Citizen Action Monitor

Arundhati Roy: “Nothing could be worse than a return to ‘normality’.”

This pandemic offers us a portal, a choice, between the ‘normality’ of the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves, and an ‘opening’ to imagine and fight for another world.

No 2626 Posted by fw, May 27, 2020 —

Arundhati Roy

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” —Arundhati Roy

Suzanna Arundhati Roy, 58, is an Indian author and political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes.

The above passage is excerpted from Roy’s recent essay, Arundhati Roy: “The Pandemic Is a Portal”, which which is featured as one of a collection in her forthcoming book, Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. (Haymarket, September 2020). The essays include meditations on language, public as well as private, and on the role of fiction and alternative imaginations in these disturbing times. The chant of “Azadi!” — Urdu for “Freedom!” — is the slogan of the freedom struggle in Kashmir against what Kashmiris see as the Indian Occupation. (Roy has released text of the full essay here. )

Just as Arundhati Roy began to contemplate these calls for Freedom, the streets fell silent, not only in India, but all over the world. The coronavirus brought with it another, more terrible understanding of ‘Azadi’, making a nonsense of international borders, incarcerating whole populations, and bringing the modern world to a halt like nothing else ever could. Roy’s book of essays challenges readers to reflect on the meaning of freedom in a world of growing political authoritarianism, especially in the administrations of Trump (US), Modi (India), and Bolsonaro (Brazil). The pandemic, she says, is a portal between one world and another. For all the illness and devastation it has left in its wake, it is an invitation to the human race, an opportunity, to imagine another world.

*****

In reading a short, concluding excerpt from Roy’s essay, Arundhati Roy: “The Pandemic Is a Portal”, Richard Feynman’s 1955 essay, The Value of Science, immediately came to mind. In his discourse, Physicist Feynman speculated on why humanity keeps failing to realize its full potential, remaining “channeled into a false and confining blind alley.” And, yet, here we are, 65 years later, and we continue to be “channeled into a false and confining blind alley.” How come?

According to Feynman: “It seems to me that we [scientists] do think about these [social] problems from time to time, but we don’t put full-time effort into them — the reason being that we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, that social problems are very much harder than scientific ones, and that we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about them.

Feynman goes on to suggest that one crucial element missing from society’s approach to problem solving is the failure to “recognize [our] ignorance and leave room for doubt. … Of all its many values, the greatest must be the freedom to doubt. Feynman was a rare creature – smart yes, but, above all, wise.

Bottom line, societies’ change agents, and their agencies, who address crisis situations, lack anything equivalent to the physical scientists’ highly disciplined, structured, scientific method of “collective thinking” driving “collective problem solving.” Inevitably, their (the agents’) efforts end in “meagre accomplishments.

Which brings us back to Roy’s essay and her stirring “pandemic portal” challenge:

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

However well-meaning, will Roy’s envisioned “pandemic portal” lead not to a better world but, as Feynman foresees, to “channelling us, once again, into a false and confining blind alley?

My greatest fear is that our rush to return to some semblance of “normality” will bring us right back to the globalized, neoliberal, financialized, growth-driven capitalism that got us into this mess in the first place.

*****

My repost below includes two textual / one video excerpts from Roy’s essay, “Arundhati Roy: “The Pandemic Is a Portal”  presented in three parts: Part 1: Roy’s short excerpt from the concluding paragraphs of her essay; Part 2: Embedded 1:41-minute video of her reading the text from the excerpt in the First part; and Part 3: My repost of the introductory paragraphs from her essay.

To access the original two texts and video, click on the linked titles below.

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Part 1: Short excerpt from the concluding paragraphs of her essay

Arundhati Roy: “The Pandemic Is a Portal” by Arundhati Roy, Haymarket Books, April 23, 2020

What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.”

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

*****

Part 2 – You Tube Video clip

Arundhati Roy “The Pandemic is a Portal” You Tube, April 11, 2020, (1:41 min)

*****

Part 3 — My repost of the introductory paragraphs from Roy’s essay.

Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ by Arundhati Roy, Financial Times, April 3, 2020

The novelist on how coronavirus threatens India — and what the country, and the world, should do next

[“Gone Viral” takes on a whole new, horrific, meaning]

Swarming unseeable, undead, unliving blobs dotted with suction pads bring the engine of capitalism to its knees

Who can use the term “gone viral” now without shuddering a little? Who can look at anything any more — a door handle, a cardboard carton, a bag of vegetables — without imagining it swarming with those unseeable, undead, unliving blobs dotted with suction pads waiting to fasten themselves on to our lungs?

Who can think of kissing a stranger, jumping on to a bus or sending their child to school without feeling real fear? Who can think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk? Who among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet? Which scientist or doctor is not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not — secretly, at least — submitting to science?

And even while the virus proliferates, who could not be thrilled by the swell of birdsong in cities, peacocks dancing at traffic crossings and the silence in the skies?

The number of cases worldwide this week crept over a million. More than 50,000 people have died already. Projections suggest that number will swell to hundreds of thousands, perhaps more. The virus has moved freely along the pathways of trade and international capital, and the terrible illness it has brought in its wake has locked humans down in their countries, their cities and their homes.

But unlike the flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.

The mandarins who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally. But if it really were a war, then who would be better prepared than the US? If it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs, bunker busters, submarines, fighter jets and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?

We watch, in fascination, Cuomo’s press briefings, and think “My God! This is America!”

Night after night, from halfway across the world, some of us watch the New York governor’s press briefings with a fascination that is hard to explain. We follow the statistics, and hear the stories of overwhelmed hospitals in the US, of underpaid, overworked nurses having to make masks out of garbage bin liners and old raincoats, risking everything to bring succour to the sick. About states being forced to bid against each other for ventilators, about doctors’ dilemmas over which patient should get one and which left to die. And we think to ourselves, “My God! This is America!”

The tragedy unfolding is real, but not new; it’s the wreckage of a train that’s been careening out of control for years

The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years. Who doesn’t remember the videos of “patient dumping” — sick people, still in their hospital gowns, butt naked, being surreptitiously dumped on street corners? Hospital doors have too often been closed to the less fortunate citizens of the US. It hasn’t mattered how sick they’ve been, or how much they’ve suffered.

But now, in the era of the virus, a poor person’s sickness can affect a wealthy society’s health

At least not until now — because now, in the era of the virus, a poor person’s sickness can affect a wealthy society’s health. And yet, even now, Bernie Sanders, the senator who has relentlessly campaigned for healthcare for all, is considered an outlier in his bid for the White House, even by his own party.

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