The following clip collects most of the speech given by the writer Arundhati Roy in Santa Fe, New Mwxico, on September 18th 2002: “Come September; Citizens of America: welcome to the World”
It surprises by the clarity of ideas, use of the English language and, specially today, for her vision of the coming times. Even if it is already 10 years old, it is absolutely applicable today.
The full transcript , plus the following debate can be found here. This is just the adapted version for the mentioned videoclip.
Fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of story telling. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.
The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as nonfiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they’re engaged in. (John Berger, that most wonderful writer, once wrote:) “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as a story-teller who wants to share her way of seeing. Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not really about nations and histories; it’s about power. About the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. About the physics of power. I believe that the accumulation of vast unfettered power by a State or a country, a corporation or an institution – or even an individual, a spouse, a friend, a sibling -regardless of ideology, results in excesses such as the ones I will recount here.
Living as I do, as millions of us do, in the shadow of the nuclear holocaust that the governments of India and Pakistan keep promising their brain-washed citizenry, and in the global neighborhood of the War Against Terror (what President Bush rather biblically calls “The Task That Never Ends”), I find myself thinking a great deal about the relationship between Citizens and the State.
In India, those of us who have expressed views on Nuclear Bombs, Big Dams, Corporate Globalization and the rising threat of communal Hindu fascism – views that are at variance with the Indian Government’s – are branded ‘anti- national.’ While this accusation doesn’t fill me with indignation, it’s not an accurate description of what I do or how I think. Because an ‘anti-national’ is a person who is against his or her own nation and, by inference, is pro some other one. But it isn’t necessary to be ‘anti-national’ to be deeply suspicious of all nationalism, to be anti-nationalism. Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead. [Applause] When independent- thinking people (and here I do not include the corporate media) begin to rally under flags, when writers, painters, musicians, film makers suspend their judgment and blindly yoke their art to the service of the “Nation,” it’s time for all of us to sit up and worry. In India we saw it happen soon after the Nuclear tests in 1998 and during the Cargill War against Pakistan in 1999. In the U.S. we saw it during the Gulf War and we see it now during the “War Against Terror.” That blizzard of Made-in-China American flags. [Laughter]
Recently, those who have criticized the actions of the U.S. government (myself included) have been called “anti-American.” Anti-Americanism is in the process of being consecrated into an ideology.
The term “anti-American” is usually used by the American establishment to discredit and, not falsely – but shall we say inaccurately – define its critics. Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that he or she will be judged before they are heard, and the argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride.
But what does the term “anti-American” mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz? Or that you’re opposed to freedom of speech? That you don’t delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias? Does it mean that you don’t admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam?
It would be absurd to think that those who criticize the Indian government are “anti-Indian” – although the government itself never hesitates to take that line. It is dangerous to cede to the Indian government or the American government or anyone for that matter, the right to define what “India” or “America” are or ought to be.
To call someone “anti-American”, indeed to be anti-American, (or for that matter, anti-Indian or anti-Timbuktuan) is not just racist, it’s a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those the establishment has set out for you. If you’re not a Bushie you’re a Taliban. If you don’t love us, you hate us. If you’re not Good, you’re Evil. If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.
Everyday I’m taken aback at how many people believe that opposing the war in Afghanistan amounts to supporting terrorism, of voting for the Taliban.
Last year, like many others, I too made the mistake of scoffing at this post- September 11th rhetoric, dismissing it as foolish and arrogant. But I’ve realized it’s not foolish at all. It’s actually a canny recruitment drive for a misconceived, dangerous war.
Now that the initial aim of the war – capturing Osama bin Laden (dead or alive) – seems to have run into bad weather, the goalposts have been moved.
