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International Socialist Review Issue 38, November—December 2004

ARUNDHATI ROY: Seize the Time!

Arundhati Roy is the celebrated author of The God of Small Things, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. The New York Times calls her, "India’s most impassioned critic of globalization and American influence." She is the winner of the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom. Her latest books are The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, with David Barsamian, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empireboth published by South End Press–and Public Power in the Age of Empire, published by Seven Stories Press.

DAVID BARSAMIAN is founder and producer of Alternative Radio based in Boulder, Colorado. His interviews and articles appear regularly in the ISR. He is the author of several books, including Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire, and The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting. He interviewed Arundhati Roy in Seattle in August 2004.

I’D LIKE to start with a quote from a recent interview I did with you, published in the July—August issue of the International Socialist Review. You said, "It’s that we’re up against an economic system that is suffocating the majority of the people in this world. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to address it?" So I thought that would be a really easy way to begin. What are we going to do about it, and how are we going to address it?

I’VE ONLY been in the United States for three days now, and I obviously have felt the electricity in the air about the coming election. Just in May, we had a very important election in India. I think one of the dangers that we face is that politics becomes a discussion only about personalities, and we forget that the system is in place, and it doesn’t matter all that much who is piloting the machine. So as I said in my talk at the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, this whole fierce debate about the Democrats and the Republicans and whether Bush or Kerry is better is like being asked to choose a detergent. Whether you choose Tide or Ivory Snow, they’re both owned by Procter & Gamble.

And so, first of all, we have to understand that elections are just an apparent choice now. In India, we were faced with outright fascism with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the covert communalism that the Congress Party had indulged in for fifty years, preparing the ground in many ways for the right wing. It was the Congress Party that actually opened India’s markets to corporate globalization. But the one difference was that in their election campaign at least they had to lie; at least they had to say that they were against their old policies.

But here, in the United States, they don’t even do you the dignity of that. The Democrats are not even pretending that they’re against the war or against the occupation of Iraq. And that, I think, is very important, because the antiwar movement in America has been so phenomenal a service not just to people here, but also to all of us in the world. And you can’t allow them to hijack your beliefs and put your weight behind somebody who is openly saying that he believes in the occupation, that he would have attacked Iraq even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction, that he will actually get UN cover for the occupation, that he will try and get Indian and Pakistani soldiers to go and die in Iraq instead, and that the Germans and the French and the Russians might be able to share in the spoils of the occupation. Is that better or worse for somebody who lives in the subject nations of empire?

The fact is that we all know that what is happening is that there is a system of economic disparity that is being entrenched in the world today. It isn’t an accident that 580 billionaires in the world have greater income than the GDP of the 135 poorest countries. The disparities in the world are huge. And the disparities are not between rich countries and poor countries, but between rich people and poor people. So what do we do about it?

We understand a few things. One is that the system of electoral democracy as it stands today is premised on a religious acceptance of the nation state, but the system of corporate globalization is not. The system of corporate globalization is premised on the fact that liquid capital can move through poor countries at an enormous scale, dictating the agendas, dictating economic policy in those countries by insinuating itself into those economies.

Capital requires the coercive powers of the nation state to contain the revolt in the servants’ quarters. But it ensures that individual countries cannot stand up to the project of corporate globalization alone, which is why you have even people like Lula Inácio da Silva of Brazil or Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who were giants in the opposition but reduced to dwarfs on the global stage, blackmailed by the threat of capital flight.

So theoretically the only way to confront this is with what all of us are involved with, which is the globalization of dissent, which is the joining of hands of people who do not believe in empire. We have to join hands across countries and across continents in very specific ways and stop this. Because globalization isn’t inevitable. It is signed by specific contracts with specific signatures and specific governments and specific companies. And we have to bring that to its knees.

IMPERIALISM, YEARS ago, was only the province of certain Marxist scholars. It was a dirty word that couldn’t be spoken in polite company. But today you have people like Michael Ignatieff, who seems to have unlimited access to the New York Times magazine, writing cover stories extolling the virtues of what he calls "imperialism lite." And you have someone like Salman Rushdie writing that America in Afghanistan "did what it had to do, and did it well." I wonder now, given three years since the attack on Afghanistan, with the return of the warlords, the huge surge in opium trafficking, what your views are on the situation there?

AFGHANISTAN HAS just been thrown back to the warlords the way it was abandoned after the American government funded the mujahideen in order to get the Russians out. And today Hamid Karzai, the CIA man who worked for Unocal, can’t even entrust Afghans with his own security. He has to bring in private mercenaries. Just as everything else has been privatized, now security and torture and prison administration and all of this is being privatized. So what can you say to Michael Ignatieff?

I’ve grown up in India, and I’ve lived all my life there. I’ve never spent any large amounts of time in the West. So you come here and you listen to people like Ignatieff, and you think, even our fascists are not saying that. I’ve often been asked to come and debate imperialism, and I think it’s like asking me about the pros and cons of child abuse. Is it a subject that I should debate? Every little bylane that we walk down in India, are people saying, "Bring the British back. We miss colonialism so badly"? So it’s a kind of new racism. And it isn’t even all that new. We can’t even give them points for originality on this. These debates have taken place in the colonial time in almost exactly the same words: "civilizing the savages," and so on. So that isn’t even something I think is worth the dignity of a debate. It is just an aspect of power. It is what power always will say. And we can’t even allow it to deflect our attention for six seconds.

IN AN earlier interview, you recalled growing up as a kid in Kerala during the 1960s and wondering whether you would be considered a "dink" or a "gook." And today the language is "raghead," "towelhead," and "Haji."

YES, KERALA was very much like Vietnam. We, too, had rice fields and rivers and communists. We were just a few thousand miles west of Vietnam. So I do remember wondering whether we would be blown out of the bushes while you had some Hollywood background score playing.

Nothing has changed all that much except that it's gone back to the workshop and come out with its edges rounded. This year at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, the talk I gave was called "Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?" And there is a small passage in it which I’ll read to you, which sort of talks about the new imperialism.

Like Old Imperialism, New Imperialism relies for its success on a network of agents – corrupt local elites who service Empire. We all know the sordid story of Enron in India. The then-Maharashtra government signed a power purchase agreement that gave Enron profits that amounted to 60 percent of India’s entire rural development budget. A single American company was guaranteed a profit equivalent to funds for infrastructural development for about 500 million people!

Unlike in the old days, the New Imperialist doesn’t need to trudge around the tropics risking malaria or diarrhea or early death. New Imperialism can be conducted on e-mail. The vulgar, hands-on racism of Old Imperialism is outdated. The cornerstone of New Imperialism is New Racism.

The best allegory for New Racism is the tradition of "turkey pardoning" in the United States. Every year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the US President with a turkey for Thanksgiving. Every year, in a show of ceremonial magnanimity, the President spares that particular bird (and eats another one). After receiving the presidential pardon, the Chosen One is sent to Frying Pan Park in Virginia to live out its natural life. The rest of the 50 million turkeys raised for Thanksgiving are slaughtered and eaten on Thanksgiving Day. ConAgra Foods, the company that has won the Presidential Turkey contract, says it trains the lucky birds to be sociable, to interact with dignitaries, school children and the press. (Soon they’ll even speak English!)

That’s how New Racism in the corporate era works. A few carefully bred turkeys – the local elites of various countries, a community of wealthy immigrants, investment bankers, the occasional Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, some singers, some writers (like myself) – are given absolution and a pass to Frying Pan Park. The remaining millions lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes, have their water and electricity connections cut, and die of AIDS. Basically they’re for the pot. But the Fortunate Fowls in Frying Pan Park are doing fine. Some of them even work for the IMF and the WTO – so who can accuse those organizations of being antiturkey? Some serve as board members on the Turkey Choosing Committee – so who can say that turkeys are against Thanksgiving? They participate in it! Who can say the poor are anti-corporate globalization? There’s a stampede to get into Frying Pan Park. So what if most perish on the way?

