Swans Commentary » swans.com December 13, 2010  



Perspectives: A Review of 2010


The Year In Dissent


by Peter Byrne





"Up against the wall Motherfuckers!"
—1968 graffiti

"I am hysterical. I'm screaming from the bloody rooftops. And he [her critic] and his smug little club are going 'Shhh...you'll wake the neighbors!' I want to wake the neighbors, that's my whole point. I want everybody to open their eyes."
—Arundhati Roy


(Swans - December 13, 2010)   No better way to sharpen minds in the search for voices that have said a loud no in 2010 than The Verso Book of Dissent. This parade of naysayers celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the gutsy radical publishing house. The subtitle, From Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad, evokes the juice flowing through a survey of over three thousand years. There's no soporific pedantry in the chronologically-arranged anthology. Twenty-six pages of sources are listed and there is an index by names and another by geographical origins. An incisive paragraph establishes the context of each quotation. Brevity rules of necessity but concedes somewhat more space to modern times. John Ball of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 gets a half-dozen lines including "When Adam delved and Eve Span/ Who was then the gentleman?" For Karl Marx and Frederick Engels we can read a four-page chunk of The Communist Manifesto.

Serendipity is the nature of the reading game here. The three hundred sixty-six pages are for bedside, toilet, or jailhouse dipping. In pusillanimous times, Joe Hill's Last Words can shock and shame us: "Don't waste any time in mourning -- organize." In a period in thrall to the lesser evil, Randolph Bourne alerts us to that plague, "If radicals spend their time holding conventions to attest their loyalty and stamp out the 'enemies within,' they do not spend it breaking intellectual paths, or giving us shining ideals to which we can attach our faith and conscience. [...] A policy of 'win the war first' must be, for the radical, a policy of intellectual suicide." And in our climate of conformity, left, right, and center, who better to slap our smug faces than Tristan Tzara:

I'm writing this manifesto to show that you can perform contrary actions at the same time, in one single fresh breath; I am against action; as for continual contradiction, and affirmation too, I am neither for nor against them, and I won't explain myself because I hate common sense...

Only one dissenter appears from the last twelve months. Henning Mannell, a Swedish author, sailed in the ship that multiple murders stopped from bringing aid to Gaza. Perhaps he in turn had been inspired by Mahmoud Darwish whose verses are quoted: "And we have what you lack/A bleeding homeland of bleeding people/A homeland fit for oblivion or memory." Given the posturing rebels that we internauts confront on screen every day, it might be a surprise that 2010 merited only two paragraphs. But Mannell knows why effective dissent was scarce. "I believe so strongly in solidarity as an instrument to change the world, and I believe in dialogue, but it's the action that proves the word."

The Verso Book of Dissent cites one American whose disobedience was both efficacious and personally dangerous. Daniel Ellsberg was the target of a White House hit squad on May 3, 1972. He'd leaked secret documents in 1971 and his Pentagon Papers would shorten the Vietnam War. "For me as an American to read, in our own official secret documents, about the origins of the conflict and of our participation in it was to see our involvement -- and the killing we had done and were still doing -- naked of any shred of legitimacy from the beginning.[...]I could think of no other word for that but murder. Mass murder." During Ellsberg's trial for espionage it was revealed that Nixon's thugs had broken into his office and the charges were dismissed. The disgraced president had wished to put him in jail for thirty-five years.

Ellsberg has quite recently spoken with admiration of Bradley Manning, who should be included under 2010 in any subsequent edition of the Verso book. He was imprisoned in Quantico in June for his role in the WikiLeaks and could be charged with espionage. Sadly, it's the degradation of American life in the last forty years that strikes anyone who has observed the unmasking of official lies in both the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks. Ellsberg's revelations caused a constitutional crisis and the intervention of the Supreme Court to allow newspapers to print them. But the massive WikiLeaks have been muted in the USA by a cowardly self-censorship in the media and a public that embraces permanent war like the jungle of the market economy as its destiny. Yet Washington's deceit over Iraq and Afghanistan easily equals its obfuscations over Vietnam. Moreover, the number of deaths resulting -- deaths of human beings, not simply of US military personnel -- are probably greater.

