War of The Words
Thoughts on War Talk by Arundhati Roy

While shopping for a present some time ago, I came across War Talk, Arundhati Roy's recent collection of essays. Most of them I'd read online before, but the opportunity to own them in book form proved irresistible; it's a quick, easy and enjoyable read.

What struck me was that I agreed with her 98% of the time; then I'd stumble headlong over her use of a word or phrase… usually "democracy," or "free market." Words, important words, and concepts that like to throw their considerable weight around in my mind. When she says democracy, and I substitute anarchy, it works. Where she refers to the "free market," the image that comes to my mind is the hybrid beast born of collusion between political power and profit motive relieved of the restraints of conscience and ethics (which only political muscle can wrestle long-term profit from, and does it ever).

We the consumers aren't renowned for a tendency to spend our hard-earned savings on nuclear warheads or chemical weapons factories, and a free market would quickly spell their demise. Governments keep them in production; they'd find their products a tough sell in a free people's market. If even-handed trade is crucial to peace, heavy-handed or light-fingered trade is equally sure to provoke conflict: masquerading as free market activity, as the latter inevitably does, understandably tarnishes the free market's image.

Reading War Talk removes some of the stigma from "democracy" for me, because I appreciate the context in which it is used. In the first essay, Democracy: Who is she when she is at home? Ms. Roy uses the words "spectacular anarchy" to describe the cultural range and beauty that is India. In this context, her use of "anarchy" is without venom -- on the contrary, she paints a wonderful picture of anarchic society in the reader's mind. The language barrier was transcended between a passionate advocate of democracy and an ardent anarchist. Our dreams may be similar, but our language is not.

What I think of as "free market anarchism," she apparently terms "democracy." To me, "democracy" has come to signify a fraudulent idea that 'we the people' rule, while in fact we're more intellectually and spiritually enslaved than people who chafe against their degraded status and recognize their bondage. Ms. Roy gracefully leaps this perceptual hurdle by stating "This kind of democracy is the problem, not the solution." Her idea of democracy appears to be compatible with my concept of anarchy, perhaps equivalent to it. "Democracy" does not exist as an ideal in my mind, as it does in hers; the term itself carries poison in its tail, like a scorpion ready to deliver a fatal sting.

Thus it is for "anarchy" with many people -- the term itself is poisonous, and dangerous. It bears no resemblance to my own definition, and reality forces me to confront that fact on a daily basis. Arundhati Roy will hold on to her dream of 'democracy' as tenaciously as I'll hold on to my dream of 'anarchy.' Do we mean the same thing? If it's a question of semantics, how is it possible to convey that to someone who idealizes 'democracy,' when I despise all that the term represents to me? Somehow I must try to grasp (or grok, for Robert Heinlein fans) her underlying meaning, weighing it against my own, and choose language with care to antidote the deadly sting of disastrous associations.

If my concept of "anarchy" roughly translates to "democracy" in someone else's mind, and their "democracy" translates to "tyranny" in mine, relying on those terms fails to communicate useful meaning, and consulting dictionaries doesn't resolve issues of differing perception or subjective interpretation. Meaning suffers for an undue reliance on definitions, and insistence on a particular definitive interpretation may make differences appear more intractable or irreconcilable than they are. Words are important, but their underlying meanings or assumptions are essential, and I must learn to exercise objectivity in regard to subjective meaning.

It's unsettling to realize that I might have far more in common with someone who speaks so eloquently against the free market and for democracy, than I do with someone whose language is closer to my own. Someone else might use the same terms the way that I do, with underlying premises that I don't accept. In Ms. Roy’s bitter usage of the term "free market," my own bitter perception of "democracy" is mirrored. In that reflection, I see a need to temper my own disparaging use of terms that may mean something dramatically different to someone else.

"Democracy," to me, has taken on the trappings of a modern secular religion; complete with missionaries determined to spread the 'good news' and win converts, and fanatical adherents on crusades to silence the heretics and bomb the infidels. A personal God is a fine cross to bear, but the masses appear to prefer to dance around golden calves like "democracy," "socialism," or "capitalism," abandoning themselves to the vainglorious pursuit of saving the world through power and politics. How sad is that?

The "free market" (as I define it) is the ebb and flow of transactions that occur peacefully between people who have choices, and voices. It does not mean freedom for monstrous people-eating corporations to prey freely on a captive workforce; it means freedom for people to interact without coercion. "Democracy," in my mind, denotes an involuntary and unsatisfactory arrangement in which government issues itself a limitless credit card, uses it to buy trouble, give generous gifts to its many dependents, gamble on impossible odds, donate to unworthy causes, and make irresponsible investments: literally debiting the taxpayer's account for "services" rendered. No wonder if our cash digester in chief sounds like a ding-a-ling every time his mouth opens. "Open cookie jar and insert hand, get caught and swallow feet" sums up the state of the administration pretty well, I'd say.

While I am not about to give up my dreams of a free, peaceful, joyous anarchic existence, I recognize that other people may speak of similar dreams in different tongues. There is beauty in diversity, and diversity is beautiful: I say that knowing full well that someone, somewhere, is groaning, because "diversity" is a word that has been politically abused. The moment a word enters the political vocabulary, it becomes corrupt. George Orwell's famous comment that "Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind" points this out, but "political language" is nothing more than the perversion or abuse of any language politics is spoken in.

Bureaucracy taxes a language as grievously as it taxes income; the more heavily taxed dollars are, the less currency people retain control over, and the less 'vote' the dollar commands. The more politics corrupts language, the less voice remains to people, and the less meaning a word communicates. The confusion of tongues is a product of politics. Disagreements, misrepresentations, and misunderstandings are inherent in political language: don't blame the dialect; blame the duplicity.

The thing that politics is least capable of doing is the one thing that makes a peaceful, harmonious and diverse society possible: agreeing to disagree, or laissez faire. Minding one's own business is rewarding when one is free to mind it; politics makes a public wading pool of everyone's business, and a morass out of everyone's private affairs. There simply is no right to privacy when everything is political: just as stagnant pools breed mosquitos, politics breeds busybodies.

Politics, being politics, turns into a carousel for minorities to take turns riding the high horse. Civilization could go around in the same vicious circles forever, thanks to politics. The farther you move from running in political circles, the more politics appears to be the misery-go-round that it is: and the golden ring of politics appears to be the same ring of power that Frodo got stuck with in Lord of The Rings. It would be nice if there were a real Frodo out there to finally dispose of the darn thing, and far fewer ringwraiths and Gollums chasing after it.


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