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by Subuhi Jiwani

The recent review in the Village Voice of Arundhati Roy's new book War Talk (South End Press, Boston, 2003) concluded with the following reflection: "Most essayists are content to make you think; Roy wants to make you believe." Living up to these words, on May 13, Roy intoxicated New York's disillusioned Left at Riverside Church with satire, drama and metaphor.

Roy opened with a disclaimer. An Indian citizen, she was not there to unequivocally criticize the US government and then go home to forget the "venality, brutality and hypocrisy imprinted on the leaden soul of every nation." Her resistance to flag-waving and other such displays of patriotism recalls her rejection of nationality itself in "The End of Imagination," an essay in her 2001 collection Power Politics (South End Press, 2001): "I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic." Yet, while claiming independence from the state and global superpowers, Roy also victimized herself before the Riverside audience as "a subject of the American Empire" and--referring to India--"a slave nation." Roy touched but briefly on her own native India--"that feudal society"--keeping her focus on American civil society, speaking to those most near the "Imperial Palace and the Emperor's chambers."

Empire, Roy contends, finds it unnecessary to buttress its arguments with fact, and simply delivers a pre-packaged simulacra of democracy through war and extermination. "Empire is on the move, and Democracy is its sly new war cry. Democracy, home-delivered to your doorstep by daisy cutters. Death is a small price for people to pay for the privilege of sampling this new product: Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy--bring to a boil, add oil, then bomb."

And the blueprint on which the reconstruction of Iraq is configured is that of the new anti-terrorist state in the US. With Patriot Act II looming, Roy says that "for the ordinary American, the price of 'New Democracy' in other countries is the death of real democracy at home." In Royspeak: "Democracy is the Free World's whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing to satisfy a whole range of taste, available to be used and abused at will."

Roy takes an ironic view of Iraq's history, noting that CIA support for "regime change" in Baghdad in 1963 led to the Ba'ath Party's rise to power, and ultimately to Saddam's seizure of total power in 1979. All the while, the US turned a blind eye to massacres conducted by Ba'athists and Saddam's regime, often financing him in these endeavors. "The point is," Roy stated, "if Saddam Hussein was evil enough to merit the most elaborate, openly declared assassination attempt in history--the opening move of Operation Shock and Awe--then surely those who supported him ought at least to be tried for war crimes."

Roy, who has become something of a pop icon for the American Left, claims to be no academic, no expert. In fact, she has spent many words resisting the efforts of experts to undermine her work. But the question inevitably arises: Is she positioning herself as the expert, despite her protestations? She uses mostly mainstream media as her sources, and even in her written work on Iraq and US foreign policy she rarely quotes other thinkers, or even the testimonies of everyday Iraqis, international activists or human rights groups. Is she challenging the reader to think by presenting new facts and perspectives? Or is she restating what we already know and think, using recycled arguments?

Or do Roy's critics point out the gaps and inductive leaps in her arguments out of envy? This accusation was raised by Reeta Sinha in the Jan. 16, 2002 edition of India's progressive Outlook magazine, responding to Roy's defenders. "To be critical of her essays or to question the basis of Ms. Roy's positions on political issues is, apparently, to commit the ultimate sin. We're jealous, petty, ignorant or chauvinistic, no matter how legitimate the questions posed to her are. It is natural-those truly interested will question the source, verify the information presented, so that they may draw their own conclusions, form their own opinions. Ms. Roy seems to agree since, in her essay, ['Should We Leave it to the Experts?'] she eloquently states that writers, like other citizens, are demanding public explanations. Is Ms. Roy exempt from providing answers, then? Are only certain questions permitted of her? It seems so. When asked what qualifies her to speak authoritatively on the myriad of causes she has taken up, her reply is another question: Why can't a writer protest...?"

I raise my hand. I am jealous. Roy is charismatic with her humanist approach and impeccable language. She can give a lecture at Riverside Church without even presenting a title beforehand. As we were leaving the pews of Riverside, my friend said, "Arundhati says things I have already thought of before." But Roy legitimizes our ideas. She has the charismatic indignation, and the moral authority of the villagers and farmers of India's Narmada Valley who want her to represent their voice. Yet at Riverside she had nothing to say about the struggle against hydro development in Narmada Valley and its uprooting of the region's adivasis, or tribal peoples, and dalits, traditionally known as "untouchables." We know what the sanctions did in Iraq because of Voices in the Wilderness, not Arundhati Roy--but the evocative Roy has become the icon of anti-war opposition.

We want to throw ourselves in the streets on days like February 15 and read Arundhati Roy on the way to the march. We want to be moved--not necessarily informed. "When it comes to Empire, facts don't matter," Roy said at Riverside. But do facts matter to Roy--or to us? When the metaphors have been swept aside, the drama pulled back and satire repealed, what stands before us? Do the long quotes from administration officials and anecdotes about the actions of the "coalition of the bullied and bought" in Roy's work equip us as anti-war protesters to seriously counteract the "outright lies" of the corporate media? The responsibility to inform ourselves is ours--but also to question those who impel us to take to the streets in protest. Roy says we should refuse to take the missiles from the warehouses to the docks, resist going to victory parades for "illegal wars." And what when we are told we have no argument? Must our indignation at the self-proclaimed superiority of the new global superpower be our only retort?


Subuhi Jiwani is a freelance writer and regular contributor to WW3 REPORT whose work has also appeared on Z-Net, and in Samar magazine.

Reprinting permissible with attribution.