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The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile
by Tracy McLellan
May 27, 2004

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The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy by David Barsamian; South End Press; 2004, 189 pages


Here is everything youíve come to know and love about Arundhati Roy-- and David Barsamian.  Royís political observations are of an exceptionally acute and pithy intelligence.  Her wisdom has a way of turning a phrase completely unique to Roy, yet without losing the common touch.  It lashes out in fury at injustice everywhere, yet with compassion as vital and common as sodden sand squishing through barefoot toes on a riverbank.


Despite her success, Roy is quite content to live away from celebrity, in India, which she says maintains a measure of the wildness that has long been put under the bulldozer of Western ďprogressĒ:

In India we are fighting to retain a wilderness that we have.  Whereas in the West, itís gone.  Every person thatís walking down the street is a walking bar code.  You can tell where their clothes are from, how much they cost, which designer made which shoe, which shop you bought each item from.  Everything is civilized and tagged and valued and numbered and put in its place.  Whereas in India, the wilderness still exists Ė the unindoctrinated wilderness of the mind, full of untold secrets and wild imaginings.  Itís threatened, but weíre fighting to retain it.  We donít have to reconjure it.  Itís there.  Itís with us.  Itís not got signposts all the way.  There is that space that hasnít been completely mapped and taken over and tagged and trademarked.  I think thatís important.  And itís important that in India, we understand that itís there and we value it.

Roy expresses a remarkably matter-of-fact courage and an unbiased reason in the face of the rabid nationalism, religious fundamentalism and fanaticism that engenders, among other dark clouds, the nuclear brinkmanship between India and Pakistan. 

There is something almost otherwordly about the honesty and modesty of Royís political discourse, something in her expression so humane and plain-spoken you had despaired ever hearing it again.  It is otherwordly precisely because itís so obvious, so expected, and yet almost always lacking. 

After the smash success of her first novel The God of Small Things, Roy says rather than any of the large publishing houses from which she could have had her pick she chose South End Press to publish her next two books of essays:

People really imagine that most people are in search of fame or fortune or success.  But I donít think thatís true.  I think there are lots of people who are more imaginative than that.  When people describe me as famous and rich and successful, it makes me feel queasy.  Each of those words falls on my soul like an insult.  They seem tinny and boring and shiny and uninteresting to me.  It makes me feel unsuccessful because I never set out to be those things.  And they make me uneasy.  To be famous, rich, and successful in this world is not an admirable thing.  Iím suspicious of it all.

Quintessential Roy, and such a beautiful thought.  In its own right, but especially in contrast to the seething, insatiable appetites of capitalist greed.  Whatever happened to beautiful thoughts in beautiful minds?

Who else but Roy will say piercing truths we all feel, but cannot quite enunciate such as the fact that all the attention to terrorism today ďcompletely ignores the economic terrorism unleashed by neoliberalism, which devastates the lives of millions of people, depriving them of water, food, electricity.  Denying them medicine.  Denying them education.  Terrorism is the logical extension of this business of the free market.  Terrorism is the privatization of war.  Terrorists are the free marketeers of war -- people who believe that it isnít only the state that can wage war, but private parties as well.Ē

Elsewhere, Roy gives a psychology of terror in which the U.S. and U.K. resort to war in reaction to terrorist strikes actually empower terrorists, because before the terrorist were only weak, wretched and anonymous.  Now they can start wars.  Now they have their finger on the nuclear button.

This too, vintage Roy:

In a country like the United States where books like Chomskyís 9-11 are starting to reach wider audiences, arenít people going to feel a bit pissed off that they had no idea about what was going on, and what was being done in their name?  If the corporate media continues to be as outrageous in its suppression of facts as it is, it might just lift off like a scab.   It might become something thatís totally irrelevant, that people just donít believe.  Because ultimately, people are interested in their own safety.

The policies the U.S. government is following are dangerous for its citizens.  Itís true that you can bomb or buy out anybody that you want to, but you canít control the rage thatís building in the world.  You just canít.  And that rage will express itself in some way or the other.  Condemning violence is not going to be enough.  How can you condemn violence when a section of your economy is based on selling weapons and making bombs and piling up chemical and biological weapons?  When the soul of your culture worships violence?  On what grounds are you going to condemn terrorism, unless you change your attitude toward violence?

Tracy McLellan is a freelance writer and activist living in the Chicagoland area.  You may reach him at

Other Articles by Tracy McLellan

* State Terrorism and the United States
* Another Century of War?
* The Politics of Ecology
* Duck-Hunting, the High Court, Corruption and Slam Dunks
* Peter Gabriel: Car Salesman