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.
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.