TALK, By Arundhati Roy, South End Press, 142 pages, $40 hardback, $12
paper. Reviewed by Neve Gordon
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
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
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
International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. War talk is also
a 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
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
Peace speaks throughout Roy’s book; the question is whether people will
teaches human rights in the department of Politics and Government at
Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at
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