Vamsee Juluri Headshot

Nobel Obama, Noble Gandhi ... and These Ignoble Times

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It may be true that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for promise rather than achievement, but let us not forget that there is at least one point on which he has already proven himself -- and this is a point that Mahatma Gandhi, that greatest of Peace advocates, would have approved of. It is civility.

Civility may seem as frivolous a criterion for such an honor as "potential." But it is indeed a quality that we have started to notice frequently in its growing absence in political and even public culture. In the past few months, we have seen examples of the loss of civility in so many contexts that it may just seem like rancor, ugliness, and bad behavior are all simply here to stay. A President was called a liar by a member of an august institution, to his face. The same President has been called a thousand nasty -- and here's what's equally important -- immensely false names, not just by ordinary people, but by people in positions of accountable privilege, power, and visibility.

Yet, in spite of it all, Obama has remained the same person so many of us celebrated last November. He has stood with dignity and remained true to whatever ideals of civil conduct he believes in. He may not have delivered on many of his electoral promises, yet, but despite the disappointments the fact is that Obama has stayed true, in at least one Gandhian sense. He has not lowered himself one bit. He has remained peaceful, intelligent, inspiring, and inclusive (annoyingly, even on occasions when he really shouldn't have). He is still the Obama of "Hope." When millions of American voters bought that message last November, why should we even be surprised that the Peace prize committee did so too?

In all the commentary that is going around now about Obama there is something about him that I feel has been easily forgotten. It is being said that he is a man of "words" and not "actions." That distinction, I feel, is overrated. I admit to my own biases in saying that, but the fact is that words are powerful too, and can stand for something. Obama's words so far have stood for something, in him, and in us. That "something" may be different for all of us, but it is powerful, it is precious. I do not know exactly what it is, but I know its opposite. It's an orgy of verbal and visual ugliness hurling itself into our ears and eyes and minds and hearts on a million channels of mass, niche, and faction-mediated "communication," an insanity passing itself of as political debate, and most of all, an ignoble and almost irretrievably endless act of violence to Truth.

It was not without reason that Mahatma Gandhi said "There is no God greater than Truth." Truth, for Gandhi, was paramount, and in some ways no different from non-violence. Its absence, conversely, meant not only falsehood, but violence too. No wonder our public discourse reeks of anger. It is not just violence that has clouded our internet and TV channels, but it is equally falsehood too. Obama's impeccable manner, by contrast, speaks of a man with faith in his Truth, even if the practical and political expressions of that Truth so many of us are counting on from him are proving to be difficult and elusive. So it may be true that Obama's Nobel came sooner than anyone would have expected, and for no laudable peace treaties or troop withdrawals one could celebrate. But the fact is that it came for something more than just good intentions. In an age when neither political office nor Ph.D.s nor media pulpits are guarantees of basic human decency -- such as the ability to speak with courtesy, to refrain from delusion and ugliness in criticism, to respect the word and the airwave (or digital bit-byte as the case may be) -- to be led by a President who stands tall as a decent, intelligent human being is a worthy thing in itself. I do not think Obama was missing one bit of the truth when he said he viewed his Nobel as a recognition not just for him but for his people. True. In President Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize 2009 represents America, and represents the world. It represents us.

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