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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, May 23rd, 2002


 

Power Politics

by Arundhati Roy

The Anti-American

A review by Ian Buruma

Brilliant people can be remarkably obtuse. The critic and novelist John Berger declares, in his introduction to Arundhati Roy's collection of political essays, that the American war in Afghanistan is an "act of terror against the people of the world." He also states that the nineteen hijackers "gave their lives" on September 11 "as did three hundred and fifty-three Manhattan firemen," as though there were no difference between people who die to commit mass murder and those who die to save lives. And the killings in New York and Washington, Berger informs us, were "the direct result of trying to impose everywhere the new world economic order (the abstract, soaring, groundless market) which insists that man's supreme task is to make profit."

The soaring market in Algeria? The new world economic order in Sudan? Profit-making in Afghanistan? Ah, if only. There were no doubt many reasons for the suicidal murder spree at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but global capitalism surely comes low on the list. Islam ism flourishes precisely in places that are relatively or even absolutely untouched by IBM or Motorola or even, strange to say, McDonald's. If the new economic order were the problem, why didn't the terrorists come from Bangkok, or Hong Kong?

Still, John Berger is the right man to introduce Arundhati Roy's collection of political polemics. Few intellectual voices have been as ubiquitous as Roy's after September 11, and few quite so shrill. Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, a novel read by millions all over the world. Her articles have appeared all over the world, too, in -- among other publications -- The Guardian, Le Monde, El País, and Der Spiegel. One reason people listen to her, apart from her literary fame, is that she has positioned herself, successfully, as an authentic Third World voice. And like Lee Kuan Yew, a very different kind of Asian voice, she is highly articulate in English, a winning combination.

Roy does not like to be called an "activist," but she has stuck her neck out for a variety of causes. Some of them, such as the protest against potentially catastrophic dam-building projects in India, are certainly worth fighting for. So for that she should be commended. Yet, at the same time, Roy has a tendency to sound preposterous. Her reaction to the events of September 11 was that we would never know what had motivated the hijackers, but that "Mickey Mouse," that is to say, the United States, was not a viable alternative to "the mullahs." (She made this pronouncement on "Nightline" on November 3, 2001.) The snobbery of her tone alone betrays the lingering, if perhaps unconscious, influence in India of British lefties from the end of the Raj. It is the language of the Bloomsbury drawing room. You could well imagine Bertrand Russell taking this line.

The question is whether Roy's preposterousness undermines the causes that she promotes. Ramachandra Guha, a well-respected scholar and writer in India, thinks that it does. In a sharp attack on Roy's political statements, published in the newspaper The Hindu in November 2000, Guha argued that Roy should stick to writing novels, because her vanity and her self-indulgence devalues the work of more serious activists. He mentioned as an example her efforts on behalf of the movement against the huge expensive dams in western India, which will displace hundreds of thousands of poor people. The cause is just, but Guha believes that Roy's grandstanding on its behalf, which recently earned her a well-publicized night in jail, made a spectacle of her at the expense of the anti-dam movement.

The quarrel between Roy and Guha has implications that go beyond the Indian borders. It touches upon celebrity culture, on the uses of literary fame in political causes, on the public role of the writer in a democracy, and on the intellectual roots of anti-Americanism. For these reasons alone, Roy's recent writings merit closer attention.

Arundhati Roy may have come late to the anti-dam movement, as Ramachandra Guha says, but she did so in 1999, when the movement was in poor shape. She revived flagging spirits among the activists and put their goals back in the public eye. Building huge dams has been almost a fetish of Indian governments since Nehru, who made the famous statement (later regretted) that dams were "the temples of modern India." The Hoover Dam was the original model for this kind of thing, but it was Soviet-style nationalist machismo that inspired developing countries such as India. Dams are the very models of Stakhanovite enterprise, the perfect symbols of massive modernity. The Chinese are still at it, too.