Nearly three thousand civilians lost their lives in that lethal terrorist strike. The grief is still deep. The rage still sharp. The tears have not dried. And a strange, deadly war is raging around the world. Yet, each person who has lost a loved one surely knows secretly, deeply, that no war, no act of revenge, no daisy-cutters dropped on someone else’s loved ones or someone else’s children, will blunt the edges of their pain or bring their own loved ones back. War cannot avenge those who have died. War is only a brutal desecration of their memory.
To fuel yet another war – this time against Iraq – by cynically manipulating people’s grief, by packaging it for TV specials sponsored by corporations selling detergent and running shoes, is to cheapen and devalue grief, to drain it of meaning. What we are seeing now is a vulgar display of the business of grief, the commerce of grief, the pillaging of even the most private human feelings for political purpose. It is a terrible, violent thing for a State to do to its people.
It’s not a clever-enough subject to speak of from a public platform, but what I would really love to talk to you about is Loss. Loss and losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute relentless, endless, habitual, unfairness of the world. What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole people who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?
Since it is September 11th we’re talking about, perhaps it’s in the fitness of things that we remember what that date means, not only to those who lost their loved ones in America last year, but to those in other parts of the world to whom that date has long held significance. This historical dredging is not offered as an accusation or a provocation. But just to share the grief of history. To thin the mists a little. To say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way: “Welcome to the World.”
Twenty-nine years ago, in Chile, on the 11th of September 1973, General Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in a CIA-backed coup.
In the regime of terror that ensured, thousands of people were killed. Many more simply “disappeared”. Firing squads conducted public executions. Concentration camps and torture chambers were opened across the country. The dead were buried in mine shafts and unmarked graves. For seventeen years the people of Chile lived in dread of the midnight knock, of routine “disappearances”, of sudden arrest and torture.
In 1999, following the arrest of General Pinochet in Britain, thousands of secret documents were declassified by the U.S. government. They contain unequivocal evidence of the CIA’s involvement in the coup as well as the fact that the U.S. government had detailed information about the situation in Chile during General Pinochet’s reign. Yet, Kissinger assured the general of his support: “In the United States as you know, we are sympathetic to what you’re trying to do,” he said. “We wish your government well.”
Those of us who have only ever known life in a democracy, however flawed, would find it hard to imagine what living in a dictatorship and enduring the absolute loss of freedom means. It isn’t just those who Pinochet murdered, but the lives he stole from the living that must be accounted for too.
Sadly, Chile was not the only country in South America to be singled out for the U.S. government’s attentions. Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, Peru, Mexico and Colombia – they’ve all been the playground for covert – and overt – operations by the CIA. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been killed, tortured or have simply disappeared under the despotic regimes that were propped up in their countries. If this were not humiliation enough, the people of South America have had to bear the cross of being branded as people who are incapable of democracy – as if coups and massacres are somehow encrypted in their genes.
This list does not, of course, include countries in Africa or Asia that suffered U.S. military interventions – Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Laos, and Cambodia. For how many Septembers for decades together have millions of Asian people been bombed, and burned, and slaughtered?
September 11th has a tragic resonance in the Middle East, too. On the 11th of September 1922, ignoring Arab outrage, the British government proclaimed a mandate in Palestine, a follow-up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration which imperial Britain issued, with its army massed outside the gates of Gaza. The Balfour Declaration promised European Zionists a national home for Jewish people. (At the time, the Empire on which the Sun Never Set was free to snatch and bequeath national homes like a school bully distributes marbles.)
How carelessly imperial power vivisected ancient civilizations. Palestine and Kashmir are imperial Britain’s festering, blood-drenched gifts to the modem world. Both are fault lines in the raging international conflicts of today.
In 1937, Winston Churchill said of the Palestinians, I quote, “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” That set the trend for the Israeli State’s attitude towards the Palestinians.