As part of the project of New Racism we also have New Genocide. New Genocide in this new era of economic interdependence can be facilitated by economic sanctions. New Genocide means creating conditions that lead to mass death without actually going out and killing people. Denis Halliday, who was the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq between 1997 and 1998 (after which he resigned in disgust), used the term genocide to describe the sanctions in Iraq. In Iraq the sanctions outdid Saddam Hussein’s best efforts by claiming more than half a million children’s lives.

In the new era, apartheid as formal policy is antiquated and unnecessary. International instruments of trade and finance oversee a complex system of multilateral trade laws and financial agreements that keep the poor in their bantustans anyway. Its whole purpose is to institutionalize inequity. Why else would it be that the US taxes a garment made by a Bangladeshi manufacturer twenty times more than a garment made in Britain? Why else would it be that countries that grow cocoa beans, like the Ivory Coast and Ghana, are taxed out of the market if they try to turn it into chocolate? Why else would it be that countries that grow 90 percent of the world’s cocoa beans produce only 5 percent of the world’s chocolate? Why else would it be that rich countries that spend over a billion dollars a day on subsidies to farmers demand that poor countries like India withdraw all agricultural subsidies, including subsidized electricity? Why else would it be that after having been plundered by colonizing regimes for more than half a century, former colonies are steeped in debt to those same regimes and repay them some $382 billion a year?


COLONIES WENT out of fashion several decades ago, but with the U.S. occupation and colonization of Iraq, you’re calling for something rather dramatic in terms of what the U.S. should do.

NOT DRAMATIC, just reasonable. They should pull out and pay reparations.

BUT "THE maddened king," as you call George W. Bush, says, "the world is a safer place." Do you feel safer in India now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power in Iraq?

I REALLY miss those amazing Technicolor terror alerts in India–the polka-dotted and salmon pink and orange and lavender or whatever it is that day. In India–I’m not talking about the elite, but among normal people–there is a distinction between the government and the people, between the sarkar, as we call it, and the public. But here, this whole regime of synthetically manufactured fear has bonded people to the government. And that bond is not because of public health care, or looking after the old, or education, or social services, but fear. I think it would be a disaster for the American government if all of you started feeling safe. If you look at, say, India, from 1989 to today, would you possibly believe that in the last fourteen years 80,000 people have been killed in Kashmir? Every day there are terrorist attacks. In states like Andhra Pradesh, 200 extremists are killed every year. Every day there are militant strikes. But none of us goes around feeling terrified. We all know that everybody has to just continue living as they do. People would laugh at the government if they started this Technicolor terror alert thing, because everyone has so many other problems. So, I think not to be frightened here is a political act.

Of course, the Indian corporate press is no different from the American corporate press. In a twisted sense, the only lucky thing is that most people can’t read it, so the lies and the indoctrination don’t penetrate very deep.

TALKING ABOUT the media, in The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, you say that Americans live in a "bubble of lots of advertisements and no information." How do you break through the bubble?

I THINK we need to think about what is it that the mass media are doing to us. People who live outside the United States sometimes find it hard to actually believe the levels of indoctrination that take place here. Somehow, in a more anarchic society, like India, you can’t indoctrinate people so easily. One day you have the Kumbh mela [a Hindu festival centered around a bathing ritual–ed.], with millions of people, and a Naga sadhu [a Hindu ascetic or a monk–ed.] trying to pull the district collector’s car with his penis. And you can’t tell him that corporate globalization is the answer to all his problems. Just drink more Coke. So sometimes it’s hard for us to understand the reach and penetration of television and newspapers here.

But I think one of the mistakes a lot of us activists make is in railing against the corporate media to a point where we don’t know what to do. And I think that there are two things to keep in mind. One is that you do have very strong alternative media here. You have Alternative Radio. You have Democracy Now! You have the Internet. There is so much going on, so many places to look for information. But also I think there is a kind of ad busting to be done, which is you read the mainstream media, but what you gather from it is not what they want to tell you. You have to learn to decode it, to understand it for the boardroom bulletin that it is. And therefore, you use its power against itself. And I think that’s very important to do, because many of us make the mistake of thinking that the corporate media supports the neoliberal project. It doesn’t. It is the neoliberal project.

