Monday, January 11, 2010

"Listening to Grasshoppers" by Arundhati Roy

The newest book from author Arundhati Roy is a collection of essays entitled Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, a collection of essays on the political situation in her native India. The book is not directly concerned with Bosnia at all, nor has Roy herself had much to say on the subject; although I believe she did sign at least one petition in support of Slobodan Milosevic.

However, the essay "Listening to Grasshoppers" is of some interest here because it seems to be part of the larger campaign being waged by the anti-Western reactionaries of the far Left to redefine "genocide" in such a way as to make the term almost meaningless; at which point, of course, charges related to "genocide" would no longer be a viable tool of any agencies of international justice. Something petty tyrants and non-Western authoritarian regimes worldwide would welcome.

The first four pages of this essay concern Hrant Dink, who was murdered in Istanbul after being demonized by the Turkish courts for the "crime" of bringing up the genocide against the Armenians during World War I. This section is deeply felt and righteously moving. It acknowledges the reality of the Armenian genocide, the sinister consequences of continued Turkish denial, and is devoid of any of the sterile, amoral legalisms that Balkan revisionists like Parenti and Johnstone rely on.

Alas, things shortly turn sour. The next section starts off fine, with a consideration of the 2002 genocide against the Muslims of Gujarat. Roy immediately points out that labeling this atrocity as a genocide is in line with Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. She notes that the number killed is small compared to the numbers killed in the Congo, Rwanda, and (yes) Bosnia. She reiterates what Article 2 says, after noting that the term genocide was only defined in the mid-20th Century.

But then she begins to shift things. At first, this shift seems quite reasonable--she points out that the legal definition for genocide leaves out the "persecution of political dissidents". This is true. She argues that the definition given by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn is better:

"...a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator."

I have not read their book The History and Sociology of Genocide so I will hold off on making any judgment on this brief definition for now--although it does strike me as problematic, but not necessarily fatally so. She immediately moves on to suggest that extermination, as crude as it is, might be the better term. There is some validity to this, given the necessity of dehumanizing the victim group by the perpetrators of genocide prior to the actual campaign of genocide. But I fear she is moving the goalposts.

She then abruptly switches gears by bringing up genocide denial--and then immediately stating that genocide denial is

"...a radical variation on the theme of the old, frankly racist, bloodthirsty triumphalism. It probably evolved as an answer to the somewhat patchy dual morality that arose in the nineteenth century, when Europe was developing limited by new forms of democracy and citizen's rights at home while simultaneously exterminating people in their millions in her colonies."

And right there, in that jarring transition, she has suddenly completed her redefinition of the notion of genocide to simply mean any massive loss of life within one or more oppressed group(s). The notion of intent is suddenly absent. Genocide is now simply the worst-case scenario of racist colonization gone wrong.

The essay gets more bizarre:

"Of course, today, when genocide politics meets the free market, official recognition--or denial--of holocausts and genocides is a multinational business enterprise. It rarely has anything to do with historical fact or forensic evidence."

This remarkably brazen statement is backed up with nothing...nothing other than that Diana Johnstone-esque "Of course" at the beginning. But one must remember--this is an Arundhati Roy book, and if one is looking for war crimes one never need look farther than the United States.

In short--the absolutely horrifying and unjustifiable consequences of the American-led sanctions and no-fly zones against Iraq are now to be considered a "genocide", even though the intention of the (grossly misguided) American policy was not to eliminate or destroy the Iraqi people. It's worth noting that Roy felt the US-led invasion of Iraq was also a war crime--apparently, nothing short of leaving the Iraqi people to the continued mercies of the Baathist regime would suit her.

The horror of American slavery was also a "genocide" because so many died and so many cultures were disrupted--never mind that genocide was not the intention. The same with the "holocaust" against American Indians, as if the initial death of most of them from exposure to disease was a result of conscious, deliberate policy. These were human tragedies and cover a multitude of sins, atrocities, and human rights abuses. But if such events as these--and even the invasion of Mexico in 1848--are "genocides", then the term has no meaning.

But that is not so bad; the USA certainly has a great historical burden to deal with and if a lone writer wishes to stretch that point I won't complain overmuch. But she takes this argument too far when she goes on to claim that there is a world ranking of genocides, in which victims are ranked as "worthy" or "unworthy." She implies that there is something wrong with the Holocaust of the Jews being "number one" in this hypothetical world ranking (there are no footnotes to refer to; as a former fiction writer perhaps she feels that such prosaic devices are an ugly intrusion). She slyly points out that there were non-Jewish victims in the Holocaust as well, victims who receive less attention and validation. This on the heels of a paragraph in which she seems to hint that Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories amount to genocide--a charge I would hotly deny, even though I believe Israel's occupation, de facto annexation, and continued colonization of Arab Palestine is wrong.

And so on. She eventually returns to recent Indian events in the second half of the essay, and one wonders what the purpose of this digression was. But this is a woman who at least tacitly supported the organization working to free and exonerate Slobodan Milosevic. Like all far Left allies of the Balkan Revisionist project, she implicitly acknowledges in order for international justice to be meaningful, there must be some party able to hold war criminals accountable. Like many in her camp, Roy preaches international justice even while seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the admittedly quite imperfect institutions and national powers capable of enforcing it, however haphazardly.


History Punk said...

It could be worse. I've seen it argued that merely adopting out black children to white families is genocide and that vast numbers of adoptive parents and the American foster care system should be dragged before something like the ICTY for their crimes. Of course, none of the complainers were willing to adopt said kids themselves, so I recommended they too go before the docket. Didn't end well.

I think some of the dumbing down of the definition of genocide would not occur if there was a handy one-word definition to define the mass murder that occured in colonization projects, particularly when it was a result of the colonizers policies, even if not intended as such.

Of course, it would probably also help if people didn't define political opponents as "Hitler" because of the attempts to implement health care reform policies promised as part of their election.

Anonymous said...

Though it took me about fifty pages to get properly into it, I though The God of Small Things was beautifully written. And AR was a doughty campaigner against the Sardar Sarovar/Narmada Dam, which was a pretty eco-unfriendly and human-unfriendly venture. However she was one of the Ordfront letter co-signatories (along with Chomsky) who believe that Diana Johnstone's Fools' Crusade is an "outstanding work". What has Johnstone got that she is able to command such nonsensical respect from people who ought to have the judgment at least to keep their mouths shut and sit on their hands?

Katja R. said...

@Owen, I think the problem is that Arundhati Roy is an Indian Christian, from the first Christians of India, who are Orthodox technically NOT Catholic,and relations have been sometimes quite difficult between Indian Muslims and Indian Christians. I think this fact colors her thinking considerably. I am also speaking as someone who has read and loved a number of her books. It can be very hard to respect someone as a writer, and then see them totally have a differennt view on such important matters as Bosnia.