Book Review: Things That Can & Cannot Be Said

Cusack, John Roy, and Arundhati Roy. Things That Can & Cannot Be Said. (Penguin Books, 2016).

With all the attention given to last month’s release of Chelsea Manning, whose sentence was only commuted by the Obama administration after it became politically convenient, we must not overlook the fact that the Obama administration also had the opportunity to pardon another famous whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, who has since been living in exile in Russia. Manning is undeniably a hero for exposing the US government’s lies about the civilian death tolls of U.S. military intervention abroad as well as the scope of abuses committed by the military against civilians, reporters, and first responders.

Likewise, Edward Snowden provided an enormous service by revealing to the American people that the National Security Agency was routinely spying and listening in on American citizens not suspected of any crime, and that the surveillance state is far more expansive and intrusive than we previously knew. State surveillance of US citizens remains a concern, as the Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing for a renewal of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which would allow the NSA to continue warrantless subservience on American citizens who choose to call or email anyone outside the country.

The surveillance state is also among the central topics of John Cusack and Arundhati Roy’s (Snowden-inspired) book Things That Can & Cannot Be Said, released late last year. This is a short collection of essays centered around the pair’s late 2014 meeting with Snowden at the Moscow Ritz. Cusack and Roy were also accompanied at this meeting by Daniel Ellsberg, an elder in the heroic tradition of American whistleblowers, known for his leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. The papers revealed that the Johnson administration had lied to both the public and the US Congress, and that the US had secretly expanded its operation in Vietnam to include bombing in Cambodia and Laos.

For many readers, John Cusack (yes, it’s that John Cusack) will be the most familiar contributor to the book, though he is more likely to be remembered for starring in a disproportionate number of films in which he performs in the pouring rain, rather than for his political commentary. To his credit, he has been vocal critic of both the Bush and Obama administrations’ military adventurism in the Middle East, drone warfare, and the surveillance state in general. Additionally, he came to the defense of Edward Snowden with his widely circulated essay The Snowden Principle. Also to his credit, he leaves much of this book’s heavy lifting to Roy and Ellsberg, and generally confines himself to the role of asking them questions, and sharing the occasional comment.

Cusack’s co-author Arundhati Roy ultimately ends up being the contributor with the most to say in this book. Roy is an Indian author and activist most known for her 1997 book The God of Small Things. Cusack and Roy come off more as social democrats than market anarchists. Roy especially makes the mistake of equating neoliberal reforms and IMF-style structural adjustment policies with “free markets” in a manner that is not unlike Naomi Klein’s use of the term, as criticized in detail here. She also states that she believes healthcare and education should be treated as rights, which will inevitably not sit well with many libertarian readers. However, their criticisms of US foreign policy, the surveillance state, and military-industrial complex—which are this book’s main focus—are more comfortably on common ground with libertarians and anarchists who share these sympathies.

This book brings a casual approach to the topics at hand, and much of it is presented as verbatim dialogues between the contributors. The reader will likely find plenty of points of agreement and disagreement in the ideas discussed here. Many readers will likely agree with the general picture, but have problems with some of the specific ideas and assertions presented. These do however make for decent conversation starters and serve as food for thought, even if the reader’s immediate response is “yeah, ok…”

The tossing around of ideas during these dialogues gives the book a fairly relaxed feel that complements its short length. It comes in at scarcely over 100 pages, before the index. While it explores controversial ideas and some very weighty topics, this book is in no way a demanding read. Though there are passages that stir emotions of sadness or anger, such as when discussing the evils of war, the short length does not allow them to build up for too long. While the central topics of Snowden and the surveillance state are frequently tied into the conversation, they often feel like more of a backdrop or starting point than the central focus.

The book features arguments from Arundhati Roy that the United States has a history of supporting states and militias that engage in similar abuses to ISIS. Roy also asks if it is really any better to blow off someone’s head via bombing (as in Obama’s drone program) than to cut it off with a knife, as Islamists have done. She notes that the US was involved in toppling regimes, such those in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, which (regardless of their other faults) were not radical Islamist at the time, while simultaneously supporting the extremely Islamist state of Saudi Arabia.

Roy draws on her background from Kerala, India, which had a communist government during her childhood, and in many ways resembled Vietnam during the US war with that country. In a related note, she argues that non-violent forms of resistance only work if there is an audience. Authoritarians are always happy to brutalize and murder non-violent resisters if there are no critical eyes to be revolted.

Similarities between contemporary US intervention in the Middle East and the Vietnam war are an ongoing theme, and Ellsberg’s involvement helps drive this point home. Ellsberg discusses his experiences as a US nuclear planner as the Vietnam conflict developed. He gives an account of Robert McNamara’s request of his underlings to selectively gather information on atrocities committed by the Vietcong, that could be used to opportunistically justify “retaliatory” action.

Elsewhere, Ellsberg recalls learning that the real “missile gap” between the US and Soviet Union was the opposite of the one US Cold War planners believed in, as the US had the Soviets substantially outgunned. The Soviets, we learned, only had four functional missiles at a time when the US establishment believed them to have hundreds. Despite this asymmetry, nuclear paranoia prevailed in the US and pushed the nation further into the ongoing arms race.

As far as input from Snowden, there is not as much as the reader would hope. Sadly, the book lacks the types of verbatim exchanges with Snowden that it provides between Cusack, Roy, and Ellsberg. It does discuss their meeting with Snowden, at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, in which Snowden recalls his transition from a Bush-supporting federal agent into his life in exile. He emphasizes his fear of America increasingly becoming a police state. The irony is not lost that his current host country also has an extensive surveillance state.

Overall, this is a short and enjoyable book that throws some interesting stories and opinions the reader’s way, and asks for little in return. It is no masterpiece, but it is not trying to be. It should not be a primary source about any of the topics explored here, as they are covered in much greater detail elsewhere (including other books that this one references), but if you are looking for a brief opinion-driven read that touches on the American warfare and surveillance states, this book fills that role admirably.

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