The results, as Roy has been at pains to point out, have often been disastrous. During the last fifty years, as many as fifty million mostly poor, low-caste Indians have lost their homes and livelihoods as a consequence of big dam projects. The benefits go mostly to the urban rich, while many peasants still have no access to safe drinking water. And even the benefits are often exaggerated. In the case of one big Indian dam, only five percent of the area that was promised irrigation actually received any water.

All this is bad enough, especially for the dislocated poor. There is really no need for tasteless comparisons. But Roy writes: "Shall we just put the Star of David on their doors and get it over with." It is not immediately clear what gallery she is playing to here -- her essays were written for Indian readers -- but the effect diminishes the power of her message.

The Sardar Sarovar plan to build 3,200 dams on the Narmada River, which runs through three states in western India, is designed to be the biggest dam project of all. Roy says that it will submerge and destroy 4,000 square kilometers of forestland, and displace hundreds of thousands of people without adequate plans for re location or compensation. The other odd aspect of this huge irrigation scheme is that it will benefit only one of the three states, Gujarat, while the sacrifices are all to be born by villagers in the other two, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Guja rat is naturally all in favor of this, as was the World Bank, at least initially. An enterprise that began as a form of Third World mimicry of Soviet methods now finds its most vociferous defenders among free-marketeers, right-wing Hindu chauvinists in the Indian government, and Western corporations. One of the most disturbing stories in Power Politics, Roy's essay against the dams, is about the way Enron squeezed billions of dollars out of the state of Maharashtra for a power plant that most local industries cannot even afford to tap.

Critical studies of big dam building began to appear in India in the 1980s. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a movement of protest specifically against the Sardar Sarovar dam, organized demonstrations and strikes through the 1980s and 1990s. Independent reports, commissioned by the Indian government as well as by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union, were highly critical of the dam, for environmental reasons as well as social reasons, and after much pressure from activists the World Bank withdrew its support. Still, the Indian Supreme Court, after being petitioned by the NBA, decided to let the project go ahead anyway.

Anti-dam activists, including Roy, were smeared in the pro-government press as traitors, and accused of assaulting a group of lawyers at the Supreme Court. There was no evidence for this, but the case went to court, and Roy wrote in her affidavit that this showed "a disquieting inclination on the part of the court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent." As a result, she was charged with contempt of court, spent her night in jail, and paid a fine. Unwise, perhaps; but more people read about the dam problem because of her than would otherwise have been the case.

When Roy got involved in the anti-dam movement, she was already a famous writer. But it was not her first brush with organized protest. Her mother, Mary Roy, is a well-known promoter of women's rights in India, so Arundhati imbibed dissent with her mother's milk. But she is also rather melodramatic about the public role of the writer. To be a writer, she says, "in a country that gave the world Mahatma Gandhi ... is a ferocious burden." Quite where Gandhi fits in is unclear. Still, Roy writes about politics not as a famous novelist, but as a citizen, "only a citizen, one of many, asking for a public explanation." She has no "personal or ideological axe to grind." She has no "professional stakes to protect." It is simply "time to snatch our futures back from the 'experts.' "

There is nothing wrong with this. Experts are fallible. Famous novelists are citizens, too. But there is in fact something professional at stake here. For Roy goes further than saying that a writer should use her fame to promote worthy causes. She believes that what "is happening in the world lies, at the moment, just outside the realm of human understanding." But help is at hand: it is "the writers, the poets, the artists, the singers, the filmmakers who can make the connections, who can find ways of bringing it into the realm of common understanding." Some of the reactions among the writers, the poets, and the artists to the events of last September make this kind of special pleading less than convincing.

Roy's efforts on behalf of the victims of dam-building show her to be a good citizen; but if her aim, as a writer of political essays, is to promote common understanding, she is less than a success. The essays express her convictions and her prejudices with great passion, but by her own account she aims higher. Roy wants language to cut through platitudes and lies: "As a writer, one spends a lifetime journeying into the heart of language, trying to minimize, if not eliminate, the distance between language and thought. 'Language is the skin of my thought,' I remember saying to someone who once asked what language meant to me." If so, her thoughts could do with a course of Clearasil.