Diverse motives can forge dissension. The priest John Ball had religion; Marx and Engels saw how the world worked and strove to impart their insight; Tristan Tzara fought boredom by upsetting every bourgeois applecart; Henning Mankell felt compelled to succor the innocent of Gaza in their imprisonment; Mahmoud Darwish had his home and culture stolen; Daniel Ellsberg wanted to stop mass murder; Bradley Manning had first-hand information about "how the first world exploits the third, in detail" and wished to make it public. (Manning's motive stands up against the quickly improvised smear campaign that insisted he loathed the army, had been demoted, suffered from a breakup, was anti-social, despondent, boastful, transgendered, and the child of divorced parents.)

2010 saw the Indian writer-activist Arundhati Roy once more appear on the international stage. She has challenged her government's right to be in Kashmir at all and decried the brutality of its occupation. (Roy has supported Kashmiri separatism at least since 2008.) The Delhi authorities responded by threatening to charge her with sedition. The minister of justice made the ludicrous statement that "Yes, there is freedom of speech...[but] it can't violate the patriotic sentiments of the people." Roy didn't back down:

That the government is considering charging me with sedition has to do with its panic about many voices, even in India, being raised against what is happening in Kashmir. This is a new development, and one that must be worrisome for the government. Threatening me with legal action is meant to frighten the civil rights groups and young journalists into keeping quiet. But I think it will have the opposite effect. I think the government is mature enough to understand that it's too late to put the lid on now. (Guardian, October 27, 2010.)

Roy is an example of celebrity-enhanced dissension shrewdly handled and a look at her career can throw light on the possibilities of dissent now. In all probability she would never have been heard of outside India had she not first achieved renown abroad as a novelist. In 1997 Roy won the prestigious Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things. The literary award had formerly gone to Nobel Prize winners William Golding, V. S. Naipaul, and J. M. Coetzee. Previous awardees included Salmon Rushdie and Margaret Atwood. Roy's novel was her first and she has never published another. If we read it closely, attentive to the author's sympathies, we can understand the energy behind her volumes of social and political criticism that have followed.

The God of Small Things tells a fairly straightforward story that gives us heavy hints of its outcome from the start. But its narration proceeds by retreating two steps for every one forward. The space between steps is filled with anecdotes and atmospherics that some readers will find enriching and endearing. Others may find them dilatory or even pathological and wonder if the author has difficulty in confronting the wasteland where the story leads. The small things social behavior produces in this novel are personal disasters. It could be considered a book about childhood. Twin children witness a disjointed family; the boy loses his mind and the girl, a melancholic survivor, seems to be the alter ego of the author.

The story unfolds in a part of rural Kerala, verdant and sultry, where Marxists and Syrian Christians dominate. The former are comfortably settled into the parliamentary system. The latter are not be confused with "Rice Christians," who were Untouchables willingly converted to escape their low caste. The Syrian Christians are "upper-caste Christians" on the same privileged social level as "upper-caste Hindus."

The head of the family house and property is a retired "Imperial Entomologist" and civil servant. He sent his son to Cambridge. The boy married an English woman who had his child and then divorced him in haste. The entomologist's daughter, not allowed much education, found home-life stultifying. She inveigled a trip to Calcutta where she mistakenly thought she found an escape from her family. She married the son of a wealthy Hindu tea planter. By marrying without family approval ("for love") and out of her religious community she had two strikes against her for the entomologist's clan and local society. The third came when she returned to the Kerala family house a divorced woman with twins. Her husband had turned out to be a confirmed alcoholic and wife-beater.

A resident great aunt makes sure that the twins and their mother feel their fallen state and unwanted status. The entomologist's wife, a younger woman, starts a pickle factory on the property. This inflames the jealousy of the retiree and he begins to beat her regularly. The Cambridge graduate moves back home to interfere in and eventually ruin his mother's business. He's a dreamer who decries the family's Anglophilia while being its chief exponent.

High drama begins when the twins' mother starts a love affair with an Untouchable. The man has already stepped out of line by being a superb carpenter, a trade not permitted to his low caste, and by belonging to the local Communist Party. He is disliked by fellow workers, some of them Communists, because of both his caste and skill. The local C.P. leader, a caste Hindu, is as treacherous a politician as those of the other parties. To get elected to the legislature he concocts a plan that involves making a martyr of the naïve carpenter who will die beaten to death by the police.