It’s become so blatant. In the United States, just think of what was going on in this country in 2001, and think of what is going on now. What a huge victory so many of you have won in terms of having been in this flag-waving, frightening place. I remember in 2003, when I spoke in Porto Alegre, at the World Social Forum, I didn’t even believe what I was saying at that time. It was just wishful thinking. There in Brazil, I said activists and musicians and writers, so many people have worked together to strip empire of its sheen. And we’ve exposed it, and now it stands too ugly to behold itself in the mirror. That much I believed. And the next sentence was, "Soon it will not be able to rally its own people." And look what’s happened. It’s happening here. And it’s because of you. So between that time and now, what used to be America’s secret history is now street talk. And that’s because of you. And you mustn’t lose focus. You can’t think that now, if Kerry comes to power, we can all go back home and be happy.

THE GLOBAL demonstrations against the Iraq war on February 15, 2003, turned out at least ten million people and by some accounts up to fifteen million people. You’ve called that one of the greatest affirmations of the human spirit and morality. But then the war started and many people went home.

THIS IS something we have to ask ourselves about, because the first part of this question is that you did have this incredible display of public morality. In no European country was the support for a unilateral war more than 11 percent. Hundreds of thousands marched on the streets here. And still these supposedly democratic countries went to war. So the questions are, A: Is democracy still democratic? B: Are governments accountable to the people who elected them? And, C: Are people responsible in democratic countries for the actions of their governments? It’s a very serious crisis that is facing democracies today. And if you get caught in this Ivory Snow vs. Tide debate, if you get caught in having to choose between a detergent with oxy-boosters or gentle cleansers, we’re finished. The point is, how do you keep power on a short leash? How do you make it accountable?

And the fact is that we can’t also only feel good about what we do. What we have done has been fantastic, but we must realize that it’s not enough. And one of the problems is that symbolic resistance has unmoored itself from real civil disobedience. And that is very dangerous, because governments have learned how to wait these things out. And they think we’re like children with rattles in a crib. Just let them get on with their weekend demonstration, and we’ll just carry on with what we have to do. Public opinion is so fickle, and so on. The symbolic aspect of resistance is very important. The theater is very important. But not at the cost of real civil disobedience. So we have to find ways of implementing what we’re saying seriously.

And you look at what’s happening today. I feel that the Iraqi resistance is fighting on the front lines of empire. We know that it’s a motley group of former Baathists and fed-up collaborationists and all kinds of people. But no resistance movement is pristine. And if we are going to only invest our purity in pristine movements, we may as well forget it. The point is, this is our resistance, and we have to support it.

And you have to understand that the American soldiers who are dying in Iraq are conscripts of a poverty draft from the poorest parts of the United States being sent to war. In fact, they as well as the Iraqis are victims of the same horrendous system that asks for their lives in return for a victory that will never be theirs.

The book that we did together is called The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile. And the fact is that sometimes the cruise missile is highlighted, and you’re thinking about the torture and the invasion and the army and the people dying and so on. But meanwhile, the contracts are being signed, the pipelines are being laid, everything is being put in place for the time when they can withdraw the cruise missile. But the system of appropriation is already in place. And you have these companies like Bechtel and Halliburton, who did business with Saddam Hussein and who are now profiting in the billions from the destruction and the reconstruction of Iraq. And those same companies were in Cochabamba, Bolivia, engaged in water privatization. Those same companies are in India, along with Enron. Enron and Bechtel, for instance, were involved in the first private power project in India, where the profits were equal to 60 percent of India’s entire rural development budget.

The point I’m trying to make is that Iraq is on the front lines of this war on empire, but each of these companies that are involved there have economic outposts across the world. So it gives us a foothold. It gives us a way of bearing down on single individual corporations and companies. And if we can’t shut them down, if we can’t prevent them from doing what they’re doing, then how can we call ourselves a resistance? We have to do it. We have to find a way of doing it.

And the thing is, it’s not going to happen without us paying a price. It’s not going to happen in our overtime or on weekends or anything like that. People in poor countries are being battered by the system. It’s not only that empire arrives in their lives in the form of military intervention, as it has in Iraq. It also arrives in the form of exorbitant electricity bills that they can’t pay, of their water being cut off, of their being dismissed from their jobs and uprooted from their lands.

