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DAM-L LS: Ian Buruma hostile review of Arundhati Roy (fwd)

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Subject: LS: Ian Buruma hostile review of Arundhati Roy
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The New Republic
April 29, 2002

The Anti-American
by Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of Bad Elements.

Power Politics
by Arundhati Roy
(South End Press, 132 pp., $40)

The Algebra of Infinite Justice
by Arundhati Roy
(Penguin Books India, 299 pp.)

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

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

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

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

n 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

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.

ow 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.

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