Guest post: outing skeletons in the closet

This guest blog post comes to you courtesy of Silpa Kovvali, a blogger for The Huffington Post currently residing in New York City and a Really Smart Lady!

Andrew Roberts, it seems, has been holding in his deep seated hatred of Mohandas Gandhi for some time. I imagine he doesn’t come by many people willing to keep him company out there on that limb, so it’s easy to see why he’s resorted to twisting the words of Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India, to produce the kind of vitriolic drivel that passes for this Wall Street Journal book review.

Not that the article was a total loss! Shameless public mockery of South Asians is pretty hard to come by nowadays, so it’s a breath of fresh air to read that Gandhi didn’t cherish the sanctity of human life because, as a devout Hindu, he believed in reincarnation. And, of course, Roberts grants us this gem of enlightened discourse:

Gandhi’s organ probably only rarely became aroused with his naked young ladies, because the love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908…For some reason, cotton wool and Vaseline were “a constant reminder” of Kallenbach, which Mr. Lelyveld believes might relate to the enemas Gandhi gave himself, although there could be other, less generous, explanations.

Overall, it’s a huge relief that Roberts approached this delicate subject with the seriousness and maturity of a staff writer for TMZ.

Is Gandhi’s personal life worth exploring at all? Certainly. In Hampton Sides’s discussion of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., he argues that it is most fruitful to think of historical icons as a reminder that flawed individuals are capable of doing great things. “By calling our heroes superhuman we also let ourselves off the hook: Why do the hard work of bettering the world if that’s something only saints do?” Sides writes. Gandhi himself recognized the utility of acknowledging his imperfection,  fervently rejecting sainthood while compelling others to accept the doctrine of nonviolent non-cooperation.

The more specific practice of outing of closeted historical figures is useful in another sense. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in discussing the sexuality of Malcolm X, “Given the fact that masculinity is often constructed in opposition to homosexuality, and given that many Malcolm’s own acolytes have constructed it that way, the matter is quite relevant.” Similarly, Gandhi has been held up as a paragon of morality- Pastor Robert Bell’s recent bestseller questioning the rigidity of Evangelical doctrine arose from the claim that Gandhi was damned to Hell. Likewise, evidence that Gandhi was attracted to men might cause some of his admirers to reassess their view of homosexuality as sinful.

But when it comes to the matter of sexuality these are, of course, contradictory notions. To say that evidence of homosexuality is enough to knock Gandhi off his pedestal is equivalent to declaring that being gay is an unforgivable flaw. To say that homosexuality alone shouldn’t tarnish Gandhi’s legacy is to argue against the inherent immorality of a particular sexual preference. The latter is a useful exercise; the former is blatant hate speech.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    We’ve all got skeletons in the closet. I’m far from a famous person, and there are anecdotes culled from my past of which I am far from proud. There was a period in my life where I was unhappy, angry, and my bipolar disorder was still not properly treated. And if any number of things I said and did in that period were mentioned, I’d be humiliated. I’ve just always hoped that people saw through my illness.

    The question with lots of people is that there’s a compulsive need by some to deify heroes. This is rarely done for unselfish reasons. But without taking into account their flaws, we lack the complete picture. And yet we build heroes and saints all the while.

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