I was in South Africa in June. Just four days before I left, in a Black township called Phoenix, the police and the municipal police arrived to disconnect illegal electricity connections, because electricity has been privatized there–and the poor have just been disconnected, millions of them. So they just reconnect illegally. So these police went and removed all the cables. And an old lady went out and said, "Look, it’s all right. Remove the cables. But just wait here. I want the press to come, and I want to explain to them why we need to steal electricity." So they started pushing her around. And a young boy, who was her son, an eighteen-year-old boy, came out and said, "Look, that’s my mother you’re pushing around." And they just put a gun to his head and shot him.

If you look at a country like India, we are old hands at the game. You have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows a noncommissioned army officer to kill anybody on suspicion of creating public disturbance. All over the northeast, all over Kashmir, you have the Gangster Act, you have the Special Areas Security Act, you have the Terrorist and Disruptive Areas Act, which has now lapsed but under which people are still people being tried. And then you have the equivalent of the USA PATRIOT Act, which is Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), under which thousands of people are just being picked up and held without trial. And their crime is poverty. It isn’t that they’re terrorists. They’re being called terrorists, but their crime is poverty. So terrorism and poverty are being conflated. And states are becoming very sophisticated in their repression. And how do we counter that?

This battle is not going to be won without us paying a price. That’s one thing we have to understand. It’s not going to be a cute war.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act–or, as you and others have called it, the Production of Terrorism Act–has its counterpart in the United States in the PATRIOT Act, which has greatly enhanced the ability of the state to surveil and imprison its citizens.

Fundamentally the thing about these acts that we have to understand is that they are not meant for the terrorists, because the terrorists are just shot or taken, in the case of America, to Guantánamo Bay, or suspected terrorists. Those acts are meant to terrorize you. So basically all of us stand accused. It prepares the ground for the government to make all of us culprits and then pick off whichever one of us it wants to.

And once we give up these freedoms, will we he ever get them back? In India, at least when the Congress Party was campaigning, it said it was going to withdraw POTA. It probably will, but not before it puts into legislation other kinds of legislation that approximate it. So it won't be POTA, it will be MOTA or whatever. But here, are they even saying that they will repeal the PATRIOT Act? It's an insult to you that they don't even think they have to say it. Is it populist to say that we are going to deal in sterner ways with terror and we are going to make America stronger and safer and have more oxy-boosters? It's a crazy situation that they don't even lie. I know a lot of people say that, "Oh, you know, Kerry is saying this, but when he comes to power, he will be different." But nobody moves to the left after they come to power; they move only to the right.

ONE OF your essays in your new collection, An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, is called "When the Saints Go Marching Out: Mohandas," which is the name of Mahatma Gandhi, "Mandela, and Martin." Talk about Gandhi. He was able to devise strategies which exploited cracks in the empire.

Gandhi was one of the brightest, most cunning, and imaginative politicians of the modern age. What he did was what great writers do. Great writers expand the human imagination. Gandhi expanded the political imagination. But, of course, we mustn't ever think that the Indian freedom struggle was a revolutionary struggle. It wasn't. Because the Indian elite stepped very easily into the shoes of the British imperialists. Nor was it only a nonviolent struggle, because that's the other myth, that it was an entirely nonviolent struggle. It wasn't. But what Gandhi did was democratic because of the ways in which he devised strategy. It included a lot of people. He found ways of including masses of people. For instance, in 1931, when they did the Dandi march, where they decided to march to the coast–it took 21 days, I think–to make salt in order to break the British salt tax laws, which prevented Indians from making salt, it was symbolic. But also, then millions of Indians began to make salt, and it struck at the economic underpinning of empire. So that was his brilliance.

But I think we really need to reimagine nonviolent resistance, because there isn't any debate taking place that is more important in the world today than the one about strategies of resistance. There can never be one strategy. People are never going to agree about one strategy. It can't be that while we watch the American war machine occupy Iraq, torture its prisoners, appropriate its resources, we are waiting for this pristine secular, democratic, nonviolent, feminist resistance to come along. We can't prescribe to the Iraqis how to conduct their resistance, but we have to shore up our end of it by forcing America and its allies to leave Iraq now.

