Do turkeys give thanks at Thanksgiving? asked Arundhati Roy, the world-famous Indian activist, last year. She was launching a passionate diatribe against American empire. And she christened it with one of those sparkling analogies of hers. The powerless, she said, are like turkeys lined up for the imperial plate at Thanksgiving. Traditionally, a tiny number are saved from avian holocaust and sent off to a happy old age. But the vast majority head straight for the pan.
Just so, she points out, a few minorities are given some attention in the halls of power as tokens. But the only purpose of these token turkeys flapping around is to siphon off real opposition. It’s to keep the other birds stampeding feverishly toward the exits and break up turkey solidarity.
The empire wins.
It’s a memorable argument. But like so many witty analogies it’s more clever than true. And despite, or perhaps because of its emotional appeal, it may ultimately do more damage than good to the resistance Arundhati spearheads: The global resistance to American empire.
For one thing, it divides the world firmly into turkeys and turkey-eaters. But is this accurate? In the real world, turkey-eating extends all down the food-chain. The imperialist du jour kicks around sundry third world dictators like Saddam Hussein. The dictators in their turn pass the kicks along to their vassals. And the vassals turn the screws in the thumbs below them. The pattern repeats itself ad infinitum down to the most obscure jack-in-office in Outer Mongolia. Does this justify the imperialist du jour? Of course not. He would have been a bully even if he were surrounded by nations jam-packed with Gandhis. But still, it would not hurt if those who oppose American foreign policy would rethink their turkey rhetoric a bit.
Not because it’s morally wrong. It isn’t. No matter what the public relations flacks on the Potomac would have us believe, American empire is not good for any people on earth, least of all, Americans. But taking out some of the brass from the antiwar band might help us hear the tune a bit better.
But wait, wouldn’t it only lend aid and comfort to the advocates of Pax Americana if people took a break from monitoring the global policeman and monitored their own bad neighborhoods?
Actually not. For one thing, we would find out that America really isn’t a cop, good or bad, in the ‘hood because quite a lot of what happens around the globe happens no matter what America does or does not do. For another thing, we could find out that what’s seen as a problem in America might not be seen as one somewhere else. We might find that people are quite indifferent to some of our fondest enthusiasms -- democracy, feminism, capitalism -- and think they get on quite well without them. We might find that what they complained about were things like bug-ridden rice, hard-to-get medicines, dysfunctional telephone lines, and pot-holed roads. That might limit our own taste for spreading democracy with cruise missiles.
And finally, if the anti-empire activists told us a bit about their own tyrants, we might recognize the thugs a bit quicker the next time they showed up on the Potomac asking us to invade their countries. So far as I recall, no turkey that I know ever asked me to go neck wringing on the turkey farm. And no turkey I know ever kicked me off the turkey-farm either.
And just as the victims of empire are more complex than Arundhati allows, so are the imperialists. Many incipient turkey-eaters routinely pass up the turkey and eat tofu instead. Some hang around the barnyard in chilly weather to show their solidarity with the birds. Others nurse sick turkeys or even sneak a few away to freedom. And in the very dining hall where the luckless fowl gleams in undressed splendor, even the greediest turkey-eater is compelled by law to allow us turkey activists to make our case.
As a mere human being, I think it presumptuous to speak for another of God’s creatures. But I rather think turkeys might also have something to be grateful for at Thanksgiving.
Lila Rajiva is a free-lance writer in Baltimore and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva
* Lila Rajiva will discuss The Language of Empire in Seattle, Portland, Oakland and Sacramento in mid-December. Click here for more details.
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