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I Have Found the Next Gandhi

Andy Birnbaum

There is an old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. So in the current military industrial complex, the government's solution to every problem is to use violence against persons it perceives as "enemies."

For those of us who see the world differently, decisions are not so simple. I have been studying active nonviolence for a little over a year now. I am enthralled with it for a simple reason: it is empowering. Rather than complaining to like-minded friends about the world's problems, I realize I have the power to affect change. All power still resides in we the people, just as it always have. We the people just need to reclaim it.

There are many different definitions of nonviolence. To me, active nonviolence is the means through which we reclaim the power and autonomy we previously ceded to other people and institutions. As the name implies, the underlying behaviors are neither violent nor passive. Examples of nonviolent action include street protests, boycotting businesses that behave immorally, and/or openly disobeying unjust laws. There are tons of possibilities. Unfortunately, we mistake this abundance of options for having none at all. We envy the government because it has only a hammer and foolishly wish our choices were as limited. But we must recognize choice is our greatest strength. Our metaphorical toolbox is empty precisely because it contains every possible tool.

So how do we decide which tool to use? First a disclaimer: I am still a relatively new student of active nonviolence, and hardly an expert. But I am totally enthralled, so here goes:

One of the greatest instances of active nonviolence was remarkably simple: when the occupying British prohibited Indians from producing salt for themselves, Mahatma Gandhi led a march to the ocean to openly defy this ban. The action was effective because everyone understood it; humans need salt to survive, so of course Indians would want to produce it for themselves. The action also presented every Indian with a simple activity (boiling ocean water to produce salt) they could undertake to reclaim their autonomy from the British, thereby allowing the entire nation to participate in the independence campaign.

To offer a second example, Gandhi persuaded Indians to spin their own cotton, enabling them to boycott imported British cloth. What might have seemed like a tedious task (spinning cotton) became a way for Indians to increase their self-reliance and withdraw financial support from the oppressive British empire.

So we can ask ourselves: what is the modern day equivalent of Indian salt (something we all need to survive which the current corporate government does not allow us to produce for ourselves)? What is the modern day equivalent of imported cloth (something we purchase from an oppressive foreign power which we could instead produce ourselves?) And we are obviously not limited to these two issues.

Just following Gandhi's lead, we could stop driving gas-powered vehicles and instead ride bicycles or use public transportation. We could only buy organic produce from local farmers who pay their workers a fair wage. Yes, these actions might seem inconvenient and expensive. But are they really more inconvenient or expensive than asking a fellow human being to risk his or her life in the middle east to secure our ability to drive Hummers? Or to ask our children to be guinea pigs in an experiment to see how genetically engineered crops affect human health long term?

I did not say exercising our power would be easy. I did not say we would not have to sacrifice, and we almost certainly will. But please realize you do have massive power, and myriad constructive options for using it. And many of the options are less demanding then the ones I identified above. It is okay to start small. But please do start.

Relatedly, people sometimes say that difficult times produce compelling leadership. For people on the left, I doubt we'll see a time that calls for leadership more than the present. Our nation has deep problems related to ongoing wars, massive unemployment and devastating environmental disasters. If there has ever been a time that called out for real progressive leadership, it is now.

So where is the leader? When does he or she appear? I have the answer.

The leader will appear this very moment, because nothing happens in the past or the future, only the present.

And who is the leader?

You are.

Think about it. You have been waiting for a leader to emerge, and every other person is waiting for "someone else" too. So please, I am begging you, fulfill your destiny and lead. (I honor the efforts of existing progressive activists, but I suspect they would agree there is room for more leadership).

If you think you are too insignificant to make a difference, you are not only disempowered, you are lying to yourself. If you are physically small, so was Gandhi. And if you suffer stage fright, so did he. So if a physically small man with stage fright could lead the Indians to reclaim their country from the British empire, you can achieve anything using the same nonviolent methods. And even if your journey is long and riddled with setbacks, there is nothing more empowering to a frustrated people than seeing someone trying to affect change.

If active nonviolence makes sense to you, and you are ready to be a leader, here is the next step: you must study nonviolent theory and history. I did my best with this article, but it is only the briefest of introductions. Take some time to read a book or take a class (videos of relevant UC-Berkeley courses are available online). Learn about Gandhi's life, and the lives of other practitioners, such as Martin Luther King and Rev. James Lawson. I know, I know. I have given you this huge build-up about active nonviolence and urged you to take action, and now I am telling you a book? But reading a book, taking a class, or otherwise learning about active nonviolence is one of the strongest actions you can take. It is that fabled first step on a very liberating journey of empowerment.

So please take that first step and study active nonviolence. But hurry.

You are the leader you have been waiting for. There is no one else.

And do not worry if you doubt your own abilities. I believe in you.

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Andrew Birnbaum lives in Los Angeles, California.  His prior writings appear at his shared blog,

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