6 May 2004

Against a merciless empire

By Tapani Lausti

Arundhati Roy, The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire. Flamingo 2004.

Since the September 11 terror attacks the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy has been one of the leading critics of US foreign policy. In this role, she has attracted a lot of abuse. Her tone of writing has been described as "shrill" and "preposterous", and she has been accused of "vanity" and "self-indulgence". It is true that Roy's tone is outraged. I suspect that those who find this unacceptable have not quite grasped what is going on in the world.

We are observing a superpower rampaging around the world, supporting infringements of human rights when it suits its interests while in other instances bragging to be fighting "enemies of freedom". The obscenity of it all has angered much of the world.

I am constantly amazed at the polite tone of the Finnish press when describing US policies. Criticism is usually quite mild and Bush's idiocies get analysed as if there was something to analyse apart from lies and distortions. Possibly the press is to a certain extent influenced by the pro-NATO lobby which advises people to "accept the leading role of the US and adapt to it", although criticism of Washington is said to be also allowed.

A linguistic confusion started in the Balkans where the US got away with irresponsible and destructive bombing by claiming to be defending human rights. The bombing of Afghanistan seemed to receive major support in the rich countries, although in the poor world it was seen for what it was: Revenging September 11 on a whole people. Only the imminent attack on Iraq brought people into the streets in their millions in the developed world.

By then, however, it became necessary not only to criticise US behaviour but to try to rescue language from the Orwellian battering that it had suffered. Roy points to the damage by writing how she is "taken aback at how many people believe that opposing the war in Afghanistan amounts to supporting terrorism, or voting for the Taliban". (p. 18) Roy also reminds us how George W. Bush, when announcing the US air strikes against Afghanistan, said "We're a peaceful nation". Bush went on to say: "This is the calling of the United States of America, the most free nation of the world, a nation built on fundamental values, that rejects hate, rejects violence, rejects murderers, rejects evil. And we will not tire." (p. 50)

In rich countries these utterances have not received the contempt they deserve. In the rest of the world there is an awareness of the awful price that millions of people have had to pay for US interventions. Singling out one part of the world, Roy writes: "For how many Septembers for decades together have millions of Asian people been bombed, burned, and slaughtered." (p. 23) She adds: "The United States, which George Bush calls 'a peaceful nation', has been at war with one country or another every year for the past fifty years." (p. 33)

In an essay called "The loneliness of Noam Chomsky", Roy says that she used to wonder why Chomsky "needed to do so much work" whilst analazying US foreign polocy. She then realised the reason: "But now I understand that the magnitude and intensity of Chomsky's work is a barometer of the magnitude, scope and relentlessness of the propaganda machine that he's up against." (p. 63)

She concludes the essay thus: "When the sun sets on the American empire, as it will, as it must, Noam Chomsky's work will survive. It will point a cool, incriminating finger at a merciless, Machiavellian empire as cruel, self-righteous, and hypocritical as the ones it has replaced." (p. 64)


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