I THINK a lot of people here have on their minds the November 2 election and what to do, who to vote for. Tariq Ali, who is very critical of Kerry, recently said, "If the American population were to vote Bush out of office, it would have a tremendous impact on world opinion. Our option at the moment is limited. Do we defeat a warmonger government or not?" What do you think of Ali’s perspective?

LOOK, IT’S a very complicated and difficult debate, in which I think there are two things you can do: you can act expediently, if you like, but you must speak on principle. I cannot sit here with any kind of honesty and say to you that I support Kerry. I cannot do that. I’ll tell you a small example. In India, you may or may not be aware of the levels of violence and jingoism and fascism that we’ve faced over the last five years. In Gujarat, rampaging mobs murdered, raped, gang-raped, burnt alive 2,000 Muslims on the streets, drove 150,000 out of their homes. And you have this kind of plague of Hindu fascism spreading. And you had a central government that was supported by the BJP. A lot of the people who I work with and know work in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, where there was a Congress state government for ten years. This government had overseen the building of many dams in the Narmada valley. It had overseen the privatization of electricity, of water, the driving out from their homes and lands of hundreds of thousands of people, the disconnection of single-point electricity connections because they signed these huge contracts for privatization with the Asian Development Bank.

The activists in these areas knew that a lot of the reason that Congress was also so boldly doing these things was they were saying, "What option do you have? Do you want to get the BJP? Are you going to campaign for the BJP? Are you going to open yourself up not just to being physically beaten but maybe even killed?" But I want to tell you that they didn’t campaign for the Congress. They didn’t. They just said, "We do not believe in this, and we are going to continue to do our work outside." It was just a horrendous situation, because the BJP was pretending to be anti-"reform," saying, "We’ll stop this, we’ll change that." They did come to power, the BJP, and within ten days they were on the dam site saying, "We are going to build the dam." So people are waiting for their houses to get submerged. This was the dilemma.

The point is, then, you have to say, "Look, can you actually campaign for a man who is saying that I’m going to send more troops to Iraq?" How? So I think it’s very important for us to remain principled. Let me tell you that during the Indian elections, people used to keep asking me, "Aren’t you campaigning for the Congress?" Because, of course, I had spent the last five years denouncing the BJP. I said, "How can I campaign for the Congress that also oversaw the carnage of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, that opened the markets to neoliberalism in the early 1990s?" And every time, you’re put under this pressure. I said, "I feel sometimes when I’m asked this question like I imagine that a gay person must feel when they’re watching straight sex: I’m sort of interested but not involved." I think it’s very important for us to understand that we are people of principle and we are soldiers who are fighting a different battle, and we cannot be co-opted into this.

So you’ve got to refuse the terms of this debate; otherwise you’re co-opted. I’m not going to say who you should vote for. I’m not going to sit here and tell you to vote for this one or vote for that one, because all of us here are people of influence and power, and we can’t allow our power to be co-opted by those people. We cannot.

We talked about independent media a little earlier. I should mention Elliott Bay Book Company and this hall and South End Press, one of the best independent presses in the country, are examples of that. And here in Seattle, the Indy Media Center, a tremendously historically important development and innovation. So wherever possible we need to grow independent media, we need to nurture it, and we need to sustain it. So please do whatever you can to support these institutions. While we're trying to penetrate the corporate media, we're also trying to build parallel structures. And your support is absolutely critical, particularly when we're talking about independent bookstores in an age of Borderization and Barnes & Nobleization of the countryside.

I just want to say something, back to the subject of the American election. You have to force the Democrats to say that they are against the war, otherwise you're not going to support them. They can't tell you what to do. They're the public servants. You have to tell them what to do.

DO YOU have any ideas about reaching beyond the choir? One of the frequent charges that’s leveled against the Left or progressives is that we talk among ourselves, we have a good time, and everyone nods their head and then has a beer and goes home, and nothing happens. There is some truth to that. How do we get to a larger audience?

