Features » June 6, 2003
Seize the Time
Arundhati Roy charts a strategy against empire
As we lurch from crisis to crisis, beamed directly into our brains by satellite TV, we have to think on our feet. On the move. We enter histories through the rubble of war. Ruined cities, parched fields, shrinking forests, and dying rivers are our archives, craters left by daisy cutters, our libraries.
So, what can I offer you? Some uncomfortable thoughts about money, war, empire, racism and democracy. Some worries that flit around my brain like a family of persistent moths that keep me awake at night.
You may think it is bad manners for a person like me, officially entered in the Big Book of Modern Nations as an “Indian citizen,” to come here and criticize the U.S. government. Speaking for myself, I’m no flag-waver, no patriot, and am fully aware that venality, brutality and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of every state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically. So may I clarify that I speak as a subject of the American Empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to criticize her king.
Way back in 1988, on the 3rd of July, the U.S.S. Vincennes, a missile cruiser stationed in the Persian Gulf, accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner and killed 290 civilian passengers. George Bush the First, who was, at the time, on his presidential campaign, was asked to comment on the incident. He said quite subtly, “I will never apologize for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are.”
I don’t care what the facts are. What a perfect maxim for the New American Empire. Perhaps a slight variation on the theme would be more appropriate: The facts can be whatever we want them to be. When the United States invaded Iraq, a New York Times/CBS News survey estimated that 42 percent of the American public believed that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And an ABC News poll said that 55 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein directly supported al-Qaeda.
None of this opinion is based on evidence (because there isn’t any). All of it is based on insinuation, auto-suggestion, and outright lies circulated by the U.S. corporate media, otherwise known as the “free press,” that hollow pillar on which contemporary American democracy rests. The era of manufacturing consent has given way to the era of manufacturing news. Soon media newsrooms will drop the pretense, and start hiring theater directors instead of journalists. And as America’s show business gets more violent and war-like, America’s wars get more like show business. The designer who built the $250,000 set in Qatar from which Gen. Tommy Franks stage-managed news coverage of Operation Shock and Awe also built sets for Disney, MGM and Good Morning America.
Public support in the United States for the war against Iraq was founded on a multi-tiered edifice of falsehood and deceit, coordinated by the U.S. government and faithfully amplified by the corporate media. Apart from the invented links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, we had the manufactured frenzy about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. George Bush the Lesser went to the extent of saying it would be “suicidal” for the United States not to attack Iraq. We once again witnessed the paranoia that a starved, bombed, besieged country was about to annihilate almighty America.
Iraq was only the latest in a succession of countries—earlier there was Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya, Grenada and Panama. But this time it wasn’t just your ordinary brand of friendly neighborhood frenzy. It was Frenzy with a Purpose. It ushered in an old doctrine in a new bottle: The Doctrine of Pre-emptive Strike, i.e., the United States Can Do Whatever the Hell It Wants, and That’s Official. Meanwhile, in passing, an ancient civilization has been casually decimated by a very recent, casually brutal nation.
Attorney General John Ashcroft recently declared that U.S. freedoms are “not the grant of any government or document, but … our endowment from God.” Why bother with the United Nations when God himself is on hand?
So here we are, the people of the world, confronted with an empire armed with a mandate from heaven (and, as added insurance, the most formidable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in history). Here we are, confronted with an empire that has conferred upon itself the right to go to war at will, and the right to deliver people from corrupting ideologies, from religious fundamentalists, dictators, sexism, and poverty by the age-old, tried-and-tested practice of extermination. Empire is on the move, and “Democracy” is its sly new war cry. Democracy, home-delivered to your doorstep by daisy cutters. Death is a small price for people to pay for the privilege of sampling this new product. Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy: bring to a boil, add oil, then bomb.
Before the war on Iraq began, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) sent the Pentagon a list of 16 crucial sites to protect. The National Museum was second on that list. Yet the museum was not just looted, it was desecrated. It was a repository of an ancient cultural heritage. Iraq as we know it today was part of the river valley of Mesopotamia. The civilization that grew along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates produced the world’s first writing, first calendar, first library, first city, and, yes, the world’s first democracy. King Hammurabi of Babylon was the first to codify laws governing the social life of citizens. It was a code in which abandoned women, prostitutes, slaves, and even animals had rights. The Hammurabi code is acknowledged not just as the birth of legality, but the beginning of an understanding of the concept of social justice. The U.S. government could not have chosen a more inappropriate land in which to stage its illegal war and display its grotesque disregard for justice.
