*Obama’s Dinner with Gandhi: Part II, A Few Thoughts on Food, Hunger, and Power

Obama, as I wrote a couple of days ago, told a young girl on the day that he addressed the nation’s school children that if he could have dinner with anyone, it would have to be Mohandas Gandhi. It is perhaps to Obama’s credit that he picked the least likely person with whom one might, from the culinary standpoint, enjoy a meal.  Such a meal would have been bereft of wine, lobster thermidor, meat, fowl, or fish in any form, indeed even cooked vegetables.  Gandhi, incidentally, never ate after sunset, but Obama, being the President of the United States and not of Spain, where dinner commences at 10 PM, would have had at least no difficulty on this score.  So Obama’s choice of a dinner companion, if only for a night, suggests that he has a real appetite for something other than food – an appetite for conversation and the exchange of ideas.   Moreover, who one allows at one’s dinner table tells a lot about that person, just as one can say a good deal about a society from the rules of commensality that govern it.

Nevertheless, the sight of the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s mightiest army partaking of a meal with the man who authored the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and helped to bring the British Empire to its knees is an intriguing one.  There will, of course, be many who will at once chirp in with observations about the Mahatma and his many ‘myths.’  It will be argued, in a rehearsal of what has been heard many times before, that the British were exhausted by War World II and decided to give up India, which in any case had become a liability.  On the Indian side, one encounters the argument that violent revolutionaries had a far greater hand in forcing the British to quit India than has been acknowledged.  And so on.  But, overlooking these predictable objections, one must consider another constellation of facts surrounding Gandhi and his eating habits.  Gandhi is history’s most astounding master of the fast.  Obama quipped about Gandhi’s small meals, but often Gandhi had no meals at all.   The term ‘hunger strike’ has often been used to describe Gandhi’s deployment of fasting as a weapon in a political cause, but fasting and hunger strike operate on two very different sets of assumptions.  The hunger strike is directed at someone else; the fast is always directed at oneself, even if it is also intended to influence another party.   Gandhi fasted not only in an endeavor to influence the actions or thinking of someone else, but because he viewed it as a way of cleansing the body:  if silence, which Gandhi observed one day a week, is another form of fulfilling the idea of emptiness, so is fasting.  But on such distinctions hang many other narratives.

Something like the dinner that Obama envisioned took place when Gandhi met the King Emperor at a tea party in his honor at Buckingham Palace on his last visit to London to negotiate for Indian independence.  I seem to recall that his companion and aide, Mirabehn, has narrated what transpired at that meeting.  The King Emperor was somewhat rude, since Gandhi had caused immense trouble in his realms.  Now, to top it all, the seditious Gandhi took out a pinch of salt that he had saved from the Salt March – which had forced the British to the negotiation table – and put it in a bowl of yogurt.   It is hard to think of Gandhi as a man rubbing salt into one’s wounds, but he may have done just that on that evening.  I daresay that Obama would have met more than his match at the dinner table with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

*On Drawing the Line, Twice: Obama, Fox News, and Illegal Immigrants

Yesterday, in what is already being described as an unprecedented event, Barack Obama appeared on five television talk shows. Today’s New York Times has five nearly identical photographs on the front page, each featuring Obama with one of his interlocutors. Somehow, poring over the photographs, I kept on thinking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Apart from the fact that his interlocutors were all white men — Jorge Ramos, anchor at Univision, is Hispanic, Mexican-born, but only someone like him can represent Mexican-Americans, not a woman or man of Indian descent — since they are evidently still the public face of America, those apparently still best entitled to an audience with the President of the United States, the most interesting news item pertained to the audience Obama did not have. Quite uncharacteristically, stated the New York Times, echoing what is doubtless a wider sentiment, Obama decided, in retaliation for Fox News’s decision not to broadcast his health care address to the nation some days ago, that he would not grant Fox News an audience. Obama drew the line.

Obama would not have been speaking to the choir had he chosen to engage directly with Fox News. The viewers of Fox News are almost certainly among his most dedicated foes, and Obama, so goes the conventional wisdom, has never been shy of taking the battle to his enemies. If he is to convert his skeptics and critics, it seems imperative that he should continue to engage them. So Obama’s decision to draw the line at Fox News is being viewed with some surprise, all the more so since he has represented himself, on numerous occasions, as someone who unites rather than divides. However, Obama appears to me to have acted judiciously, and not merely because Fox News is quite bereft of the norms of civility that do guide most other people in the conduct of human affairs. It is high time that Obama questioned his own self-presentation as the supreme ‘Unifier’ and began to understand that more, rather than less, divisiveness in some matters may be desirable in leading the country.

What is far more germane in assessing Obama is how he drew the line when he delivered his address on health care reforms to a joint session of the Congress and why he has not been taken to task for certain egregious assumptions about who all constitute the body of people known as ‘Americans’ or ‘citizens’. His address has now become famous for that infamous heckler, Joe Wilson, Republican member of the House from South Carolina, who publicly accused Obama with the words, ‘You lie.’ Little time need be wasted on troglodytes such as Wilson, but the words that provoked his outburst deserve far more attention: Obama said, “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms – the reforms that I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” So, as far as ensuring the health of people is in consideration, the ‘universal’ coverage of which Obama is a proponent would extend only to citizens and immigrants who are in the US legally. How can Obama abide by that distinction in the first place, and if the election of Obama marks a break-through, a watershed moment in American politics as his most fervent supporters claim, what does Obama’s strident repudiation of the rights and entitlement of all people present in the Untied States to health care benefits (and, for that matter, other social services and public schooling) tell us about his politics?

When will we relinquish the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, between documented and undocumented workers, citizens and non-citizens? Or is the response merely going to be that politics is for pragmatists, not idealists? The distinction that has been the pillar of immigration policy, between legal and illegal immigrants, is nearly sacrosanct in American political circles, and few are even the liberals in number who have taken a critical position on this matter. To describe a person as ‘undocumented’ is to render the person into oblivion, into a non-entity, and it staggers the imagination to suppose that undocumented or illegal aliens should be viewed as undesirables while those politicians elected to high places who repeatedly violated the United States constitution should be living comfortably in splendid retirement. As I wrote in my blog on May 31, in defense of ‘undocumented’ students who at great risk have advocated for their rights to state aid, it is these students, and their parents, who have embodied the finest aspirations of human beings. If at all the United States is to claim to being the most distinct immigrant society in human history, it can only do so with the awareness that no ethnic, racial, linguistic or religious group can now lay claim to this country, and the country belongs to all those who choose, as an expression of the right to unfettered movement across borders, to make it their home. Obama is yet to show that he is even remotely close to embracing this view.