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A Review of Arundhati Roy's "War Talk" A Complaint for Peace

Arundhati Roy’s Complaint for Peace

by NEVE GORDON

"Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," President George W. Bush exclaimed at a joint session of Congress less than 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The war on terrorism and the discourse surrounding it — which has now spread across many parts of the world, from America and the Near East to South Asia and the Far East — have not, however, managed to suppress anti-democratic forces; on the contrary, they have empowered authoritarian elements of state power.

In War Talk, Arundhati Roy exposes both the deceit and danger of the new discourse on terrorism while uncovering the paranoia and ruthlessness of power now prevalent in the United States and India. In her words, war talk is used to distract the world’s attention away from fascism and genocide and to avoid dealing with any single issue of real governance that urgently needs to be addressed. Roy, author of the highly acclaimed novel The God of Small Things, uses a series of examples to illustrate how the discourse on terrorism is tied to the rise of a nationalism that defines itself "not through the respect or regard for itself, but through a hatred of the Other." She goes on to point out how this kind of nationalism dovetails into fascism, asserting that "while we must not allow the fascists to define what the nation is, or who it belongs to, it’s worth keeping in mind that nationalism — in all its many avatars: communist, capitalist and fascist — has been at the root of almost all the genocide of the 20th century."

There is something ironic about Roy’s book, for while it is titled War Talk, it is actually an enactment of peace talk, an attempt to counteract the prevailing military zeal. In this sense, Roy is echoing the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), who wrote an eloquent tract against warmongering called Querela pacis or "The Complaint of Peace." In Erasmus’ essay, peace speaks to us mainly as a plaintiff. The dominant tenor of peace’s talk is the "complaint" of being recklessly treated, devalued and demoted, while humans lavish endless praise and honors on warfare — the source of death, destruction and misery.

Peace constantly speaks to us, Fred Dallmayr explains in a yet-to-be published book called Peace Talks: Remembering Erasmus, but the question is, who will listen? "In Erasmus’ time, as in ours, the faculty of listening is in extremely short supply," Dallmayr writes. "Not listening as such; but listening to the quiet and recessed voice of peace. Everywhere and at all times, people seem ready to lend their ears to all kinds of voices: to the clamoring of nationalistic or sectarian frenzy; to the manipulative propaganda of demagogues; and to their own untutored passions of hatred, envy and lust for power." As an exercise in peace talk, Roy’s book offsets this trend and is therefore well worth listening to.

Not unlike her fiction, Roy’s political writing manages to weave together a series of complex issues, exposing the hypocrisy and hazards of power, and the relationships between the powerful and powerless. Simultaneously, she offers advice on what can be done and encourages those who have been taken over by despair to resist.

The stakes are high. The struggle is against the rise of fascism and the violent ventures of empire. And fascism, Roy suggests, often appears unnoticed since it is about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about the ever-growing but unspectacular day-to-day injustices. It does not come about the moment free elections are cancelled and dissidents are imprisoned. Indeed, when events like these occur, the process has already fully matured. At such a point, it is often too late.

My only reservation involves emphasis. While Roy writes that the free market is undermining democracy, she overstresses the ominous nature of state power. This is especially odd since it is coming from one who has devoted a chapter to Noam Chomsky’s work and has written about corporate assaults in India (Power Politics, 2001). Let no one be deceived — even after 9/11, the corporatization of politics continues to be the biggest threat to democracy.

Unlike corporations, whose CEOs are, politically speaking, like tyrants, having little if any respect for the public, the state continues to be the one form of power that is somewhat accountable to the people. In contrast to the era between the two world wars, when fascism was predominantly about the infiltration of state power, today it is more about putting profit over people, about taking decisions away from voters and giving them to multinational corporations and international financial institutions like the Inter-national Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. War talk is also veil behind which corporate greed is hidden. And the struggle for democracy can succeed only if the people uncover this veil and take back the state from the corporate warriors and such zealous allies as President Bush and Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. The task is to make the state accountable to the people.

Despite the gravity of the issues, Roy effectively uses wit and humor to uncover duplicity and to bring a smile to the face of the downtrodden Left. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, she writes, was presented as a war to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas. If the Marines were really "on a feminist mission," she immediately adds, one would expect them to stop on their way back home for a short incursion in Saudi Arabia.

By revealing the glaring contradictions in the U.S. foreign policy rhetoric, Roy helps us see through the relentless efforts to scare us and dumb us down. So when George Bush says, "You’re either with us, or you are with the terrorists," we, as Roy avers, can say, "No thank you."

"We can let him know that the people of the world do not need to choose between a Malevolent Mickey Mouse and the Mad Mullahs.

"Our strategy," she continues, "should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe."

Peace speaks throughout Roy’s book; the question is whether people will listen.

NEVE GORDON teaches human rights in the department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il.