Democracy, the modern world’s holy cow, is in crisis. And the crisis is profound. Every kind of outrage is being committed in the name of democracy. Democracy has become little more than a hollow word, a pretty shell, emptied of all content or meaning. It can be whatever you want it to be. Democracy is the Free World’s whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing to satisfy a whole range of taste, available to be used and abused at will.
Democracy did once seem as though it might actually succeed in delivering a degree of real social justice. But modern democracies have been around for long enough for neoliberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy—the “independent” judiciary, the “free” press, the parliament—and molding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder.
It is a cruel irony that the United States, which has the most ardent, vociferous defenders of the idea of free speech, and (until recently) the most elaborate legislation to protect it, has so circumscribed the space in which that freedom can be expressed. In a strange, convoluted way, the sound and fury that
accompanies the legal and conceptual defense of free speech in America serves to mask the process of the rapid erosion of the possibilities of actually exercising that freedom. The news and entertainment industry in America is almost entirely controlled by a few major corporations—AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation. Each of these corporations owns and controls TV stations, film studios, record companies, and publishing ventures. Effectively, the exits are sealed. And yet Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has instituted even further deregulation of the communication industry, which will lead to even greater consolidation.
So here it is—the World’s Greatest Democracy, led by a man who was not legally elected. What price have the American people paid for this spurious presidency?
In the three years of George Bush the Lesser’s term, the American economy has lost more than 2 million jobs. Outlandish military expenses, corporate welfare, and tax giveaways to the rich have created a financial crisis for the U.S. educational system. According to a survey by the National Council of State Legislatures, U.S. states cut $49 billion in public services, health, welfare benefits, and education in 2002. They plan to cut another $25.7 billion this year. That makes a total of $75 billion. Bush’s initial budget request to Congress to finance the war in Iraq was $80 billion.
So who’s paying for the war? America’s poor. Its students, its unemployed, its single mothers, its hospital and home-care patients, its teachers, and health workers. And who will benefit from it? Who is homing in on the reconstruction contracts worth up to $100 billon? Could it be America’s poor and unemployed and sick? Could it be America’s single mothers? Or America’s black and Latino minorities?
Operation Iraqi Freedom, George Bush assures us, is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people. That is, returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via Bechtel, Chevron and Halliburton. Once again, it is a small, tight circle that connects corporate, military, and government leadership to one another. The promiscuousness, the cross-pollination, is outrageous. Consider this: The Defense Policy Board is a government-appointed group that advises the Pentagon. Its members are appointed by the undersecretary of defense and approved by Donald Rumsfeld. Its meetings are classified. No information is available for public scrutiny.
The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity found that 9 out of the 30 members of the Defense Policy Board are connected to companies that were awarded defense contracts worth $76 billion between the years 2001 and 2002. One of them, Jack Sheehan, a retired Marine Corps general, is a senior vice president at Bechtel, the giant international engineering outfit. Riley Bechtel, the company chairman, is on President Bush’s Export Council. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who is also on the board of directors of the Bechtel Group, is the chairman of the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. When asked by the New York Times whether he was concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, he said, “I don’t know that Bechtel would particularly benefit from it. But if there’s work to be done, Bechtel is the type of company that could do it.”
So Iraq is being groomed for “liberation.” (Or did they mean “liberalization” all along?) The Wall Street Journal reports that “the Bush administration has drafted sweeping plans to remake Iraq’s economy in the U.S. image.” Iraq’s constitution is being redrafted, its trade laws, tax laws, and intellectual property laws rewritten in order to turn it into an American-style capitalist economy. The United States Agency for International Development has invited U.S. companies to bid for contracts that range between road building, water systems, text book distribution, and cell phone networks.
Soon after Bush the Lesser announced that he wanted American farmers to feed the world, Dan Amstutz, a former senior executive of Cargill, the biggest grain exporter in the world, was put in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq. Kevin Watkins, Oxfam’s policy director, said, “Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission.” The two men who have been shortlisted to run operations for managing Iraqi oil have worked with Shell, BP, and Fluor. Fluor is embroiled in a lawsuit by black South African workers who have accused the company of exploiting and brutalizing them during the apartheid era. Shell, of course, is well known for its devastation of the Ogoni tribal lands in Nigeria.
