ON DEMOCRACY AND DYSFUNCTION
rundhati Roy openly questions aspects of political culture that are sometimes buried, such as just how dysfunctional democracies can be. Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, an atmospheric novel about fraternal twins set in Kerala, India, where the author was raised. She has since largely focused on nonfiction writing and political activism. One recent work, The End of Imagination (Haymarket Books, 2016), collects five of Roy’s books of essays into one volume. It has a moving introduction and commentaries on assorted topics, which include broad denouncements of American capitalism and foreign policy. Another book published last year, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said (Haymarket), is a slim volume co-authored by Roy and actor John Cusack, about their 2014 trip to Moscow to visit NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, will be released this June. She reads from her work and is joined in conversation by author and documentary producer Anthony Arnove (Dirty Wars) on Wednesday, May 3, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom series.
In her works, Roy often suggests that even the seemingly benign arms of capitalism have a dark side. In Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, Roy characterizes non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as “a pretend resistance” that is dependent on corporate foundation funds. The Ford Foundation, she writes, has “so much money, they can fund everything, very bad things as well as very good things … anything, as long as it doesn’t upset the ‘market’ and the economic status quo.” Roy criticizes NGOs for becoming “the missionaries of the ‘new economy.’ ”
Even philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates are not spared Roy’s criticism. To Roy, they represent capitalism with a big C, a system that allows people to have obscene amounts of money. In this case, the data she points to comes from a July 18, 2015, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, an inspiring take on how Bill and Melinda Gates have learned from each other in their pioneering international work of disease prevention and family planning. But the data Roy singles out is Kristof’s estimate that $34 billion of the Gates’ money “has saved the lives of thirty-three million children from diseases like polio.” Enormous work has gone into saving these lives, but Roy asks a more philosophical question: “But seriously — what is one couple doing with that much money, which is just a small percentage of the indecent profits they make from Microsoft?”
In her works, Arundhati Roy often suggests that even the seemingly benign arms of capitalism have a dark side.
Roy is at her best in the punch-in-the-gut essay she first published in 2000, “Power Politics,” in which she brings attention to India’s Big Dams, whose construction has displaced some 56 million people — half of them Dalits (formerly “untouchables”) and Adivasi (tribal peoples) — in the last 50 years. The purported reason for these dams is to irrigate lands in order to increase food grain production, or to generate electricity. But the numbers don’t point to success. The dams may have increased grain production by as little as 10 percent. That number also coincides, ironically, with the percentage the Indian government admits is consumed by rats. For such paltry gains in the name of progress, villages are submerged, their ecosystems destroyed, and their inhabitants rudely dispersed, often into slums. Loans from the World Bank facilitate the building of these dams — well-intentioned money, maybe, but spent wrongheadedly, without input from locals. Such a top-down approach has failed as abysmally in India as it did in the U.S. when the Johnson administration launched its War on Poverty. Roy reminds us of the high cost India’s internally displaced people have paid for poor policy decisions.
As far as solutions to unjust government policies go, Roy does not put her faith in nonviolent resistance, which she likens to a type of theater that needs an audience. Her views on the subject are surprising. When she writes that Gandhi’s case was different from that of other Indians because he was a “superstar,” she neglects to mention that he had no special advantages: He was only fighting for a just cause — Indian independence — using fair means. On this very subject, Gandhi wrote, “I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.” While Roy’s views can be stimulating and polarizing, Gandhi had the canny ability to bring together people who held disparate views, including the British, to serve higher causes such as social equality or Indian independence. Today, more than ever, we need to discover ways in which the right and the left can speak to each other, not past each other. In her quest to radicalize the left, Roy can have a tendency to speak past those who make key contributions to the very causes she espouses.
Roy writes in the tradition of authors such as Noam Chomsky, but the latter zeroes in on narratives of, say, American imperialism in such detail that his criticisms are more robust. In Chomsky’s For Reasons of
State, published during the Vietnam War, he trains his lens on, among other things, the Pentagon Papers, which he quotes from extensively. In Roy’s introduction to the second edition of Chomsky’s book, published in The End of Imagination as “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky,” she writes that when she first read Chomsky, his relentlessness in digging for evidence surprised her — she felt she didn’t need that much evidence to be convinced. But writers do their best work when they assume their readers are highly intelligent: It is precisely Chomsky’s marshaling of copious evidence that makes his political thinking so compelling. Roy seems to have realized this somewhat; in the essay, she likens him to a wood-borer, grinding to dust one of her bookshelves. “It’s as though he disagrees with the literature and wants to destroy the very structure on which it rests,” she writes. “I call him Chompsky.” It is a moment of relief when humor lights up her bleak narrative of our world.