You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train

December 9, 2006

(This began as a comment to a post by Electra, which featured Arundhati Roy’s Acceptance Speech for the Sydney Peace Prize)

Arundhati Roy writes stirringly, and she writes truth. The sad thing is, when we build temples to truth and beauty, we exclaim and despair too often over the realities of the world in which we live.

War was never fair. Fairness to human values is a tautology in the context of any war; it never stands upto close scrutiny. But this does not mean that war is never necessary. It was needed when one mad Corsican tried to destroy European culture in the name of a new French Republic, and it was necessary when another mad Aryan tried to wipe out an entire race of people, and his own diseased brethren, in the name of racial purity. Closer to home, it was needed when princes from South India invaded our own country a thousand years ago.

But it was never fair. And not being fair, it has no place in the temples of truth and beauty where all artists pray. And therefore, no writer, I think, will ever find it in themselves to say that any war was a good thing. Perhaps they will say that the men and women who fought in wars were brave and good and true. But never war as a whole.

Therefore what I’m trying to argue is that a writer’s word – a good writer’s word – is probably not the best thing to go by when trying to build an unbiased perspective on the justifiction for any war. Furthermore, they express themselves so bloody well that you end up agreeing with most of what they say, whatever they say. And with war this is dangerous. Most Germans realized that Goebbels was a fanatic propagandist only in retrospect.  Hitler himself probably converted more Britishers with Mein Kampf than Goebbels ever did. George Bush, for all his critics may say, is pretty good at that kind of thing too (his main advantage being president of a country that trusts anything said on TV that doesn’t have a laughter track). In the other corner of the ring, the same can be said about Michael Moore. What all these people have in common is that they’re all so bloody good at convincing people. Ditto for Roy.

I’m certain that Arundhati Roy has no hidden agenda to her activism. She clearly writes from her heart. But since her heart seeks truth and beauty – rare commodities in any war – she will always be biased against any violent conflict.

As far as Iraq goes, the western coalition went to war based on greed and untruth. And long after the world awoke to the magnitude of those mistakes, it continues what seems a pointless and baseless struggle.

On the other hand, Saddam Hussein and the old Iraqi government have done things to its people for which men like PinochetSaloth SarIdi Amin and Robert Mugabe were reviled and punished. Should he therefore be left alone as they attempted to do with Pinochet? And what did people say about Great Britain while Pinochet walked free
However to add another twist, no one tries to invade China for doing the exact same things, specially to the natives of Tibet. But again, does this mean that fairness requires us to turn an equally blind eye to everything that is wrong in this world?

The quotation that follows is not one I agree wholly with (it’s by another very good writer, after all!). Its purpose here is merely to buttress the general point I’m making, that there are always “more things on heaven and earth, than we ever dream of in our philosophy”:

“Your poet,…  …your minister, your essayist, is not a man of affairs. He is completely unsuccessful almost invariably in the realms of banking and business. Being unsuccessful, it is beyond me why his views on economics and politics should be given the slightest attention”

John Phillips Marquand, The Late George Apley

Mind you I don’t pretend to know the answers to the problems that I’ve raised. Maybe none of us ever will. I believe however, that if we were looking for answers and not merely for ideals, then the heart of an artist may, in its way, be as bad a place to begin as the heart of a banker, a fanatic or a dictator.

And thus, as Roy herself quotes in her beautiful speech, “You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train“.


4 Responses to “You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train”

  1. Haren Says:

    the only way to sum up the first thoughts i had after reading this is, you percieve the motion of the train relative to your own. how does Roy justify her assumption that the train we are on is indeed ‘moving’? She borrows it from a Howard Zinn film…
    war brings out the best and the worst in human nature which will manifest itself even in the absence of war. perhaps Ms. Roy and all of us who resist war are merely fighting a beast that we know has left its paw prints in each of us? We are all capable of extreme cruelty and love… and it manifests itself at variouss times in various forms.

  2. jokerman Says:

    interesting tie up. although i think calling all of us capable of extreme cruelty may be stretching it a bit… there were many people who resisted the milgram experiments, and i’m pretty sure that arundhati roy wouldnt have succumbed either. not so sure about michael moore though!

  3. haren Says:

    One of the better Christmas presents i got this time was “the kingdom of god is within you” by tolstoy. am glued to it at the moment… have you read it?

  4. I really got a kick from your article. I don’t really have a lot to say in response, I only wanted to comment to reply with wonderful job. good luck in 2010.

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