In 1947, the U.N. formally partitioned Palestine and allotted 55 per cent of Palestine’s land to the Zionists. Within a year, they had captured 76 per cent. On the 14th of May 1948 the State of Israel was declared. Minutes after the declaration, the United States recognized Israel. The West Bank was annexed by Jordan. The Gaza strip came under Egyptian military control, and formally Palestine ceased to exist except in the minds and hearts of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people who became refugees. In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
Over the decades there have been uprisings, wars, intifadas. Tens of thousands have lost their lives. Accords and treaties have been signed. Cease-fires declared and violated. But the bloodshed doesn’t end. Palestine still remains illegally occupied. Its people live in inhuman conditions, in virtual Bantustans, where they are subjected to collective punishments, twenty-four hour curfews, where they are humiliated and brutalized on a daily basis. They never know when their homes will be demolished, when their children will be shot, when their precious trees will be cut, when their roads will be closed, when they will be allowed to walk down to the market to buy food and medicine. And when they will not. They live with no semblance of dignity. With not much hope in sight. They have no control over their lands, their security, their movement, their communication, their water supply. So when accords are signed, and words like “autonomy” and even “statehood” bandied about, it’s always worth asking: What sort of autonomy? What sort of State? What sort of rights will its citizens have?
Young Palestinians who cannot control their anger turn themselves into human bombs and haunt Israel’s streets and public places, blowing themselves up, killing ordinary people, injecting terror into daily life, and eventually hardening both societies’ suspicion and mutual hatred of each other. Each bombing invites merciless reprisal and even more hardship on Palestinian people. But then suicide bombing is an act of individual despair, not a revolutionary tactic. Although Palestinian attacks strike terror into Israeli citizens, they provide the perfect cover for the Israeli government’s daily incursions into Palestinian territory, the perfect excuse for old-fashioned, nineteenth-century colonialism, dressed up as a new fashioned, twenty-first century “war”.
Israel’s staunchest political and military ally is and always has been the U.S. The U.S. government has blocked, along with Israel, almost every U.N. resolution that sought a peaceful, equitable solution to the conflict. It has supported almost every war that Israel has fought. When Israel attacks Palestine, it is American missiles that smash through Palestinian homes. And every year Israel receives several billion dollars from the United States – taxpayers money.
What lessons should we draw from this tragic conflict? Is it really impossible for Jewish people who suffered so cruelly themselves – more cruelly perhaps than any other people in history – to understand the vulnerability and the yearning of those whom they have displaced? Does extreme suffering always kindle cruelty? What hope does this leave the human race with? What will happen to the Palestinian people in the event of a victory? When a nation without a state eventually proclaims a state, what kind of state will it be? What horrors will be perpetrated under its flag? Is it a separate state that we should be fighting for or, the rights to a life of liberty and dignity for everyone regardless of their ethnicity or religion?
The world is called upon to condemn suicide bombers. But can we ignore the long road they have journeyed on before they have arrived at this destination? September 11, 1922 to September 11, 2002 – eighty years is a long time to have been waging war. Is there some advice the world can give the people of Palestine?
In another part of the Middle East, September 11th strikes a more recent cord. It was on the 11th of September 1990 that George W. Bush, Sr., then President of the U.S., made a speech to a joint session of Congress announcing his government’s decision to go to war against Iraq.
The U.S. government says that Saddam Hussein is a war criminal, a cruel military despot who has committed genocide against his own people. That’s a fairly accurate description of the man. In 1988, Saddam Hussein razed hundreds of villages in northern Iraq, used chemical weapons and machine guns to kill thousands of Kurdish people. Today we know that that same year the U.S. government provided him with $500 million in subsidies to buy American farm products. The next year, after he had successfully completed his genocidal campaign, the U.S. government doubled its subsidy to $1 billion. It also provided him with high quality germ seed for anthrax, and helicopters and dual-use material that could be used to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. So it turns out that while Saddam Hussein was carrying out his worst atrocities, the U.S. and the U.K. governments were his close allies.
So what changed? In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. His sin was not so much that he had committed an act of war, but that he had acted independently, without orders from his master. This display of independence was enough to upset the power equation in the Gulf. So it was decided that Saddam Hussein be exterminated, like a pet that has outlived its owner’s affection.
