Reading is back, even as Oprah cancels her book club. The main networks now offer their own book clubs as part of their morning shows.
In torrid weather during these horrid political times, the US public seems to take refuge in books of the Left as much as in the self-help genre. Rarely does the Left celebrate its reach into the heartland of public opinion. We generally bemoan the corporate capture of the media and the deterioration of thought by the short-attention span of television. Because of these blinders, many people of the Left have missed a major story in American non-fiction: the best-seller ascent of radical literature.
The Washington Post (5 May 2002) acknowledged that Noam Chomsky’s book of interviews on the war against terrorism (9/11, published by Seven Stories Press) has sold over 160, 000 copies and took the ninth position on the paper’s best-seller list.
Michael Powell, who wrote the article for the Post, noted, “To pick up the most powerful newspapers and intellectual magazines in the United States, to tune in the 463 television political babble-athons, is to conclude that Chomsky is invisible. His book has garnered just a single review in a major newspaper. It’s as though the professor inhabits Dimension Left, the alternative celebrity universe.”
Certainly, Chomsky’s views on the war and on US foreign policy in general are better reported in the media outside the US than within.
Chomsky is not the only one to have moved from Lefty’s corner to the gilded lists. Filmmaker Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men is atop the list, just above novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s book of essays and poet Maya Angelou’s sixth volume of her memoirs.
Then there are two other Left books that entered the best-seller lists across the US last year (when the books came out in cloth) and that remain on those lists as the paperbacks swamp reading groups and book clubs across the country. Written by Left journalists, these two books are red-hot denunciations of the underbelly of the US economy.
Eric Schlosser (in Fast Food Nation) traces the remarkable growth of the fast food industry and offers details of the horrendous labor and agricultural practices of the big firms as well as the health risks to us as consumers of the all-American meals.
ZNET commentator Barbara Ehrenreich (in Nickel and Dimed) shows us how hard it is to survive on low-end wages in the US, indeed that the working-class at this end are the real philanthropists, giving their sweat for insufficient recompense. Readable and enraging, these books should give us hope that a new public is being fashioned that is open to Left ideas, perhaps open, soon, to Left political struggles.
Not to be left-behind, NPR decided, in April, to help its listeners become more informed about the Middle East – perhaps to gain a better handle on events in Israel-Palestine than those offered, generally, on public radio (“The Best Books on the Middle East,” 18 April 2002). Joined by a panel of four other experts, NPR’s Neal Conan recommended nineteen books, most of them about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One book stood out of the list: Arundhati Roy’s recent, and wonderful, Power Politics (South End, 2002).
What has Arundhati Roy’s book to do with the Middle East?
Perhaps this maneuver allowed NPR to offer a stealth critique of the way knowledge of the world is digested by most of usÅ
Arundhati Roy’s book is about India, about India in the maw of imperialist globalization, about being an Indian writer of fiction who takes positions on the state of her world, about the role of Indian people’s movements (such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan) in the creation of a new world, and about the virulence of the US government as the leader of the new imperial dispensation.
Perhaps Neal Conan and his colleagues wanted to join those who offer a stern critique of the artificial geo-political divisions foisted on the world by the Great Powers after World War II (and taught in the academy as Area Studies)? After all, even if India is part of South Asia and not the Middle East, there are many reasons why those who want to learn about the latter may study the former:
(1) Globalization’s reach.
Roy’s brilliant analysis and lyrical denunciation of imperialist globalization takes as its examples Enron’s time in India, the creation of Big Dams, and the genius of GE’s Jack Welch on tour. We learn how big firms are eager to enclose the resources of the world that are held by the working poor and turn them into profit.
The agents of imperialism, she tells us importantly, are not all Europeans or Americans: many of them are home-grown. “This time around, the colonizer doesn’t even need a token white presence in the colonies. The CEOs and their men don’t need to go to the trouble of tramping through the tropics, risking malaria, diarrhea, sunstroke, and an early death. They can have their colonies and an easy conscience. ‘Creating a good investment climate’ is the new euphemism for third world repression.”
The hollow men that lead the Arab lands in West Asia and North Africa conform to this type – eager to serve imperialist globalization, but in need of a toothless jingoism to maintain legitimacy over their trampled populations. And the “Palestinian Cause” allows most of them, from Sadatian Egypt to the rot of Saudi Arabia, to bilk their people of global justice. This is the reason for Qaddafi’s switch from pan-Arabism toward a continental pan-Africanism (and of Libya’s prominent position in the new African Union).
(2) The US military behemoth.
Roy earned the reproach of many Hitchens-like journalists for her essays during the Fifth Afghan War. These are collected in the second edition of Power Politics. There is little doubt that the conundrum of Afghanistan is fundamentally linked to the history of West Asia, particularly to the Saudi attempt to export revolution so that the royals can maintain their domestic pomposity intact. There can be no comprehension of the complexity of the Arabian royals role in West Asia without a consideration of its place in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In one of her essays, Roy asks what is Osama bin Laden? Here is her answer: “He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America’s foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of ‘full spectrum dominance’, its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts.”
What is Osama bin Laden? He is the pathetic response of the Arab Right to the explosion of the US military in West Asia after the Gulf War. With the Fifth Afghan War, the US has now, for the first time, created long-term bases from Uzbekistan downwards and it has extended its reach via joint-army missions with India and Pakistan, with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The US military reach is now phenomenal and the future of South Asian responses to it may mirror its crisis in West Asia.
Finally, after Bush’s adoption of the Sharonist logic (if you harbor terrorists, then you are culpable), the legions of state in India have been eager to apply this logic against Pakistan. The recent tension along the border between the two states is a direct result of the adoption of nuclear weapons by the two states and by India’s desire to adopt Sharonism to the camps in Pakistan. Bush’s ultimatum (either you are with us or against us), Roy says, is “not a choice that people want to, need to, or should have to make.”
As the summer gets hotter and hotter, take a few minutes from work to read a few good books. Ehrenreich and Schlosser should be compulsory reading for US domestic matters; to find out about the contradictions of the rest of the world, the Middle East as much as South Asia, read Arundhati Roy.
Thanks NPR for your resistance against area studies and against the compulsory boundaries set-up to make us think that conflicts are local and not related to each other by the jack-boot of imperialist globalization.
Vijay Prashad Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Program 214 McCook, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106. 860-297-2518.
Common Courage Press has just released his recent book, Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism.