Empire and democracy

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

Arundhati Roy. - P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Arundhati Roy. - P.V. SIVAKUMAR

In New York, Arundhati Roy highlights the threat American Empire poses to democracy.

On a cool and blustery spring evening, thousands belonging to New York's demoralised left flocked to the Riverside Church for an energising sermon by Arundhati Roy, who took the altar in an evening of "solidarity and truth telling". The two-hour event, organised by the Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a New York-based advocacy and research organisation that challenges economic injustice as a violation of international human rights law, featured Roy and Howard Zinn, professor and author of A People's History of the United States, as "sane voices in insane times". But there was no question about who got the star billing; Roy's name figured prominently on the tickets (priced at $10 and $5) while that of Zinn, a revered icon of the American left, appeared in small letters.

Introductions of the speakers were unabashedly effusive. Patrick Lannan, whose Lannan Foundation awarded Roy the 2002 Prize for Cultural Freedom, described her as a "contemporary Renaissance woman, a famous novelist who has become an incredible essayist and whose analysis, compassion and eloquence give the powerless a voice to be heard."

The location of the event was historic - Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a famous speech, opposing the Vietnam war, at the very same spot on April 4, 1967. About 3,000 people packed the majestic church to capacity - testimony both to New York's anti-war credentials and to the ardent following Roy attracts among Americans who support and applaud her for "speaking truth to power". Democracy Now!, a news programme on the community radio station Pacifica, broadcast the event live.

To those who questioned her presumptuousness as an Indian citizen travelling to America to denounce the U.S. government to an American audience, Roy argued that such distinctions did not apply when a nation ceased to be a mere nation. "I submit that I am speaking as a subject, a slave of American empire," she said and added that "venality, banality and brutality are printed on the leaden soul" of every nation's government and India's was no exception. She said she was "not a nationalist of any kind," and was someone whose writings and political advocacy had led her to being labelled in India as "anti-American and anti-Indian".

Roy's principal theme was Empire or, as she put it, "Instant Mix Imperial Democracy: Buy One, Get One Free". Her range was wide, encompassing her familiar targets - the political hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy presented in the context of the invasion of Iraq, powerful U.S. oil interests, the growing control of corporate globalisation, especially in the media, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, the injustices faced by the poor and by minorities in America, and the shrinking space for dissent in the world's showcase democracies.

The invasion of Iraq showed that "an empire, with a mandate from heaven, with the most weapons of mass destruction in history, was on the move and democracy is its sly new war cry." Like Iraq, once the object of American military, financial and material support, other brutal regimes - in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - were being groomed for the future.

She argued that democracy was in crisis. "Every country is committing crimes in the name of democracy - she is the free world's whore, who can be dressed up or dressed down" to suit authoritarian purposes. In the U.S., the space in which freedom can be expressed is steadily being circumscribed, not only by a few corporations that control the news media but by crackdowns on dissent after September 11 and by new, draconian anti-terrorist legislation. The U.S.A. Patriot Act was becoming a blueprint for anti-terrorist legislation across the world, she said. "Americans are paying for spurious wars of liberation with their own freedom. The price is the death of democracy at home."

Three rhetorical questions posed by Roy drew waves of applause from the audience. If Saddam Hussein was evil enough to merit an unprecedented, openly admitted assassination attempt, should those who supported him not be tried for war crimes? Why were these supporters not on the "infamous pack of playing cards" of America's most wanted that were issued in Iraq? Referring to the response of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (whom she dubbed the "Prince of Darkness") to the anarchy on the streets in post-Saddam Iraq and the looting of ancient museum treasures, she asked: "Would he say the same of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after the lynching of Rodney King by cops? Would it be all right for the poor of Harlem to loot the Metropolitan Museum in New York?" (Rumsfeld reportedly said: "Freedom is untidy and free people are free to commit crimes and do bad things.")

On ways forward in the "common political project we are all engaged in", Roy said it was no use arguing to the U.S. establishment that its current path of military expansionism would invite more terrorist attacks because it would be used as a reason for more military strikes. Moreover, she argued: "Terrorists and the Bush regime work as a team - both hold people responsible for the actions of their governments, both believe in collective guilt and collective punishment, and both help each other greatly." Instead, Americans must show that the "only entity more powerful than Empire is American civil society." No target is too small and no victory too insignificant, she suggested, exhorting her audience to impose "people's sanctions on every company awarded contracts in post-war Iraq, expose the corporate media for the boardroom bulletin it is, and refuse to wave that flag, refuse to fight, refuse to move missiles". She called for a "politics of resistance, of opposition, of shutting things down" as "the only thing worth globalising is dissent".

ZINN also urged his countrymen to reclaim democracy from those "who have stolen it from us". "Democracy comes alive when people do what they did in the labour movement and in the movement against racial segregation, when they speak truth and spread truth," he said, lamenting the fact that the acceptance of events in Iraq by the majority of Americans was because the real and human costs of war had been concealed from the public.

Responding to a question from Zinn during the colloquium that followed, Roy said democracy was in serious trouble in India but in a different way than in the U.S. It was not a small group of very rich and very powerful people imposing their will on the country but Hindu majoritarianism that was a threat in India. "It is a very frightening time when the courts mean nothing, the Constitution means nothing and everything is being arbitrated by Hindu right-wing rampaging mobs." According to Roy, most of the media supported the project of Hindu nationalism. She was asked if Indians would have the same trouble criticising a war and the government as Americans have now. "If India and Pakistan were to go to war, she replied, "100,000 people would not take to the streets in protest, may be there would be nine."

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