“[Th]e world is a millipede that inches forward on millions of real conversations,” writes Arundhati Roy.
Some of those conversations are to be found in Things That Can And Cannot Be Said, an unlikely collaboration between Roy and Hollywood actor-producer John Cusack, also starring celebrity whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden. Cusack, an outspoken critic of US militarism and lately civil rights activist, apparently makes the habit of regularly recording chats he has with Roy (and others), and he shares some of the transcribed political banter in this series of short essays, to which Roy contributes, as well.
The book’s star is former US government contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden — much of the text is a build-up toward the eventual ‘un-Summit’ that the whole gang of contributors had with him in a Moscow hotel in late 2014 — but the most rewarding attractions are Roy and Daniel Ellsberg. After an early career trying her hand at film and other projects, Roy emerged in 1997 with the international bestselling novel The God of Small Things. Since then she’s garnered a range of awards, although she’s dedicated most of her subsequent writing to social and political causes.
Roy is a fearless writer, who stirred controversy in 2010 by spending time living and traveling with India’s Naxalites (a Maoist revolutionary guerrilla movement which remains a powerful force in several states of eastern India); she chronicled this in a sympathetic portrait of the Naxalites titled Walking With the Comrades. She has also written powerfully against hydroelectric dams, nuclear weapons proliferation, and neoliberal corruption and imperialism in both India and the West.
Roy’s initial fame came as a writer of fiction, but her later work reveals a unique mastery of language which she applies just as movingly to politics and daily life as to fiction. Whether or not one agrees fully with her politics, her ability to apply the perfect turn of phrase, and to evoke powerfully perceptive metaphors and connections renders her writing not just provocative but breathtakingly beautiful. The transcribed conversations between her and Cusack are more raw and lack some of the finely crafted character of Roy’s written work, but the two essays penned by Roy in this short volume contain powerful and evocative moments.
“She can disarm you at any time with her friendly hustler’s grin, but her eyes see things and love things so fiercely, it’s frightening at times,” writes Cusack of his co-contributor.
Amidst the banter, one of the dominant themes that emerges is an angry critique of the contemporary left. Roy is scathing of NGOs that accept corporate charity. “When you look around and see how many NGOs are on, say, the Gates, Rockefeller, or Ford Foundation’s handout list, there has to be something wrong, right? They turn potential radicals into receivers of their largesse — and then, very subtly, without appearing to — they circumscribe the boundaries of radical politics. And you’re sacked if you disobey… sacked, unfunded, whatever. And then there’s always the game of pitting the ‘funded’ against the ‘unfunded,’ in which the funder takes center stage.”
Roy is not opposed to groups being funded, she goes on to say, “because we’re running out of options”, but says it’s important for everyone to recognize who is controlling whom.
Running Out of Options
Roy has been criticized by the sanctimoniously liberal adherents of non-violence for her openness and even sympathy toward armed resistance movements. Non-violence, she responds, is misunderstood and frequently co-opted. “Nonviolence should be a tactic — not an ideology preached from the sidelines to victims of massive violence,” she argues.
“My question is, if, let’s say, there are people who live in villages deep in the forest, four days’ walk from anywhere, and a thousand soldiers arrive and burn their villages and kill and rape people to scare them off their land because mining companies want it — what brand of nonviolence would the stalwarts of the establishment recommend? Nonviolence is radical political theatre… [“Effective only when there’s an audience,” interjects Cusack]… and who can pull in an audience? Gandhi was a superstar. The indigenous people in the forest don’t have that capital, that drawing power. So they have no audience.”
The Lifestyle Wars
Roy refers repeatedly to the ‘Lifestyle Wars’ in her commentary. The struggle between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has morphed into a struggle by those with wealth and privilege to preserve their lifestyles, she warns, even though they’re unsustainable and directly at odds with any aspiration toward global equality. The Left needs to come to terms with the fact that it is lifestyle, not ideological theory, that needs to be confronted and challenged.
“[T]he language of the Left, the discourse of the Left, has been marginalized and is sought to be eradicated. The debate — even though the protagonists on both sides betrayed everything they claimed to believe in — used to be about social justice, equality, liberty, and redistribution of wealth. All we seem to be left with now is paranoid gibberish about a War on Terror whose whole purpose is to expand the War, increase the Terror, and obfuscate the fact that the wars of today are not aberrations but systemic, logical exercises to preserve a way of life whose delicate pleasures and exquisite comforts can only be delivered to the chosen few by a continuous, protracted war for hegemony — Lifestyle Wars.”
For those who might be critical about singling out the Left for critique when the Right does all these things with such greater dedication, Cusack shares a quote from Daniel Berrigan, the now deceased Jesuit priest and anti-war activist: “Still it should be said that of the political left, we expect something better. And correctly. We put more trust in those who show a measure of compassion. We agree, conditionally but instinctively, with those who denounce the hideous social arrangements which make war inevitable and human want omnipresent; which foster corporate selfishness, pander to appetites and disorder, waste the earth.”
