatives

Americans and their political representative have–like Obama–thus far failed to address concrete concerns about the costs of war.  This is significant since no president (other than the Republican General Dwight D. Eisenhower) has concurred with King that military expenditures directly “rob” civilians of basic needs of food, shelter, education, and health care.

Given that Obama campaigned with a clear commitment to engage in a war in Afghanistan, Democrats are in contradictory and vexing position.  Barring the defunding of war by a Congress, which no longer follows constitutional practices of declaring war or impeachment of leaders taking us to war under false or misleading pretenses, there are few remaining options for liberals.  Progressive Democrats and others on the left, on the other hand, did not give Obama a blank check on this issue.  Progressives need to focus on Congress to revive constitutional safeguards and a way to hold potential violators of the law accountable.

Other obvious suggestions are to fight to more equitably distribute and equalize the costs of war.  Despite inherent moral and practical difficulties, implementing the universal draft is one means of ensuring that we, as a nation, are “are all in this together,” rather than allowing a tiny fraction of the population of active military and veterans to assume its burdens.  A dedicated “war tax” to fund current and future needs of veterans and members of the armed forces–not to mention reparations to civilian casualties of enemies—is another way to approach this issue.

It should also be repeatedly emphasized that the failure of liberal incrementalism applies not only to efforts to end war but also to the issues of global warming, peak oil, and the carrying capacity of the planet.  Nature will not respect the logically incremental timetables of our timid politicians indebted to well-funded special interests.  Massive investment in social programs, education, and jobs based on green technology are urgently needed now if we are to avert a catastrophe. This is recognized by scientists but is too often ignored by the political elites, who continue to deny the problem or to urge only the smallest measures in the name of a “realism” of incremental steps, regardless of evidence of mounting poverty, environmental degradation, and disproportionally militaristic expenditures rather than diplomatic solutions to global problems.  In short, we will need to make “hard choices”—not as posed by Obama but rather between guns and butter.  We cannot afford both.

Finally, we progressives need to follow King’s advice and not merely listen to, but to learn from others in the world.   “Compassion and non-violence help us see the enemies point of view . . . . We may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own . . .  [and] may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of our brothers who are called the opposition.”   Most significantly, he noted that it is the U.S. that is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

I am looking at a greeting card depicting a Buddhist woman demonstrator with more wisdom than a stadium full of “pragmatic” politicians.  She is holding a homemade sign that reads, in her own words: “WE no have time to make WAR.   All Nations together must take care this beautiful planet.”  We cannot wait to be saved by the “wise and wealthy” people of privilege at the top.  We do not have a Planet B.

Let me end, however, on a positive note by agreeing with Obama when he told us: “I am not the change. You are.”  We must be that change and go beyond the death-trap siren song of “politics is the art of the possible.”  Rather, let us dare to fight for and to build a new world even if the elites deride this as an impossible dream, taking to the streets if necessary.  The life and planet you save may be your own.

Gene Rothman

Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker active with interfaith and  environmental groups in Culver City and with the Social Action/Social Justice Council of the National Association of Social Workers.

Published by the LA Progressive on January 8, 2010
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About Gene Rothman

Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker who worked with homeless and incarcerated veterans in the latter part of his career. He is active with Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles (PDLA) and Families to Amend Three Strikes (FACTS), and writes an occasional monthly editorial for the Social Action/Social Justice Council published in the "NASW California News."