In response to my post about Gandhi’s pacifism, a number of people (Ed Driscoll publicly, others in private e-mails) have called my attention to Richard Grenier’s essay on Gandhi that appeared in a 1983 issue of Commentary.
Driscoll calls it “undoubtedly one of the most incredible film reviews ever written,” and I second the motion.
Driscoll’s reference is quite the wry understatement. The essay is far more than a film review, although its take-off point is indeed a critique of the Oscar-winning movie of 1982. Whether the movie “Gandhi” could truly be termed a film biography is doubtful; it probably is so only in the Oliver Stone-ish sense.
Grenier writes what could more rightly be called a fisking of the Gandhi movie–in the course of which he pretty effectively demolishes the Gandhi myth as well. He makes a very good case that the actual historical figure is a far more complex and flawed person than the Gandhi most of us think we know.
Here’s an excerpt which is especially relevant to the pacifism discussion on the earlier thread:
“Gandhi”, then, is a large, pious, historical morality tale centered on a saintly, sanitized Mahatma Gandhi cleansed of anything too embarrassingly Hindu (the word “caste” is not mentioned from one end of the film to the other) and, indeed, of most of the rest of Gandhi’s life, much of which would drastically diminish his saintliness in Western eyes…
[I]t is not widely realized (nor will this film tell you) how much violence was associated with Gandhi’s so-called “nonviolent” movement from the very beginning. India’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore, had sensed a strong current of nihilism in Gandhi almost from his first days, and as early as 1920 wrote of Gandhi’s “fierce joy of annihilation,” which Tagore feared would lead India into hideous orgies of devastation–which ultimately proved to be the case. Robert Payne has said that there was unquestionably an “unhealthy atmosphere” among many of Gandhi’s fanatic followers, and that Gandhi’s habit of going to the edge of violence and then suddenly retreating was fraught with danger. “In matters of conscience I am uncompromising,” proclaimed Gandhi proudly. “Nobody can make me yield.” The judgment of Tagore was categorical. Much as he might revere Gandhi as a holy man, he quite detested him as a politician and considered that his campaigns were almost always so close to violence that it was utterly disingenuous to call them nonviolent.
For every satyagraha true believer, moreover, sworn not to harm the adversary or even to lift a finger in his own defense, there were sometimes thousands of incensed freebooters and skirmishers bound by no such vow. Gandhi, to be fair, was aware of this, and nominally deplored it–but with nothing like the consistency shown in the movie. The film leads the audience to believe that Gandhi’s first “fast unto death,” for example, was in protest against an act of barbarous violence, the slaughter by an Indian crowd of a detachment of police constables. But in actual fact Gandhi reserved this “ultimate weapon” of his to interdict a 1931 British proposal to grant Untouchables a “separate electorate” in the Indian national legislature–in effect a kind of affirmative-action program for Untouchables. For reasons I have not been able to decrypt, Gandhi was dead set against the project, but I confess it is another scene I would like to have seen in the movie: Gandhi almost starving himself to death to block affirmative action for Untouchables.
…Meanwhile, on the passionate subject of swaraj Gandhi was crying, “I would not flinch from sacrificing a million lives for India’s liberty!” The million Indian lives were indeed sacrificed, and in full. They fell, however, not to the bullets of British soldiers but to the knives and clubs of their fellow lndians in savage butcheries when the British finally withdrew.
I came across Grenier’s piece about a year ago and found it extraordinary, and extraordinarily shocking. I’ve done a fairly extensive online search to see whether anyone has effectively countered any of the facts in it, and have found nothing save ad hominem attacks on Grenier himself. Makes me think he may have gotten his facts right. (Here, by the way, is a short bio on Grenier himself.)
Read Grenier’s piece and judge for yourself.