PERSON OF THE CENTURY?Rumors are circulating that the person of the century in Time magazine's year-end issue will be Franklin Roosevelt. That is not a bad choice. Hitler and Stalin may have had a deeper influence, but not one as lasting. Yet Roosevelt's long-term legacy, for the larger government of the New Deal, is always under attack, and the more vital influence that perdures into the next millennium may be that of his wife, with all the consequences of women's changed status. Yet Eleanor Roosevelt would not be my choice for the person of the century. That would be Gandhi. On several grounds.
1. The greatest political change that occurred in the 20th century was the one that remade the map of the world. In the second half of this century, the colonial empires disappeared. A third of the habitable globe was ruled, in 1940, by a handful of countries in Europe. England alone held a quarter of the land on that globe, making George Orwell mock the claim that Britain was fighting for self-determination in the Second World War. With the breakup of these empires, dozens of nations were born, an entire new world order came into being, and self-determination was a reality, not just a bit of Woodrow Wilsonian rhetoric.
No person was more important in these developments than Gandhi, who assisted in the demise of the greatest empire in history, one that dwarfed the Greek and Roman empires of the ancient world. More than that, he accomplished his task in a non-violent way that gave a moral basis for other peoples struggling for their own nationalities. I cannot think of another figure who was so vital to such a large-scale change in world power.
2. Gandhi was not only an important leader in himself; he inspired and gave intellectual depth to other great leaders, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela. All non-violent activities undertaken for human dignity and justice in the years subsequent to his activity have drawn on his example and teachings -- the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay movement. Other candidates for the role of person of the century, like Dr. King and Mandela, would have deferred to him as their mentor. He was not only great in himself, but the cause of greatness in others.
3. Gandhi's achievement was the more striking because it did not depend on the power of any office -- he was not a president or an elected official when he performed his great deeds. I am an admirer of President Roosevelt. But he, like our other war presidents (Washington, Lincoln, Wilson), was helped on his way to greatness by the rallying of a nation to its leaders in the passionate time of war.
Gandhi showed us the power of spiritual example. That is a lesson that will outlast not only this century, but any eras left to human endeavor on this Earth. It was a demonstration of what it means to be human and humane. It was stellar proof that the greatest leadership of all is that of the saints.
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