An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Author: Arundhati Roy
Published: 2004
Website: Amazon Page

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is a collection of essays addressing power and injustice in the American-dominated modern age. Roy, an Indian novelist and political activist, is unabashedly critical of what she calls the American Empire, the far-reaching, wealth- and greed-driven system which undermines local rule, self-determination and spreads death and destruction for the purposes of maintaining power. Her writing is clear and forceful, drawing a picture of a vast, dominating, out-of-control superpower which causes more harm than good and is more committed to advancing the neo-liberal, capitalism-at-all-costs, media-supported agenda than actually spreading justice or true democracy. Written in the time that the US was invading Iraq, it incisively brings to the fore the weaknesses and harm of preemptive war, oil obsession and dismissal of the poor and marginalized.

The problem is that essays of this nature of almost universally geared towards those who are already in the camp. I read once that a good rationalist strategy for getting excited about something is to rationally assess what the best side or course of action is, then read propaganda or other emotionally evocative media to get your emotions in line with your decision. If you have already decided that Bush was a fool and America is evil, then this is a book that will galvanize and inspire. I don’t mean to be flippant; her analysis is hardly so crude, and she acknowledges the vast injustices that are taking place all around the world that America has ostensibly fought while still stating strongly that in her experience and research, there is little evidence for an actually benevolent West, given the wreckage left in their wake. Nonetheless, there is little acknowledgement of other positions (for example, an interventionist leftist approach) or alternative solutions to global problems. Also, the subjects of analysis change rapidly, from America’s domestic injustices (a racist prison system and death penalty) to India’s disconnect between their title as the world’s largest democracy and the truth (government-sanctioned mass murder of Muslims, killing and displacement of native peoples, systemic hunger and malnutrition) to the destructiveness of Western foreign policy (supporting Saddam Hussein, then using American-funded and armed atrocities to justify war against him, for example) which limits its effectiveness.

Roy brings to light facts about America, the West and India and their effects on the world that cannot be ignored. However, her preference for description rather than proof and narrative rather than analysis, combined with a  tendentious approach to history severely limits the effectiveness of her writing.

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