The first Allied attack on Iraq took place on January ’91. The world watched the prime-time war as it was played out on T.V. (In India in those days you had to go to a five-star hotel lobby to watch CNN.) Tens of thousands of people were killed in a month of devastating bombing. What many do not know is that the war never ended then. The initial fury simmered down into the longest sustained air attack on a country since the Vietam War. Over the last decade American and British forces have fired thousands of missiles and bombs on Iraq.
Tthere is no confusion over the extent and range of America’s arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons. Would the U.S. government welcome weapons inspectors? Would the U.K.? Or Israel?
The U.S. has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world and it’s the only country in the world to have actually used them on civilian populations. If the U.S. is justified in launching a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, why, then any nuclear power is justified in carrying out a pre- emptive strike on any other. India could attack Pakistan, or the other way around. If the U.S. government develops a distaste for, say, the Indian Prime Minister, can it just “take him out” with a pre-emptive strike?
Recently the United States played an important part in forcing India and Pakistan back from the brink of war. Is it so hard for it to take its own advice? Who is guilty of feckless moralizing? Of preaching peace while it wages war? The U.S., which George Bush has called “the most peaceful nation on earth”, has been at war with one country or another every year for the last fifty.
Wars are never fought for altruistic reasons. They’re usually fought for hegemony, for business. And then of course there’s the business of war.
Protecting its control of the world’s oil is fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. government’s recent military interventions in the Balkans and Central Asia have to do with oil. Hamid Karzai, the puppet President of Afghanistan installed by the U.S., is said to be a former employee of Unocal, the American-based oil company. The U.S. government’s paranoid patrolling of the Middle East is because it has two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves. Oil keeps America’s engines purring sweetly. Oil keeps the Free Market rolling. Whoever controls the world’s oil, controls the world’s market. And how do you control the oil?
Nobody puts it more elegantly than The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. In an article called, “Craziness Pays”, he said, “The U.S. has to make it clear to Iraq and U.S. allies that…American will use force without negotiation, hesitation or U.N. approval.” His advice was well taken. In the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the almost daily humiliation the U.S. government heaps on the U.N. In his book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman says, and I quote, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas…and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.” Perhaps this was written in a moment of vulnerability, but it’s certainly the most succinct, accurate description of the project of corporate globalization that I have read.
After the 11th of September 2001 and the War Against Terror, the hidden hand and fist have had their cover blown – and we have a clear view now of America’s other weapon – the Free Market – bearing down on the Developing World, with a clenched, unsmiling smile. The Task That Never Ends is America’s perfect war, the perfect vehicle for the endless expansion of American imperialism.
In the last ten years of unbridled Corporate Globalization, the world’s total income has increased by an average of 2.5 percent a year. And yet the numbers of poor in the world has increased by 100 million. Of the top hundred biggest economies, 51 are corporations, not countries. The top 1 percent of the world has the same combined income as the bottom 57 percent and that disparity is growing. And now, under the spreading canopy of the War Against Terror, this process is being hustled along. The men in suits are in an unseemly hurry. While bombs rain down on us, and cruise missiles skid across the skies, while nuclear weapons are stockpiled to make the world a safer place, contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipe lines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatized, and democracies are being undermined.
In a country like India, the “structural adjustment” end of the Corporate Globalization project is ripping through people’s lives. “Development” projects, massive privatization, and labor “reforms” are pushing people off their lands and out of their jobs, resulting in a kind of barbaric dispossession that has few parallels in history. Across the world, as the “Free Market” brazenly protects Western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer. Civil unrest has begun to erupt in the global village. In countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia and India, the resistance movements against Corporate Globalization are growing. To contain them, governments are tightening their control. Protesters are being labeled “terrorists” and then being dealt with as such. But civil unrest does not only mean marches and demonstrations and protests against globalization. Unfortunately, it also means a desperate downward spiral into crime and chaos and all kinds of despair and disillusionment which as we know from history (and from what we see unspooling before our eyes), gradually becomes a fertile breeding ground for terrible things – cultural nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and of course, terrorism.
