ON DEMOC­RACY AND DYS­FUNC­TION

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - AU­THOR ARUNDHATI ROT

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.

Vikramjit Kakati

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