Saturday, October 10, 2009

In the shadow of a Prize

October 9 at 6 AM the telephone rang in President Obama's bedroom jolting him out of bed. So were the American listeners and readers on this side of the Atlantic when they heard he was the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for 2009. It should have been a cause for jubilation and celebration but the reaction was muted, ripe with ambiguity. Some wanted him to turn it down, others to ask the Nobel committee to hold it until he thought he was ready and others calling it a political nightmare. The right did not lose time in lashing out in a fashion that has become customary of them. Michael Steele, the Republican Party president was quick to denounce him by saying "he wont be receiving any awards from the American people" pointing to the fact that Obama has not delivered yet to deserve such a lofty prize. As expected this moment was ripe fodder for the rabid radio and TV talk show hosts to have a free for all. “Can you imagine, folks, how big Obama’s head is today?” Rush Limbaugh barked, “I think it’s getting so big that his ears actually fit.”

The Nobel most often is awarded to people who have spent a life time in the service of a mission. Just nine months into his presidency and at forty eight he joined the esteem company of his heroes Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. That was a difficult picture for people to visualize and as the President acknowledged, it was difficult for him to grasp as well, as he genuinely felt humbled. In his acceptance speech he said that he viewed this recognition more a validation of his people by the world. Nobody can deny that 2009 was a groundbreaking year for America as the world turned its gaze to see a most unlikely candidate be inaugurated. This moment in history in itself was undeniably worthy of a prize.

There is a clear distinction in the way the world sees President Obama and the way Americans have come to see him in the recent past. The Nobel Prize was awarded to President Obama, as the citation reads "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples". There is no question that the psychological impact his election has had on the people of the globe has been profound. His image, grace, civility and demeanor has sparked an uncompromising idealism and optimism in people of all races. The rhetoric in his lofty speeches from Cairo to Prague, has energized people across boundaries like never before. In the nine months he has traveled the world promising real change and cooperation in the way America behaves, and has called on nations to rise up and take responsibility for their actions. He has laid out a vision for a nuclear free globe and has engaged Iran and North Korea instead of isolating them even more with remarkable results. He has demanded the Pentagon to conduct a radical review of US nuclear weapons doctrine to prepare the way for deep cuts in the country's arsenal. He has restarted the middle east peace process which had come to a grinding halt under the previous administration. And to top it all he has set forth grand benchmarks to curb global warming.

While most of his ambitions in the global sphere have been expressed through rhetoric and oratory flare, not much has yet been achieved in the way of tangible results. But like never before his words have had a penetrating influence. And that does count for something.

On record, the process of pulling out of Iraq and closing down Guantanamo Bay has been slow, and his deliberations on the next move in Afghanistan causes confusion. While he has claimed victory in stalling America's financial descent, not many people buy it as job losses continue to take their toll. Health care reform, the success of which will define his leadership, hangs in a balance due to the sluggish, partisan and morally bankrupt nature of congress. People are beginning to show discontent with the pace of change he so dramatically promised during his campaign. In the light of all this Americans find this award confusing and struggle to make sense of it.

There is no doubt that in his first nine months President Obama has set out to take on more than any leader before. If this award is meant to give him a bump, if it is meant to be an investment in the future, there is no better place to make it, as there is no leader that can wield the kind of influence he can. That he has proven thus far with fortitude.

In his low key acceptance speech at the rose garden, where he declined to take questions from the press, he said he would accept the award as a "call to action". As he left the podium a reporter shouted "Mr. President what are you going to do with the award money?". Later in the day he revealed in a communique that he would be donating it to charity.

A few days ago President Obama passed on a meeting with fellow laureate the Dalai Lama in order to appease the Chinese, with whom he has a scheduled visit next month. It will be interesting to see what his "call to action" will entail. Will he be able to convince the Chinese to reduce their nuclear arsenal, will he be able to hold their feet to fire on issues of human rights and democracy as they strengthen their hold on more and more American debt. Will he be able to bring China and Russia on his side, without whom half the problems of the world can never be solved.

In my view, the peace protesters of Iran who gallantly fought for freedom shedding blood on the streets, deserved the prize this year. But unfortunately they did not have an Aung Song Su Kyi or Lech Walesa to put a face on their movement. But as a strategy maybe it was a more prudent choice to give it to a leader who can actually bring about effective change in a much larger sphere. In no means was this a controversial choice when compared with the likes of Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger. But without a doubt it has put more pressure on the President, something he could have done without at this moment in time. His presidency will be defined to the world in the shadow of this prize. And to a leader who has to make some of the toughest decisions on the planet, that could be a heavy cross to bear. It is what it is.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

M.K.G at 140

October 2nd went without notice here in the US. The only thing significant in the news was President Obama's epic journey to Copenhagen to bring the Olympics to Chicago. Which as we know was of no consequence. The only significant impression he left behind was his carbon footprint. Even in nuclear armed India, this day was low key as peace between Pakistan and India was more elusive than ever.

A child once asked President Obama to name one person that inspired him the most and his answer was Mahatma Gandhi. October 2nd was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's 140th birthday. He was one of the greatest men ever to walk the earth in the 20th century. Gandhi is the reason why phrases like peace, non-violence, human rights and equality truly make sense in our increasingly violent world. He defined what humanity meant and what it should mean if we were to live in peace in harmony.