All these march arm-in-arm with corporate globalization.
There is a notion gaining credence that the Free Market breaks down national barriers, and that Corporate Globalization’s ultimate destination is a hippie paradise where the heart is the only passport and we all live happily together inside a John Lennon song. (“Imagine there’s no country…”) But this is a canard.
What the Free Market undermines is not national sovereignty, but democracy. As the disparity between the rich and poor grows, the hidden fist has its work cut out for it. Multinational corporations on the prowl for “sweetheart deals” that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of State machinery – the police, the courts, sometimes even the army. Today Corporate Globalization needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies. It needs a press that pretends to be free. It needs courts that pretend to dispense justice. It needs nuclear bombs, standing armies, sterner immigration laws, and watchful coastal patrols to make sure that it’s only money, goods, patents, and services that are being globalized – not the free movement of people, not a respect for human rights, not international treaties on racial discrimination or chemical and nuclear weapons, or greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, or god forbid, justice. It’s as though even a gesture towards international accountability would wreck the whole enterprise.
Close to one year after the War against Terror was officially flagged off in the ruins of Afghanistan, in country after country freedoms are being curtailed in the name of protecting freedom, civil liberties are being suspended in the name of protecting democracy. All kinds of dissent are being defined as “terrorism”. All kinds of laws are being passed to deal with it. Osama bin Laden seems to have vanished into thin air. Mullah Omar is supposed to have made his escape on a motorbike. (They could have sent TinTin after him.) [Laughter] The Taliban may have disappeared but their spirit, and their system of summary justice is surfacing in the unlikeliest of places. In India, in Pakistan, in Nigeria, in America, in all the Central Asian republics run by all manner of despots, and of course in Afghanistan under the U.S.-backed, Northern Alliance.
Meanwhile down at the mall there’s a mid-season sale. Everything’s discounted – oceans, rivers, oil, gene pools, fig wasps, flowers, childhoods, aluminum factories, phone companies, wisdom, wilderness, civil rights, eco-systems, air – all 4,600 million years of evolution. It’s packed, sealed, tagged, valued and available off the rack. (No returns). As for justice – I’m told it’s on offer too. You can get the best that money can buy.
Donald Rumsfeld said that his mission in the War Against Terror was to persuade the world that Americans must be allowed to continue their way of life. When the maddened king stamps his foot, slaves tremble in their quarters. So, standing here today, it’s hard for me to say this, but “The American Way of Life” is simply not sustainable. Because it doesn’t acknowledge that there is a world beyond America.
But fortunately, power has a shelf life. When the time comes, maybe this mighty empire will, like others before it, overreach itself and implode from within. It looks as though structural cracks have already appeared. As the War Against Terror casts its net wider and wider, America’s corporate heart is hemorrhaging. For all the endless, empty chatter about democracy, today the world is run by three of the most secretive institutions in the world: The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, all three of which, in turn, are dominated by the U.S. Their decisions are made in secret. The people who head them are appointed behind closed doors. Nobody really knows anything about them, their politics, their beliefs, their intentions. Nobody elected them. Nobody said they could make decisions on our behalf. A world run by a handful of greedy bankers and C.E.O.’s whom nobody elected can’t possibly last.
Soviet-style communism failed, not because it was intrinsically evil but because it was flawed. It allowed too few people to usurp too much power. Twenty-first century market-capitalism, American style, will fail for the same reasons. Both are edifices constructed by the human intelligence, undone by human nature.
The time has come, the Walrus said. Perhaps things will become worse and then better.
NB. The transcription of the videoclip finishes here. Nevertheless, the speech still contains a couple of more phrases that I consider interesting to include:
Perhaps there’s a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.