Composer Philip Glass wrote his third opera, the seminal "Satyagraha," in 1979. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's formative years in South Africa and the development of his philosophy, the work had its Metropolitan Opera premiere in April 2008. Glass has said, "Almost all the techniques of protest -- now the common currency of contemporary political life -- were invented and perfected by Gandhi during his South Africa years." Here, Glass explains the inspiration for his opera, which returns in November 2011.
More than one hundred years ago Mahatma Gandhi began his movement for social change through non-violence in South Africa. It became known by its Sanskrit name -- Satyagraha, the force of truth. It was an activist movement, a strategy to force the South African government to restore the civil rights of the Indian population who had been invited there as "guest workers." However, on arriving there, mainly from India, there they found that their rights as citizens of India had been withdrawn. It included the right to own property, to vote and even to marry.
When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, his views were firmly grounded in non-violence, and with that as his guide he developed all the strategies used today in efforts geared towards social change through non-violence. Marches, occupying public places, burning registration cards, filling the jails and even starting his own newspaper ('Indian Opinion') -- all these were initiated, developed and applied until new agreements were made with the South African government before his return to India in 1914. His successes in India were a long struggle that finally led to Indian Independence in 1947.
To put it simply, he changed the world of his time and ours as well.
In America we know this as a fact. Our own civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., brought us to the beginnings of a new view of society, the one demanded by our own constitution -- liberty and justice for all regardless of race, religion or gender.
And it didn't stop there. The anti-war movements were empowered by Gandhi's history and our own. Further, these principles of non-violent social change are not confined to the "Left" but have, in recent years, been aptly used by the political "Right" as well.
All good, as far as I'm concerned. Now, for the first time in almost three generations, American citizens have taken to the streets again in the name of "Occupy Wall Street." But it has already gone way past Wall Street. Truthfully it has become "Occupy Main Street." It is national, grassroots and independent. In responding to the general frustration and sadness we feel, these "movements" have taken up once again these basic principles of activism and non-violence.
We should be proud that the basic guarantees of free speech and assembly are at the core of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Those who would deprive us of these "inalienable rights" are the real radicals.
Let no group or party exploit what many of us see as the growth of ignorance and indifference in society. Policies that lead to short-sighted political and economic gain will be easily seen for what they are.
The best guarantee for our future and that of our children will, and has always been, educated, active citizens. So, when it comes to "Occupy Main Street," let us not forget that these are Americans, ourselves in fact, who are exercising their rights and duties as citizens. And by exercising them, they preserve them for everyone.
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