The Fate of the Best Americans
Daniel Ellsberg is the former military analyst who, like Snowden, became a celebrity whistleblower when he released the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, detailing the US government’s public deceptions surrounding the Vietnam War. He’s described fondly and evocatively by Roy: “Dan, after all those hours of talking, lying back on John [Cusack’s] bed, Christ-like, with his arms flung open, weeping for what the United States has turned into — a country whose “best people” must either go to prison or into exile. I was moved by his tears but troubled, too — because they were the tears of a man who has seen the machine up close. A man who was once on a first-name basis with the people who controlled it and who coldly contemplated the idea of annihilating life on earth. A man who risked everything to blow the whistle on them. Dan knows all the arguments, for as well as against. He often uses the word imperialism to describe US history and foreign policy. He knows now, forty years after he made the Pentagon Papers public, that even though particular individuals have gone, the machine keeps on turning.”
Snowden, when he finally makes his appearance, connects quickly with Ellsberg, sharing his sorrow for the lost present and the looming future. “If we do nothing, we sort of sleepwalk into a total surveillance state where we have both a super-state that has unlimited capacity to apply force with an unlimited ability to know [about the people it is targeting] — and that’s a very dangerous combination,” says Snowden. “That’s the dark future.”
Ellsberg seems moved, inspired and saddened all at once by his meeting with Snowden. “The best thing that the best people in our country like Ed [Snowden] can do is to go to prison… or be an exile in Russia? This is what it’s come to in my country… it’s horrible…”
Both of them are possessed by a fervent desire to share warnings of what could come. Snowden warns that the security work he was privy to demonstrated “how armies were being turned into police forces to administer countries they have invaded and occupied, while the police, even in places like India and Pakistan and Ferguson, Missouri, in the United States — were being trained to behave like armies to quell internal insurrections.”
Ellsberg, meanwhile, warns that the United States is “one more 9/11” away from becoming a police state, with Muslims and perhaps other non-whites rounded up into camps much like white Americans did with Asians during the Second World War. Then he catches himself: black, poor people in America are living in a police state, he observes. What the white, educated middle-class is now afraid of is that they might come to be treated the same way.
Roy, ever the incisive observer who turns perspective upside down (or perhaps, right-side up), points out the whole whistle-blower, security versus freedom debate in the US lacks any sort of broader global perspective. When activists on both the right and the left, on the security side and on the freedom side alike, contest each other the frame of reference for both sides remains the US, what’s best for the US? Neither side considers how the rest of the world is affected by Americans’ security, and freedom, alike.
“In the Public Security versus Mass Surveillance debate that is taking place in the establishment Western media, the Object of Love is America,” explains Roy. “America and her actions. Are they moral or immoral? Are they right or wrong? Are the whistleblowers American patriots or American traitors? Within this constricted matrix of morality, other countries, other cultures, other conversations — even if they are the victims of US wars — usually appear only as witnesses in the main trial. They either bolster the outrage of the persecution or the indignation of the defense… Is it shocking that Barack Obama approved a ‘kill list’? What sort of list do the millions of people who have been killed in all the US wars belong on, if not a ‘kill list’?”
The other problem, she notes, is that security debates risk being reduced to the quality of Hollywood thrillers. “[T]he conversation around whistleblowing is a thrilling one — it’s realpolitik — busy, important, and full of legalese. It has spies and spy-hunters, escapades, secrets, and secret-leakers. It’s a very adult and absorbing universe of its own. However… it sometimes threatens to [become] a substitute for broader more radical political thinking…”
Roy arrived in Moscow uncertain what she would think of Snowden. His media comments about patriotism, about loving his country, and photos of him cradling American flags had aroused in her a distinct unease. But she leaves the ‘un-Summit’ with a favourable impression of Snowden. “He presents himself as this cool systems man, but it’s only passion that could make him do what he did. He’s not just a systems man. That’s what I needed to know,” she says.
She compares Snowden and Ellsberg, different generations of the same resistance struggle; the same struggle for truth and democracy.
“What the two of them clearly had in common was a strong, almost corporeal sense of moral righteousness — of right and wrong. A sense of righteousness that was obviously at work not just when they decided to blow the whistle on what they thought to be morally unacceptable, but also when they signed up for their jobs — Dan to save his country from Communism, Ed to save it from Islamist terrorism. What they did when they grew disillusioned was so electrifying, so dramatic, that they have come to be identified by that single act of moral courage.”
What’s to Be Done?
Things That Can and Cannot Be Said is not a book with solutions, nor even a comprehensive framing of the problem. Its charm and potential lies in its disarming conversational approach, offering insights-in-passing; ideas and thoughts to spark further conversations and just maybe inspire other acts of moral courage. While the book channels a palpable sense of rage — rage at imperialism, at the surveillance state, at “Washington’s ability to destroy countries and its inability to win a war” — it concludes on the topic of love.
When people talk about loving their country — countries that commit murder and genocide — what sort of love is it they’re talking about? Roy poses the question defiantly. “Isn’t the greatness of great nations directly proportionate to their ability to be ruthless, genocidal? Doesn’t the height of a country’s ‘success’ usually also mark the depths of its moral failure?”
“And what about our failure? Writers, artists, radicals, anti-nationals, mavericks, malcontents – what of the failure of our imaginations? What of our failure to replace the idea of flags and countries with a less lethal Object of Love?”
“If there is something to be done, then one thing is for sure: those who created the problem will not be the ones who come up with the solution. Encrypting our emails will help, but not very much. Recalibrating our priorities might.”
Roy — like Ellsberg, Snowden, and Cusack — is angry, yet retains her faith in the future. “[C]apitalism will fail too. We need a new imagination,” Roy declares with a confident sense of hope. “The wisdom of the resistance movements, which are ragged and tattered and pushed to the wall, is incredible. So…I look to them and keep the faith.”