Gandhi Flip-Flops and MLK Day

Yesterday it was reported that outrage has stirred in India due to a consumer item advertised on Amazon. The item was a pair of flip-flop sandals with an image of Mahatma Gandhi’s face on the top of them. The sandals cost 16.99$ and required that the user put their feet directly on Gandhi’s face while wearing them, which would almost be comedic if it weren’t so sad.

This incident comes a short while after another consumer related scandal, this one being a doormat with India’s flag on it for guests to wipe their feet on. The people of India’s anger is understandable, although it’s important that they direct their anger towards the right place.

Amazon’s image of the sandals being sold.

What would propel someone to wear flip-flops with Gandhi’s face on them? I imagine that it would be someone that superficially idolized the man, meaning some hipster in the U.S. that vaguely knows the man’s actions and think it’s a sign of rebellion to wear them. I imagine it being the same crowd that wears Che Guevara t-shirts despite never reading his work and never studying the Cuban revolution. 

There’s another incident we can compare this to. Living in Memphis, I remember the first time I visited the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. It was a high school field trip and we were lining up outside the National Civil Rights Museum built into the remains of the motel, and I witnessed an odd spectacle. Right across the street a man had set up a small booth, holding up signs and passing out pamphlets to protest the actions of the museum. We were told not to even look at the man, and being just far enough away I couldn’t make out exactly what his signs were saying.

Well at the end of the tour there’s a section where you can go across the street and view the room that James Ray shot MLK from. That was my chance to slip away and go see what the man across the street was protesting, and sure enough he was protesting the gift shop. He was protesting the profit that the museum was making from exploiting Dr. King’s image and putting it on, let’s be honest, crap that people don’t need.

And sure enough, the last room you go through on the tour is the gift shop. You can’t leave the building without walking through the gift shop. Oh of course the teachers and chaperones gave us enough time to purchase anything we wanted from there before leaving. There were inspirational posters, a few books, but mostly coffee mugs and shot glasses with Dr. King’s face on it.

MLK was largely anti-capitalistic, and I have no doubt he would have condemned such useless trinkets for people to buy, just as Gandhi would have. It leads me to believe the people buying those items weren’t truly inspired by King, instead they got the whitewashed high school history version of the story, and then only pretended to be inspired by him. I understand that may offend a great deal of people, but let’s think rationally for a moment. Take this quote from King himself:

I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human system it fail victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness.

There are two ways that I can see help remedy this phase of making commercial products out of history’s heroes. The first is to actually educate our population about the people we supposedly idolize. I don’t think anyone actually educated in what Dr. King stood for would buy a shot glass with his face on it, at least I hope not. The second thing to do is not give products like this a viable market.

The whole reason we see products with MLK and Gandhi on them is because there is a market for them, it’s because for some reason people keep buying this crap. You don’t simply protest Amazon for selling those items, that doesn’t diminish the market for them, you protest the market itself. Once people no longer want them, or better yet, when they refuse to buy them at all, then those items won’t be produced anymore.

If we are to actually honor these figures, it’s the least we could do.

12 thoughts on “Gandhi Flip-Flops and MLK Day

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  1. I see your point, and I agree with you because it’s the same I feel about certain items with Bob Marley’s image on them, but I think it will be hard to erase that market and I wonder if it’s possible to do so. Many people see those trinkets as simple mementos and don’t consider what they connotate, like wiping your feet on India’s flag.


  2. Amen to that, and while we’re at it, can we not have gift shops at art galleries selling reproductions on great art on T-shirts!
    But seriously, having seen the trouble caused by people rioting over what they interpret as great offence, I tend to think that national symbols are taken much too seriously in many cultures but there’s a fine line between being ironic and provocative and really, we just don’t need these sorts of dramas on top of everything else.


  3. On the whole I agree, but the HS kids can only be pretending to be inspired if they know they’re not — and I would hazard to suggest, on the whole, that their world is so shallow that they don’t even know or recognize the disjoint between the consumer act (on the one hand) and the life and thought of the figure whose image is on the product (on the other).

    As for the capitalist logic: I’m not sure how you would propose to transcend it, beyond education. It seems to me that capitalism is largely restrained by other concerns and drives and institutions.


  4. I am from India. If Gandhi was alive, he would have been the first person to tell everyone to stop these talks over selling of slippers, doormats etc. It’s simple, if you find something that offends your sentiments in the market, just don’t buy it.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I dont agree with MLK’s economic stance. Social norms are a different matter and I am completely behind him there. But then again he wasnt an entrepreneur. But again, that’s not the point.
    By trying to “protest the market” the only thing that would be accomplished is give say in this case, the Ghandi flip flops new meaning, and that of free speech, and free will. The moment somebody imposes their believe on another, they will find strong resistance.
    Another matter is, that there is some confusion in our generation between what capitalism was, and what we call today as such. Today we are closer to communism that ever before. A business is based on supply and demand, and follows certain well established laws. And when those laws are “broken” the business fails.
    But in today’s world, we have bailouts. Does it matter if a business is nationalized or bailed out? In the end, it’s still the public, the taxpayer that pays, and the CEOs in the current system or directors of communist factories of old (or still of modern China, VIetnam etc) that live in opulent luxury with insane pay–regardless of their skill and business outcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People have protested markets for as long as markets have been around. People protest selling drugs and alcohol on moral grounds, just as people protested child labor in our early labor markets. I don’t want a free market society if it means all things are permitted. Freedom is not the freedom of choice.