FIRST OF all, I don’t get that feeling where I come from, because what we are saying is what a majority of India’s poor are saying. So there is no question of preaching to the choir there. It’s just that the choir, millions of people, aren’t heard. That’s a different matter. But it isn’t ghettoized thinking at all. If it were, then we would be politically wrong, don’t you think? Because we are saying that this is a view that is on the side of the world’s poor. So I don’t think I accept that charge, that we just have a good time and have a beer and go to bed.

I think, on another level, it is true that there is a sort of suspicion of success, of popularity among Left intellectuals. You like to have this language that is sort of impenetrable. Not quite as bad as the postmodernists, but getting there. So I think it’s very important to know that Fox News’s success is our failure.

One of the things that I really think we have to try to do is to snatch our future back from the world of experts, to say, "I’m sorry, but it’s not that hard to understand and it’s not that hard to explain." And if you think of it, just a few years ago–when the confrontation happened in Seattle at the WTO convention, for many of us in the subject nations of empire, it was a delightful thing to know that even people in imperialist countries shared our battles. It was really the beginnings of the globalization of dissent.

Corporate globalization wasn't something that was as palpable earlier. Nobody really knew what it meant. The enemy wasn't corporeal. But it is now, and that is because of the efforts of so many people. Now you go into any bookshop in the United States and look at the books there and ask yourself, seven, eight, nine years ago would they have been there? No. And that's what we've done. And must continue to do. I think even, say, documentary filmmaking. And I'm not only talking about the high end of it; I'm not only talking about Fahrenheit 9/11. Technology has enabled documentary film to become such a powerful tool both to the right and to the left. But the fact is that in countries like India, it's become such an important political tool that governments are really frightened–and are exploring how to censor it, how to stop it, now that these filmmakers who used to need grants from the Ford Foundation and some state film corporation can just go and do it on their own with a little camera. And those films are so subversive and so gripping. You go to a little village in India with a projector and a camera and show films, and thousands of people will come.

So these are new tools that are being honed. The mainstream corporate media is like the buffalo, and the alternate media is like this swarm of bees around the buffalo. And it's like contextualizing the buffalo. It's like a CD-ROM. The buffalo is the main text and the bees are -- you click and you get the inside story. The buffalo sort of sets the agenda, but the bees are doing a pretty good job right now. And we have to just continue that in some way.

MICHAEL MOORE has been very successful in terms of reaching a much larger audience. In fact, he has two books on the best-seller list right now. His Fahrenheit 9/11 has been seen by millions of people and will soon be out on DVD. What can we learn from those kinds of interventions?

The obvious, I think, that those kinds of interventions have a space now and have to be exploited, because it blows open spaces. It changes what people expect from cinema, makes it all so much more exciting. I think there are other films, like Control Room.

By Jehane Noujaim.

Yes. Everything has to become out of control now. We just sort of become really bad.

A COUPLE of years ago, you were at the United World College in Las Vegas, a small town in northern New Mexico. You were talking to the students there, and I took these notes. "It's difficult to be citizens of an empire, because it's hard to listen. Put your ear to the wall. Listen to the whisper." If you put your ear to the wall now, what would you hear?

I don't feel qualified to answer that properly, because I've just been here for a few days, and speaking in places like this, where it's not exactly like I'm on the street listening to things. But I must say that soon after September 11, I wrote an essay called "The Algebra of Infinite Justice." And when I wrote it, I did think to myself, Here is me writing this essay that's probably going to annoy this huge and powerful country, and that's the end of me. But then, as a writer, if I can't write what I think, that would be the end of me anyway. So let me just do it.

And instead I find that it's just so wonderful to arrive here and to know that you all are heroes. It gives so much strength to people. And I'm always called, of course, for strategic reasons, anti-American. And I'm so far from being anti-American, because I have such a deep respect for what you do. I can assure you that if India and Pakistan were at war, it would be hard for me to find people to come out in the numbers in which you have come out and protested against what your government is doing. So power to you. That's just fantastic, what you do. And it is something which encourages people everywhere. It blurs these national borders: You're this, I'm that. You don't even talk like this: You're an American, and I'm an Indian, and so-and-so is a Moroccan. We are finding a different kind of language in which to talk to each other, which is important.