The twins, ever thirsting for love and a father, are once more left in the lurch. Even their London half-Indian cousin is taken from them when she drowns on a visit to her father. Their mother, now a pariah, is driven from the house and drifts into a seedy existence that ends in an early death. The twins can't understand why love is not their due. They are certain of it only between themselves but society insists on prying them apart.

A flash forward reunites the grown-up twins in the crumbling house where the grotesque great aunt and her cook remain alone on cable TV life support. The boy's emotional trauma has ravaged his mind. The girl, who has been married and divorced in America, tidies away the past and seems poised for a new departure.

It's always a mistake to identify a novelist too closely with a fictional character. (For instance, though Roy's mother Mary Roy was divorced, she is a prominent Indian educator and women's rights activist.) All the same, the novel ends suggesting that after the unhappiness brought by passivity, it's time for both the author and her character to take action.

The God of Small Things shows us a lush, intimate, fleshy world where everybody lives confined in somebody else's pocket, and where nobody isn't at loggerheads: Community with community, class with class, region with region, husbands with wives, parents with children, clan members with each other and even one branch of a sedate Communist Party with another. Roy, turning from fiction and launching into militant action, would make good use of her fame and her marginal situation to take a resolute stand on these conflicts and countless others.

A byproduct of Roy's militancy has been innumerable "essays," some dense and carefully argued, others mere statements, interviews, or speeches, that have been collected regularly in volumes. It would be wrong to expect Roy's political writing to equal the language of her fiction since the two idioms have distinct functions. In many of the pieces in her latest collection, Listening to Grasshoppers, she writes very well with sharp formulations that bite and passion always ready to pounce. The articles stretching over a decade have not been revised and so retain a polemical fever and edge.

Roy passes over the clichés calling India the world's largest democracy and asks, "What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?" She decries the fact that the creation of a new middle class proportionally insignificant has dispossessed and displaced tens of millions of the poor by huge infrastructural projects that leave them landless and uncompensated. She notes that India's finance minister, a former Enron lawyer, wants to get 85% of India's population to live in cities. This reverses the post-Independence policy of land reform in order to free up vast areas of the country and its natural resources for multinational corporations.

The genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 haunts Roy's imagination. It correlated with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) there and its vicious campaign of Hindu nationalism. She sees its persecution of Muslims as part of a worldwide movement encouraged by the hysterical and sinister American reaction to the events of September 2001. But the BJP adds the contemporary Indian touch of expelling Muslims in order to make way for big business.

Roy never stops reminding the reader that the real India has little to do with the prettied-up picture that the relatively small number of prosperous Indians want to put across to themselves and the world.

Ironically, the era of the free market has led to the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India -- the secession of the middle and upper classes to a country of their own, somewhere up in the stratosphere where they merge with the rest of the world's elite. The Kingdom in the Sky is a complete universe in itself, hermetically sealed from the rest of India. It has its own newspapers, films, television programs, morality plays, transport systems, malls and intellectuals. And in case you are beginning to think it's all joy-joy, you're wrong. It has its own tragedies, its own environmental issues (parking problems, urban air pollution) its own class struggles. (Page 152)

The 2009 elections hailed by the victorious Congress party as the death of the left has clarified Roy's views. She feels that a party of the poor can never win in parliament where money rules. But armed insurrection is not the only alternative to parliamentary action. "We need to re-imagine the meaning of civil disobedience. [...] We have allowed non-violent resistance to atrophy into feel-good political theater, which at its most successful is a photo opportunity for the media, and at its least successful is simply ignored." (Page 41) There are countless grass roots movements in India. They must stop fighting uniquely for their specialized interests and come together for larger aims.

There have been intimations that Roy will return to the novel. In her introduction she wonders whether "prosaic, factual precision" doesn't reduce "the epic scale of what is really going on" and that maybe "what we need is a feral howl," which only poetry can deliver. Whether in hard fact or fiction, however, one thing is certain. Arundhati Roy will be among the dissenters far beyond 2010.


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Published December 13, 2010