      Furthermore, to say that we as a society are closer to communism than before loses all credibility with me. Where do you see worker control of society’s surplus and an abolished state? Surely nowhere in the world, not even in those “communist” factories you mention. They are communist in name only.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. The “Free Market” as an ideal is just that, an ideal. In reality, groups tend to impose limits of one sort or another on markets. The moralist loves to castigate unbridled greed in capitalism without bothering to investigate the very subject he or she rails against. All those filthy rich CEOs are the result not of unbridled but the various laws enacted by both the state legislatures and the federal government. If you don’t like the gigantic global corporations simply revoke the corporation laws. We could easily go back to business ownership by individuals and partners. Corporations are only good at economies of scale and sometimes that economy of scale benefits only the corporation and not the collective whole.

    Of course that begs another set of questions about doing business in this country and the rest of the world. Imagine a world where the owners of a company are personally liable for any malfeasance produced by either the production of their goods, like pollution, or the use of their goods, such as deadly chemicals. One man might manufacture arsenic and find that he has a product that is useful for pest control, kills rats, and thins blood. But how do we treat this same man if he sells that poison to another individual who uses it to kill his or her spouse? Do we hold the maker of that poison liable, both criminally and civilly liable for its misuse? As adults we are free to exercise our choice in buying arsenic as a pesticide. Children, on the other hand are restricted from buying such chemicals. So you see, the ideal of a free market is only that. In practice it never exists as we always place some restrictions to the markets. And we also limit our exercise of free choice.

    But wait a minute, that can’t be true. Ah, do you wear your seat belt while driving your vehicle? You are compelled to wear it by law. If you choose not to obey that law you can be finned if discovered by the appropriate police action. So how was it that we came to give up that freedom of choice? Oh, that’s right, we needed to save hundreds if not thousands of lives in automobile accidents. That is why children must wear a helmet while riding their bicycles. And so it goes, we see our freedom to choose curtailed in the name of doing good for us. We must protect the consumer from his or her bad judgment regardless of whether the seller or producer was trying to defraud them. We must limit free speech in the name of protecting those who deem what they hear from others as “Hate Speech”. Notice that we use the “State” as the means to those ends. The State must know best and everyone should acknowledge those in charge as having the best judgment in all such matters. One of my favorite films was “The President’s Analyst”, a great little black comedy. The Russian agent sent to kidnap the psychiatrist to the president explained “that every year the USSR grows a little more capitalist and every year the USA grows a little more socialist. On of these days we will meet in the middle.”

    So, just for the record, democracy is a very messy affair. With a dictatorship one knows where one stands, it’s a given. When a democracy becomes more intrusive into the affairs of its citizens and relies on the excuse that it knows best, then that democracy sees a growth in large government that seeks control of the populace. Oh, no bureaucrat ever thought of creating a dominion over the citizenry. No, just expand the scope and role of his department or agency, make more regulations while not being beholden to anyone, and so the growth of government goes until the people are about as regulated as possible. We call that fascism, communism and dictatorships and even socialist “democracies” are a part of that general term. The last thing I want is a government that will protect me from myself. Remember, there are no quick and easy answers or solutions in human endeavors.


  7. can understand the outrage of those who take exception to the manufacture of flip-flops with the likeness of a national flag or national hero/patriarch when showing one’s feet to said icon is a show of disrespect. The point is that when one is marketing to other cultures one must have some familiarity with that culture. Chevrolet tried to market a very good automobile in South America and found sales very disappointing. The Nova was a good car. But no va in Spanish means no go or does not go or run. One can find a great many of these examples of marketing gaffes. The problem is one of ignorance and an unwillingness to do due diligence in ones research. I don’t believe it is a matter of a culture being too “sensitive”. Culture being the living collection of values recognized by its adherents, one simply does not abandon that sense of values, morals, and goals because a marketer is ignorant. But calling “crass commercialism” an evil culprit is not the answer. Ignorance in the problem and if one wishes to market to the world one should do one’s research. What is being called into question is that basic laziness that afflicts all humans, that taking shortcuts that really don’t work. Remember, the world is full of stupidity and it is something that we cannot fix.


  8. Well-written article. However, as an Indian I would also like to point out that we have a tradition of touching the feet of our elders as a sign of respect. Also, if your foot hits another person by mistake, say in a bus or crowded market, one instinctively puts out a hand to the other person’s body and then touches the hand to their own forehead as a sign of asking forgiveness. So, in such a culture to put the face of a man, who is almost a God, on something you would put on your feet is the grossest bit of ignorance on Amazon’s marketing team. For example, we are constantly amazed when Americans wear shorts and even swimming trunks with their national flag on it – but that is alright for the society they live in and is considered freedom of expression. 😊


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