I've said this just now, but I'll say it again. This idea that America's secret history is street talk is what I hear. That is all out in the open now. And the fact is that empires always overreach themselves and then crumble. Power has a short shelf life.

KATHY KELLY is an extraordinary woman. She's one of the founders of Voices in the Wilderness. She just served a jail four-month sentence for civil disobedience at the School of the Americas training camp in Fort Benning, Georgia. Again, talking about courage, she says it's the ability to control fear, and we catch courage from one another. I know you've spent a lot of time with some very extraordinary women in the Narmada Valley. What kind of courage were you able to able to catch?

One of the facts is that one of the great things about the nonviolent political resistance in India, its legacy, is that it really has women at the heart of it, it really allows women into the heart of it. When movements become violent, then not only does the state react with huge coercive power, but that violence by people on your own side is very soon turned on women. So because we have this legacy, I think, in places like the Narmada valley, women also realize that they are far bigger victims than the men are. Say, a hundred thousand people are being displaced by a dam and they're not being given land for land, because there is no land. The men are given some cash as compensation. The men buy motorcycles or get drunk, and then it's finished. And the women are left in a terrible situation. So they are fighting this battle much more fiercely. And everywhere you go you see that they're really at the forefront of it.

I think, of all the women's resistances, the most remarkable today is RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. What a tremendous battle they have waged and continue to wage. And what a principled battle. Sorry to come back to this. Talk about Bush and Kerry. They were faced with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and the Americans in between. And we were made to feel that America was fighting a feminist war in Afghanistan. But look at their situation now. They didn't say, "Yes, yes, we'll support you and come in." At no point did they take an expedient position. I think we have to learn this from that.

IN ONE of your essays in your book War Talk, you conclude with a paraphrase of Shelley’s poem "Mask of Anarchy": "You be many, they be few." Talk about that.

THAT IS what is happening. It is in the nature of capitalism, isn’t it? The more profit you make, the more you plow back into the machine, the more profit you make. And so now you have a situation in which, like I said, 500 billionaires have more money than the GDP of 135 countries. And that rift is widening. I think today’s paper said that the rift between the rich and the poor of the United States is widening even more. Everywhere that’s happening. And the fact is that I believe that wars must be waged from positions of strength. So the poor must fight from their position of strength, which is on the streets and the mountains and the valleys of the world, not in boardrooms and parliaments and courts. I think we are on the side of the millions, and that is our strength. And we must recognize it and work with it.

THERE IS an alternative to terrorism. What is it?


HOW DO we get there?

THE POINT is that terrorism has been isolated and made to look like some kind of thing that has no past and has no future and is just some aberration of maniacs. It isn’t. Of course, sometimes it is. But if you look at it, the logic that underlies terrorism and the logic that underlies the war on terror is the same: Both hold ordinary people responsible for the actions of governments. And the fact is that Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, in their attacks on September 11, took the lives of many ordinary people. And in the attacks in Afghanistan and on Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans paid for the actions of the Taliban or for the actions of Saddam Hussein. The difference is that the Afghans didn’t elect the Taliban, the Iraqis didn’t elect Saddam Hussein. So how do we justify these kinds of wars?

I really think that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketeers of war. They are the ones who say that they don’t believe that legitimate violence is only the monopoly of the state. So we can’t condemn terrorism unless we condemn the war on terror. And no government that does not show itself to be open to change by nonviolent dissent can actually condemn terrorism. Because if every avenue of nonviolent dissent is closed or mocked or bought off or broken, then by default you privilege violence. When all your respect and admiration and research and media coverage and the whole economy is based on war and violence, when violence is deified, on what grounds are you going to condemn terrorism?

Whatever people lack in wealth and power they make up with stealth and strategy. So we can’t just every time we’re asked to say something, say, "Oh, terrorism is a terrible thing," without talking about repression, without talking about justice, without talking about occupation, without talking about privatization, without talking about the fact that this country has its army strung across the globe.

And then, of course, even language has been co-opted. If you say "democracy," actually it means neoliberalism. If you say "reforms," it actually means repression. Everything has been turned into something else. So we also have to reclaim language now.

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