Roy showed a fondness in her novel for overlush imagery and showy stylistic flourishes. The same thing is true in her essays, where her literary mannerisms often obscure understanding. The text is pockmarked with flip haiku-like clichés of the following kind: "My world has died. And I write to mourn its passing." (This is about India's development of the nuclear bomb.) Or this tired old dictum: "One country's terrorist is too often another's freedom fighter." There is also the constant hyperbole, which actually weakens the power of language. Privatization, Roy writes, is a "process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has few parallels in history." Really? On the same topic: "What is happening to our world is almost too colossal for human comprehension to contain. But it is a terrible, terrible thing." Well, perhaps it is, but this judgment does little to help my own human comprehension of international economics. And if we are really dealing with matters outside human understanding, then human reason is obviously an inadequate tool, so why bother to write an essay at all?

It doesn't help either that Roy adopts the patronizing tone of a tour guide for schoolchildren: "Allow me to shake your faith. Put your hand in mine and let me lead you through the maze." And her attempts to find a literary expression for her contempt of American capitalism are equally childish. America is likened to Rumpelstiltskin with "a bank account heart" and "television eyes" and a "Surround Sound stereo mouth which amplifies his voice and filters out the sound of the rest of the world, so that you can't hear it even when it's shouting (or starving or dying) and King Rumpel is only whispering, rolling his r's in his North American way."

 In the end, though, how much does it really matter? Does Roy's style really do as much damage to the substance of her cause as Ramachandra Guha thinks? In the case of the Sardar Sarovar dam, the merits of her involvement surely outweigh the limitations of her prose or the manner of her public presentation. The cause is clear enough. There are many more sober, more scholarly, more considered books and articles to read, for those who take a serious interest in the matter. And for those who would rather not be bothered, such as millions of Indian voters, Roy's passionate advocacy at least brings it to their attention.

But when Roy attempts to tackle a wider world, fulminating against the American intervention in Afghanistan, or against "globalization," her tone and her stylistic tics become more than irritating. Her demonology of the United States takes on the foaming-at-the-mouth, eye-rolling quality of the mad evangelist. Un fortunately, it is this side of her, and not the campaigning against dam projects, that has found a worldwide audience. Roy has become the perfect Third World voice for anti-American, or anti-Western, or even anti-white, sentiments. Those are sentiments dear to the hearts of intellectuals everywhere, including the United States itself.

The litany is well-known. America is the most belligerent power on earth. Its government is committed to "military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and un imaginable genocide (outside America)." The economic policies of the United States, otherwise known as globalization or imperialism, are "merciless" and rapacious, destroying economies "like a cloud of locusts." This means, in Roy's view, that "any Third World country with a fragile economy and a complex social base should know by now that to invite a superpower like America in ... would be like inviting a brick to drop through your windscreen." This rather ignores the historical fact that it is precisely America's old "client states" in East and Southeast Asia -- South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan -- that have done rather well, politically and economically. South Vietnam, had it remained under American patronage, would no doubt have been among them.

If American economic imperialism is bad, American militarism is worse. Not only is America responsible for the deaths of millions in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, but also, according to Roy's account, in ... Yugoslavia! So the belated American intervention, which saved countless Bosnian and Albanian Kosovar lives, is now also a part of America's bellicose record. Rumpelstiltskin's empire is an evil, evil place. To drive this home, Roy uses the usual tricks of the demagogue. One of those tricks is the misleading quotation. The other is what used to be called, in Cold War days, moral equivalence.

One quotation pops up in many an anti-American diatribe, including Roy's. This is the way she reports it: "In 1996, Madeleine Albright...was asked on national television what she felt about the fact that five hundred thousand Iraqi children had died as a result of U.S. economic sanctions. She replied that it was `a very hard choice,' but that all things considered, `we think the price is worth it.'" This sounds pretty horrible. In fact, Albright had already made it clear to Lesley Stahl of CBS, who asked the question, that the Iraqi children were not dying because of the sanctions. Iraq can buy as much medicine as it wants. She admitted that sanctions did have negative consequences, but she argued that this was a price worth paying for containing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

The moral-equivalence argument is crudely employed. Terrorism, Roy writes, is "as global an enterprise as Coke or Pepsi or Nike." Terrorists move their "factories" from country to country "in search of a better deal. Just like the multinationals." This is true, as far as it goes, but the business of Pepsi is not exactly mass murder. The terrorists, Roy goes on to say, are "the ghosts of the victims of America's old wars." Osama bin Laden is "the American President's dark doppelgänger," and "the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable....Both are engaged in un equivocal political crimes. Both are dangerously armed...." And so on and so forth. One gets the drift.