Tom Brokaw, one of America’s best-known TV anchors, was inadvertently succinct about the process. “One of the things we don’t want to do,” he said, “is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we’re going to own that country.” Now that the ownership deeds are being settled, Iraq is ready for New Democracy. So, as Lenin used to ask: What is to be done? Well …
We might as well accept the fact that there is no conventional military force that can successfully challenge the American war machine. Terrorist strikes only give the U.S. government an opportunity it is eagerly awaiting to further tighten its stranglehold. To argue against U.S. military aggression by saying that it will increase the possibilities of terrorist strikes is futile. It’s like threatening Brer Rabbit that you’ll throw him into the bramble bush. Any one who has read the documents written by The Project for the New American Century can attest to that.
The government’s suppression of the congressional committee report on September 11, which found that there was intelligence warning of the strikes that was ignored, also attests to the fact that, for all their posturing, the terrorists and the Bush regime might as well be working as a team. They both hold people responsible for the actions of their governments. They both believe in the doctrine of collective guilt and collective punishment. Their actions benefit each other greatly.
The U.S. government has already displayed in no uncertain terms the range and extent of its capability for paranoid aggression. In human psychology, paranoid aggression is usually an indicator of nervous insecurity. It could be argued that it’s no different in the case of the psychology of nations. Empire is paranoid because it has a soft underbelly. Its “homeland” may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons, but its economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts are exposed and vulnerable. Already the Internet is buzzing with
elaborate lists of American and British government products and companies that should be boycotted. Apart from the usual targets—Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s—government agencies like USAID, the British DFID, British and American banks, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch, and American Express could find themselves under siege. These lists are being honed and refined by activists across the world. They could become a practical guide that directs the amorphous but growing fury in the world. Suddenly, the “inevitability” of the project of Corporate Globalization is beginning to seem more than a little evitable.
It would be naïve to imagine that we can directly confront empire. Our strategy must be to isolate empire’s working parts and disable them one by one. No target is too small. No victory too insignificant. We could reverse the idea of the economic sanctions imposed on poor countries by empire and its allies. We could impose a regime of “peoples’ sanctions” on every corporate house that has been awarded with a contract in postwar Iraq, just as activists in this country and around the world targeted institutions of apartheid. Each one of them should be named, exposed, and boycotted. Forced out of business. That could be our response to Shock and Awe. It would be a great beginning.
Another urgent challenge is to expose the corporate media for the boardroom bulletin that it really is. We need to create a universe of alternative information. The battle to reclaim democracy is going to be a difficult one. Our freedoms were not granted to us by any governments. They were wrested from them by us. And once we surrender them, the battle to retrieve them is called a revolution. It is a battle that must range across continents and countries. It must not acknowledge national boundaries but, if it is to succeed, it has to begin here. In America. The only institution more powerful than the U.S. government is American civil society. The rest of us are subjects of slave nations. We are by no means powerless, but you have the power of proximity. You have access to the Imperial Palace and the emperor’s chambers. Empire’s conquests are being carried out in your name, and you have the right to refuse. You could refuse to fight. Refuse to move those missiles from the warehouse to the dock. Refuse to wave that flag. Refuse the victory parade.
You have a rich tradition of resistance. Hundreds of thousands of you have survived the relentless propaganda you have been subjected to, and are actively fighting your own government. In the ultra-patriotic climate that prevails in the United States, that’s as brave as any Iraqi or Afghan or Palestinian fighting for his or her homeland. If you join the battle, not in your hundreds of thousands, but in your millions, you will be greeted joyously by the rest of the world. And you will see how beautiful it is to be gentle instead of brutal, safe instead of scared. Befriended instead of isolated. Loved instead of hated.
I hate to disagree with your president. Yours is by no means a great nation. But you could be a great people. History is giving you the chance. Seize the time.
This essay was adapted from a May 17 speech sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights at Riverside Church in New York. Arundhati Roy’s books, War Talk and Power Politics, are available at www.southendpress.org.
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Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, a novel for which she won the Booker Prize in 1997. She is also a tireless activist for social causes, particularly around issues of international peace, poverty, and empire building.