Were Our Most Celebrated Leaders All Good, Moral People? (Opinion Piece)

Before I really get into this piece, I just want to warn you that after reading it, you may never look at some of history’s most honored figures the same way ever again.

That being said, let’s start off in the present. Next Tuesday, November 4th, Americans will vote in the midterm elections to decide the political fate of the American Congress.

As usual, underhanded, and just downright offensive mud-slinging tactics have been being used for political gains all over the place.

This ad, which some people thought had racial undertones, was one of a series of ads attacking Will Guzzardi, a challenger for a House seat in Northwest Chicago

But let’s get away from the world of modern politics for a second and examine some of our most honored and celebrated leaders. The ones who made great strides towards the positive advancement of mankind.

People like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. Surely these were truly good, moral people right? Well, let’s check out the record.

Gandhi is most famous for popularizing the method of non-violent protest while leading the Indian Independence movement in the early 1900s, when India was still a British colony.

What most people don’t know about Gandhi is that he was a big proponent of India’s caste system, and that during the 20 or so years he spent in South Africa he repeatedly expressed unapologetic racism towards native South Africans.

That’s according to Joseph Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, and former editor of the New York Times. He made the revelations in his book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.

From The Huffington Post

“We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs [offensive term equivalent to the n-word],” Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there. “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”

 

Many black South Africans say that the term “kaffir” is actually more offensive than the “n-word”, since it isn’t used in black South African culture like the “n-word” is used in African American culture.

Gandhi shortly after arriving in South Africa in 1895 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Gandhi shortly after arriving in South Africa in 1895 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Ok so Gandhi had his issues. But what about Mother Teresa, who set up over 500 Catholic missions in 100 countries to provide, “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”?

Well, in recent years, there has been an increasing amount of evidence that much of Mother Teresa’s international fame was the result of a PR campaign by Catholic officials at the Vatican.

A recent study by researchers from Canada also calls into question how the millions of dollars raised by Mother Teresa’s foundation were spent.

“The controversial study, to be published this month in the journal of studies in religion/sciences called Religieuses, says that Teresa — known across the world as the apostle of the dying and the downtrodden — actually felt it was beautiful to see the poor suffer. According to the study, the Vatican overlooked the crucial human side of Teresa — her dubious way of caring for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it,”

 

said Kounteya Sinha of The India Times, who reported on the study last March.

The researchers made their conclusions by examining 96% of the, “originally researched, published works” about Mother Teresa, according to the University of Montreal’s website.

Mother Teresa talks to one of the 37 children she evacuated from West Beirut at the Missionaries of Charity school in East Beirut on Aug. 15, 1982 (Photo: Alexis Duclos, AP via USA Today)

Mother Teresa talks to one of the 37 children she evacuated from West Beirut at the Missionaries of Charity school in East Beirut on Aug. 15, 1982 (Photo: Alexis Duclos, AP via USA Today)

And what about Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the American Civil Rights movement and champion of universal human rights worldwide?

The positive impact King had on the trajectory of the United States is undeniable, but it is also fairly undeniable that he was somewhat of a womanizer, and was regularly unfaithful to his wife Coretta.

FBI wiretapping of the King family revealed that King engaged in so many affairs that Coretta was starting to become disillusioned with their marriage.

In fact, the FBI even sent Coretta an audio tape of King during one of his questionable “encounters” at a hotel Washington, D.C., in an attempt to discredit the Civil Rights leader in his own home.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wife Coretta Scott in December of 1964, right before departing for Norway where King would receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Photo: AP)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wife Coretta Scott in December of 1964. The picture was taken right before the couple departed for Norway, where King would receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Photo: AP)

Ok. Let me first apologize for unloading all of that information onto you so quickly. If you’re someone who was completely unaware of all of this, the revelations can be a lot to handle, especially all at once.

If I have destroyed your perception of some of your longtime heroes, I am truly, truly sorry. These people are my heroes too, and it hurt me as well to find out all of these not-so-savory details about their lives.

But making these discoveries also led me to a realization that, to me at least, is much more valuable than my old glorified perception of people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr.

The realization: we are all human. Even the people we tend to look at as being on an elevated level in terms of their morality and humanity have human flaws, just like the rest of us.

And that brings me to my bigger point: how would we treat a major public figure today if they engaged in some of the behaviors that Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Gandhi are alleged to have taken part in?

Photo: Sarah Lee via The Guardian

Photo: Sarah Lee via The Guardian

We would destroy them. Their character would be torn to shreds on both mainstream and social media. They would be labeled a fraud, and at the very least, their reputation would be forever tarnished.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying we should just forgive and forget everything. Moral standards exist for a reason, and public figures like politicians should be held to a higher standard, if only because they are supposed to represent us, the people.

But what if the technology we have today existed back when the historic leaders I referenced were around? Would they have even gotten the chance to accomplish all the great things that they did accomplish? This is a humbling, and, quite frankly, scary thought.

And with partisan politics at a fever pitch ahead of the midterms, I hope that it serves as a reminder that so many of the accusations being thrown around in today’s elections seem petty in comparison to the flaws of some of history’s greatest leaders.

I guess what I’m trying to say is we’re all human. Let’s steer away from all this inflammatory political theater and actually start discussing issues that matter. Until we are able to do that, we will continue to have a Congress that reflects the current political reality in America: highly polarized and unwilling to agree on anything.

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