BOOK EXCERPT

Arundhati Roy on ‘Bill and Melinda Gates’s pillow talk’

‘But seriously – what is one couple doing with that much money’?

My phone rang at three in the morning. It was John Cusack asking me if I would go with him to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden. I’d met John several times; I’d walked the streets of Chicago with him, a hulking fellow hunched into his black hoodie, trying not to be recognised.

I’d seen and loved several of the iconic films he has written and acted in and I knew that he’d come out early on Snowden’s side with “The Snowden Principle,” an essay he wrote only days after the story broke and the US government was calling for Snowden’s head. We had had conversations that usually lasted several hours, but I embraced Cusack as a true comrade only after I opened his freezer and found nothing but an old brass bus horn and a pair of small antlers.

I told him that I would love to meet Edward Snowden in Moscow.

The other person who would be travelling with us was Daniel Ellsberg – the Snowden of the ’60s – the whistleblower who made public the Pentagon Papers during the war in Vietnam. I had met Dan briefly, more than ten years ago, when he gave me his book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

Despite my reservations and criticism of the various Communist parties in India (my novel The God of Small Things was denounced by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala as anti-Communist), I believe that the decimation of the Left (by which I do not mean the defeat of the Soviet Union or the fall of the Berlin Wall) has led us to the embarrassingly foolish place we find ourselves in right now. Even capitalists must surely admit that, intellectually at least, socialism is a worthy opponent. It imparts intelligence even to its adversaries.

Our tragedy today is not just that millions of people who called themselves communist or socialist were physically liquidated in Vietnam, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, not just that China and Russia, after all that revolution, have become capitalist economies, not just that the working class has been ruined in the United States and its unions dismantled, not just that Greece has been brought to its knees, or that Cuba will soon be assimilated into the free market – it is also that the language of the Left, the discourse of the Left, has been marginalised and is sought to be eradicated.

The debate – even though the protagonists on both sides betrayed everything they claimed to believe in – used to be about social justice, equality, liberty, and redistribution of wealth. All we seem to be left with now is paranoid gibberish about a War on Terror whose whole purpose is to expand the War, increase the Terror, and obfuscate the fact that the wars of today are not aberrations but systemic, logical exercises to preserve a way of life whose delicate pleasures and exquisite comforts can only be delivered to the chosen few by a continuous, protracted war for hegemony – Lifestyle Wars.

What I wanted to ask Ellsberg and Snowden was, can these be kind wars? Considerate wars? Good wars? Wars that respect human rights?

The comical understudy for what used to be a conversation about justice is what the New York Times recently called “Bill and Melinda Gates’s Pillow Talk” about “what they have learned from giving away $34 billion,” which, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, has saved the lives of thirty-three million children from diseases like polio:

“On the [Gates] foundation, there’s always a lot of pillow talk,” Melinda said. “We do push hard on each other.”

…Bill thought Melinda focused too much on field visits, while Melinda thought Bill spent too much time with officials…They also teach each other, Melinda says. In the case of gender, they’ve followed her lead in investing in contraception but also they developed new metrics to satisfy Bill. So among their lessons learned from 15 years of philanthropy, one applies to any couple…Listen to your spouse!

They plan – the article says without irony – to save sixty-one million more children’s lives in the next fifteen years. (That, going by the same back-of-the-envelope calculation, would cost another $61 billion, at least.) All that money in one boardroom-bed – how do they sleep at night, Bill and Melinda? If you are nice to them and draw up a good project proposal, they may give you a grant so that you can also save the world in your own small way.

But seriously – what is one couple doing with that much money, which is just a small percentage of the indecent profits they make from Microsoft?

And even that small percentage runs into billions. It’s enough to set the world’s agenda, enough to buy government policy, determine university curricula, fund NGOs and activists. It gives them the power to bend the whole world to their will. Forget the politics, is that even polite? Even if it’s “good” will? Who’s to decide what’s good and what’s not?

So that, roughly, is where we are right now, politically speaking.

Excerpted with permission from We Brought You the Promise
of the Future, but Our Tongue Stammered and Barked . . .by Arundhati Roy, from Things That Can and Cannot be Said: Essays and Conversations, Arundhati Roy and John Cusack, published by Juggernaut Books on its app.

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