"My life is my message" he said as he experimented with truth and all its complexities. His solution was simplicity. While his political life was controversial, for which he suffered a violent end, his philosophical and spiritual life without doubt was profound. He was a man beyond his time. Even though he was immersed in religiosity his outlook for the future was real and modern. He is as relevant today as Nietzsche, Marx, Kierkegaard, Plato or Sartre.

"Be the change you want to see in the world" he said and sparked the end of colonialism and launched the beginning of a new world order. Without him and his ideas there would be no King, Mandela or Aung Song Su Kyi. Without them there would be no end of apartheid, no desegregation and therefore no President Obama.

He was a man of action. An idea that could not be put into practice for human betterment held no interest to him. Seen from this moment in time not everything the Mahatma (the great one) wrote, said and did is acceptable. But what made him great, were not his monumental victories on the political front, but his humility to confront his flaws with moral strength. His moral courage was his strength.

So on this occasion I would like to put forth four of his ideas that profoundly impacted me and make more sense today than ever.

1. Control of the Palate. He believed the first place a human is seduced is on the palate. He believed eating is necessary only for sustaining a body and keeping it fit for service. It makes perfect sense as we find ourselves battling obesity as a global epidemic.

2. The concept of Swadeshi. One must purchase one's requirements as much as possible locally. He believed you could serve the world best by serving one's neighbor. He believed charity done close to home is most effective. Act locally think globally.

3. The doctrine of Ahmisa. Ahimsa literally means non-killing. He said it is not enough to just be non-violent in action. Harboring violent, negative and unpleasant thoughts was enough for you to depart from the idea of Ahimsa.

4. Sustainable living. He believed that with simple living the resources of the planet can sustain us comfortably and his famous words "earth provides us enough for our needs but not for our greed" is more true today than ever as we ponder the effects of climate change and the rape of the planet.

While many think Gandhi is passe, I think he is more relevant today than ever. While there is no shortage of rhetoric around ideas of peace, human rights, disarmament and equality, action is rare, measured or limited. He said "I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent". Something to contemplate as we deploy soldiers to keep the peace.

It is what it is.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Red Rain

When speaking or thinking about unparalleled human atrocity against fellow human beings in the twentieth century, the names of three people instantly come to mind. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. While for the most part Hitler and Stalin have found their rightful place in history, Mao continues to be revered and celebrated in China as a leader unsurpassed. The 60th anniversary celebrations that took place on October 1st - orchestrated to a jaw dropping gaudy spectacle - showed the Communist Party come of age, by wiping and reshaping its dirty past and consolidating its grip over a new generation with the seductive promise of capitalism.

The 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples Republic of China were very tightly managed. Only a select 30,000 were invited to see it in person, the rest were ordered to stay home and watch it on TV. All dissidents were arrested a few days before the event and media access was closely monitored. Apart from the impressive and wasteful fireworks display reminiscent of the recent Olympic orgy, Tiananmen Square looked more like North Korea than China. Military hardware was on glorious display, soldiers by the thousands marched in impeccable symmetry and hordes of carefully picked Chinese men, women and children sang nationalist songs as they marched down the boulevard in unison. The cult of personality of the party bosses and its past leaders was on full display, as gigantic portraits of Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Jiang Zemin and others were paraded on floats. It seemed like there was a deliberate attempt to hark back to the glory days, to send a message that the Communist Party was still in charge and stronger than ever.

What was obviously missing were solemn pauses for the lives lost during the Communist Party’s rise to power — not for the estimated tens of millions who died during the civil war, nor the millions of landlords, Nationalist sympathizers and other perceived enemies who were exterminated during Mao’s drive to consolidate power. Not for the siege at Changchun where an estimated 160,000 civilians were deliberately starved to death by Mao's army. The 40,000 who survived did so by eating insects, leather belts and, in some cases, the bodies that littered the streets. And of course no mark of respect for the countless who died during the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square uprising. This incident has so successfully been wiped out of the Chinese consciousness that if one were to google the words " Tiananmen Square" in China, just a few images of the landmark would sift through while outside China all you would see are countless images of the anonymous brave lone man standing in front of a convoy of tanks.

History is always written by the victors for the victors, and often the vanquished are committed to oblivion. In the case of China a whole generation's memory has been successfully conditioned through censorship, to forget the moments in its recent history that truly made its red flag red with blood.

It is hard to believe that just twenty years ago one would risk severe punishment if not seen wearing a Moa suit. Today a few in China can afford to wear Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. No country on earth has seen such a monumental change, in such a short time. At the same time somethings have not changed at all. China still puts more people to death than any nation in the world. Political dissent is not tolerated and human rights are ignored by giving enough of its people a chance to wear a western suit and a tie.

China will soon be the planets second largest economy and will solidify its unshakable influence on the globe and the Communist Party of China will take credit for it. So for this 60th celebration China showed its might by virtually controlling the weather. Clouds were artificially seeded and banished giving way to blue skies, the high command would not have it any other way. Rain was forbidden. As a sign of the times even the Empire State building in New York city, the erstwhile center of capitalism, turned its lights red on this day. It is what it is.