There are many interesting contrasts to be found in history. By putting two personalities side by side and comparing their lives, one often gains valuable insights and lessons. Consider two famous reformers whose lives overlapped; Mohandas Ghandi (1869-1948) and American Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957).
For those who may not be aware of their stories, Mohandas Ghandi was an Indian lawyer who fought for civil rights for Indians in South Africa and then later was one of the leaders of the movement to achieve the independence of India from British rule.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was also a lawyer who became a Republican senator in the USA from 1947-1957, the post-war period when communist Russia was growing in power and spreading its influence around the world. Many in the USA felt as threatened by communism as they do today by Muslim extremists and terrorists. This led to the “Cold War”, in which no actual fighting took place between Russia and America, but a tense state of rivalry existed continuously. McCarthy was at the forefront of the movement to keep communism out of America.
These two men tried to change their societies for the better, or at least what they each saw as being better. Ghandi saw the injustice of South African racism and fought to create fairness and equality between whites, blacks and Indians. He saw how Imperial Britain was plundering his native land India for its own selfish purposes and fought for the freedom of his people. McCarthy saw a great threat from Communism in America and fought to stop its ideas spreading in the nation built upon democracy, individual ambition and the free market.
But where Ghandi often looked for the good in others and within himself, McCarthy saw evil where it did not exist. While Ghandi had a very strong grip on reality, McCarthy believed and acted upon falsehoods. For Ghandi, truth was paramount. He refused to take advantage from anything that was false, no matter how much it might benefit his cause and advance his goals. He went so far as to identify God with Truth, a very Christian concept! With this attitude, it is no wonder that he was brutally truthful with himself, weeding out his own failings and inconsistencies constantly and thus treating others with a deep and genuine humility. Perhaps it was because he set such a high standard of truth for his own inner life that he was able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood so easily in his external life.
McCarthy on the other hand took the opposite view. In order to achieve his goals, he was willing to arrogantly throw unsubstantiated accusations at people left right and centre, thus stirring up mass hysteria. While some of his allegations turned out to be true, time has shown that most of them were exaggerated or totally false. He was in fact, a skilled exponent of the “Conspiracy Theory”. This is a well known phenomenon in modern society (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory). Its common features include allegations of secret plots, usually carried out by shady characters who appear innocent but have great hidden power or influence. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are very hard to discredit. When anyone points out the obvious mistakes in them, they are immediately painted as being part of the conspiracy! McCarthy accused even many of his fellow politicians as being closet communists, which no doubt contributed to his own eventual self-destruction.
Another stark difference is evident in the tactics and ethics of the two reformers. On one occasion, as Ghandi was a leading a major protest against the British, he insisted that the protest be halted over the Christmas break. He would not take the Christian police and security guards away from their families on a day he knew to be very precious and special for them, even though he himself was Hindu and not Christian.
On the other hand, we find McCarthy willing to bully and threaten, abusing his position as a senator throwing wild allegations around that tarnished the name of many good people and organisations unnecessarily. He seems to have felt no compassion for the many lives he damaged, for the innocent wives and children of those he wrongly accused of being communist.
Both Ghandi and McCarthy had enemies who opposed them and did their best to discredit them. But again, it is interesting to note the character of their respective enemies. Ghandi’s enemies used smear and innuendo together with unjust imperial power to try to stop him. McCarthy’s enemies were not opposed to his goals, but rather to his tactics, and used the legitimate power of the senate and common sense arguments to censure him and stop his irrational witch hunt.
Both men suffered for their efforts. Ghandi spent a number of years in jail throughout his campaigns, a situation he accepted with calmness and dignity. Nor did he allow this painful experience to weaken his commitment to his noble goals, nor to embitter his feelings. In a most Christ-like display of forgiveness, he held nothing against his enemies and treated them always with dignity and respect. Through this patient and confident strength, he overcame his enemies. He was an example to his countrymen, an example that was probably the biggest factor in the fact that independence came to India peacefully, rather than with a bloody war of independence. In the end, he was assassinated: the man who fought for peace and non-violence all his life died by violence. But his legacy lives on until today. India celebrates his birthday as a public holiday, and it is also International Day of Non-Violence.
With time, the rational majority in the USA began to feel uncomfortable with McCarthy’s fanaticism and his conspiracy theories. Courageous senators began to stand up against him and openly challenge his tactics, thus running the risk of being accused of being communists or communist sympathisers themselves. But in the end, sanity prevailed, and in 1954 the American Senate censured McCarthy; a rare dishonour. This broke his power and effectively put an end to his policies. From that time on, he was shunned by other senators who would leave the chamber when he spoke, or blatantly turn their backs to him and ignore him. His public popularity waned, and he died three years later, most likely from alcohol-induced liver failure.
One would imagine that Ghandi died with a sense of peace, having maintained his integrity all his life, and having lived and died for the principles he believed in so strongly. McCarthy on the other hand, appears to have fallen into alcoholism during his later years and died a broken man.
Perhaps this contrast can teach us much about life. It is not enough to have noble goals. The way we go about achieving our goals is often just as important as the goals themselves. “The end does not justify the means”, the famous proverb says, and McCarthy’s life is an ample illustration of the truth of that saying.
Devotion to Truth is another of the major lessons I see here. Ghandi’s insistence upon truth and his unwillingness to accept or use innuendo, allegations or gossip to his own advantage raised him above his enemies and many of his fellow reformers. McCarthy’s crass self-serving methods discredited him and lost him the respect of his fellow Americans, so that “McCarthysim” has passed into the English language as a most derogatory term. Sadly, he might have been a hero of history had he used more ethical methods. The difference was Truth. Both of them claimed to be telling the truth, but only one of them really was.
For a brief summary of their lives, the interested reader will find Wikipedia useful:
I have not yet read a good biography of Joe McCarthy, but I can highly recommend Ghandi’s autobiography; “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”.