 

Now why would an Indian novelist get so overwrought about the United States? And she is not the only writer to do so. Consider Harold Pinter's description of America in the latest issue of Granta magazine: "The `rogue state' has -- without thought, without pause for reflection, without a moment of doubt, let alone shame -- confirmed that it is a fully-fledged, award-winning, gold-plated monster."

For a start, it must be said that American corporations -- Enron being just one instance -- have not always played a pretty role in India. Union Carbide's involvement in the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, which killed more than ten thousand people, was horrendous. And American foreign policy, especially its support of Pakistan during the Bangladesh war, has distressed many Indians. Indeed, over-sensitive though Indians may sometimes be to slights (or imagined slights) from Western powers, Washington has not done nearly enough over the years to cultivate goodwill in Asia's biggest democracy. But there must be more to Roy's rage. For, in fact, American corporations have played a fairly minor role in postwar India, compared to many other parts of Asia.

There is one verbal tic that keeps recurring in Roy's writings that may help us to understand her feelings -- for that is what they are, more than coherent thoughts. She refers a great deal to India's "ancient civilization," usually to show how humiliating it is for an ancient people to defer to a jumped-up, uncivilized place such as the United States. About President Clinton's visit to India, she observes: "He was courted and fawned over by the genuflecting representatives of this ancient civilization with a fervour that can only be described as indecent." This speaks of the same snobbery that informed Roy's remark on American television about Mickey Mouse and the mullahs.

Rich, rampant America shows up the relative weakness and backwardness of India. This is hard to take for a member of the intellectual or artistic elite, educated by nationalist professors, whose thoughts were often molded by British Marxists from the London School of Economics. The genuine popularity of American pop culture among the urban masses in India makes the elite feel marginal in their own country, which sharpens their sense of pique. For India, you could also read France, Italy, Japan, or even China. Thus Roy's voice is less representative of the Third World than of a global intelligentsia, floating from conference to conference, moaning about the effects of globalization.

Being more civilized, wiser, older, and more spiritual is the last wall of defense against superior power. Again, about September 11, describing the reaction in the supposedly more civilized parts of the world, Roy notes "the tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around, eventually comes around." How could the callow denizens of the New World ever match such ancient understanding? Since many American intellectuals, be they novelists or academics, share Roy's contempt for American pop culture and the vulgar patriotism of the American media, some are inclined to applaud her sentiments. This in itself would be of little consequence, were it not that better informed, more intelligent criticism of American policies, foreign and domestic, is needed more than ever.

Arundhati Roy's overheated prose gives criticism a bad name. She makes it too easy for unthinking patriots to dismiss any foreign skepticism toward American policy as mere envy or prejudice. And the effect of her voice in the non-Western world might be worse. The Iraqi intellectual dissident Kanan Makiya observed in his book Cruelty and Silence that Edward Said's Orientalism contributed to a pervasive lack of a sense of responsibility among young Arab intellectuals for the problems of the Middle East. If everything is the fault of a supposedly omnipotent America, or of ingrained Western colonial attitudes, then there is nothing to be done at home, except lash out in a rage.

Roy is someone who has taken responsibility for problems in her own country. There her anger found a target in a concrete cause. In the wider world, however, it gets dissipated in hot air and petulance. The simple-minded demonization of the American monster is pure Occidental ism, or Said in reverse, which only helps to undermine the political self-scrutiny without which a democracy cannot work, or, more to the point, without which an authoritarian society cannot become a democratic one. This cannot be what Roy set out to accomplish.

Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing


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