13 May, 2003

The Goddess of Big Things

Hundreds of people, young and old, the well-dressed and the fashion-resistant, gathered at the Riverside Church on May 13, 2003, lining up outside the revolving gates to enter that New York institution. And no, it wasn't a rush of new religious awakening that had brought them there - it was a small, petite dark-haired woman, in short cropped hair and a dimpled smile, dressed in a simple white sari. Arundhati Roy, former actor, architect, screenwriter, aerobics instructor, author of the Booker prize-winning bestseller God of Small Things and now a passionate anti-globalization essayist, was the subject of their undivided attention. Howard Zinn, best-selling author of A People's History of the United States, would dialogue with her after her lecture. Three thousand people crammed into the Church, from the pews to the balconies. Two large screens projected the video image of the speaker to the packed balconies.

Reverend James A Forbes Jr., senior minister of a Church that has hosted many civil rights leaders, introduced the speaker. He reminded the audience of the April 4th, 1967 speech of Martin Luther King Jr. at Riverside Church, and drew a parallel between the civil rights movement and the anti-globalization movement of today. Ironically, the anti-globalization movement has become truly globalized, with online networks linking activists in every part of the world. A protest sparked in one continent reaches people in all corners of the globe within the time it takes to compose a email message and click: send. Arundati Roy, one of the most vocal opponents of globalization, is not unmindful of this irony. The only thing worth globalizing is dissent, she mentioned with a mischievous smile.

J. Patrick Lannan, president of the Lannan Foundation which awarded their Cultural Freedom Award to Ms. Roy, remarked that "its not that the powerless are silent, its just that they're not heard." In his introduction, he also said that Roy had distributed the prize money from the Lannan award to 50 small grassroots organizations in India. This act of "solidarity, not charity", is what endears the dimpled author to her followers.

The lecture was presented by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), a Brooklyn-based non-profit that works to support social and economic rights across the world. CESR's executive director Roger Normand, talking about the contemporary world-wide erosion of human, social and economic rights, stated, "We cannot afford the luxury of despair."

"We must be precise about our politics," Arundhati Roy started out. Roy, a vocal opponent of the big dams that displace millions in India, the testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, and the US military interventions in Afganisthan and Iraq, is crystal-clear about her politics. Her lecture is titled, provocatively, Instant-Mix Democracy, Two for One. She goes between US and Iraq, the ironies of saving the natives to the inconsistencies of world leaders, the destruction of Mesopotamia to the racial injustice in Harlem. Her sarcasm is prodigious. No weapons were found in Iraq, she says, "not even a little one." The US corporate media is otherwise known as the free press. Bush and Blair's claims to save the women in Afganisthan from the Taliban makes them, "twentieth-century's leading feminists". The laughter defuses the biting criticism of America's global empire, the global corporate economy, US military interventions as well as the troubling biases of the media.

She reserved her fiercest critique for the erosion of democracy inside the United States. "Democracy, the world's modern holy cow, has become whatever you want it to be," she said. Although more than ten million people marched against the war, policy-makers did not take that in account. Its as if policy was made based on a focus group, she remarked. She elaborated on the cost of war for poor people in the United States, along with the civil rights erosions that have happened with the Anti-Terrorism Bill. "You are paying for this war of liberation with your own freedom."

She ended with, "Freedom was not given to us by governments, it was wrested by us from them." Her solution to the contemporary crisis? To disable empire with dissent. She urged the American people to take part in strikes and marches, and to support independent media.

Roy may be precise about her politics, but she is not precise about mixing her facts with her fictions, or her methods of synthesizing that information, charge her critics. The charges against the polemic writer are many, especially by journalists and social science researchers used to a more balanced approach. They accuse Roy of seeing the world in black and white, that her research is based on easily available news reports and not on any other sources of in-depth reporting, and that her writings are hyper-cute, biased and over-blown. Roy is unfazed by these criticisms. Her strengths lie in mixing the poetry of polemics with the mind-numbing facts of unanalyzed news. This grabs the attention of a world that has become savvy to the slanted, filtered, edited, funded and controlled "objectivity" of corporate news. She is not, in any way, claiming journalistic objectivity.

Liberals familiar with anti-globalization issues are dissatisfied with her rehashing of familiar material. However, dismissing her as just a poster woman for the cause is disingenuous. Her work is culled from multiple sources, with a zealous attention to history and contemporary world events, and from a careful deconstruction of the fictions of power, which often do not have room for existence within the margins of a newspaper. In a world often weary of corporate news, the freshness of her talk brought 3000 people to their feet in a stand-up applause. Her grassroots popularity attests to the central position this author from India holds in the anti-globalization movement.