Friday, October 19, 2012

Making the Case

Two successive Pakistani governments in the past eleven years have been unable to sell the War on Terror to their people. These included one ‘enlightened moderate’ semi-military dictatorship and one ‘liberal’ democratic one. These governments aren’t the only ones. Op-Eds in English newspapers have been awash recently with people calling for a Military operation into North Waziristan, with little success.
Ever since the war started in Afghanistan, the term ‘trust deficit’ has been thrown around a lot as a hindrance to the success of the war. Mostly it has referred to the relationship between the Pakistan and US armies but, perhaps, it also needs to be applied to the relationship between the people of Pakistan and its government. The War on Terror, much like any other military operation, suffers from a severe lack of information coming out of the actual war zone. In such situations, governments generally take much stricter control of media reports and the information being disseminated to the public. As a result, the populace is generally almost solely reliant on the version of events being presented through the official channels. This, I feel, is where the Pakistani government fails repeatedly to make the case for military intervention.
The simple and sad fact is people just don’t trust the officials telling them to go to war. Our people are often derided for their propensity to believe in conspiracy theories, but isn’t their paranoia justified? Ours is a history of government lies, exploitation and manipulation. If the people were not wary of the government’s intentions, you would have to seriously question their learning abilities. Add to that the actual credibility of the government and political figures looking to establish ‘the rule of law’. Is it really surprising that the people of this country don’t willingly swallow the narrative of a well-meaning government trying to help the poor by establishing its writ? As a prime example, the man entrusted with the internal security of the country, the Interior Minister, is a man, who apart from his regular public bungling was actually sprung from jail by a Presidential pardon, has since lied about his dual nationality, accepted his lie and resigned from the Senate, only to unrepentantly and unabashedly walk right back into his vacated seat. The government has not seen fit to replace him!
Add further to this, the duplicity of the government over the issue of drones. It is now very much an open secret that the government, while putting up a facade of disapproval for the consumption of the Pakistani public, has privately pretty much given the US carte blanche on the affair. Is this the action of a government trying to bring its people on-board for a battle critical to the survival of the country? Quite obviously, the government seems unconcerned by the hit its credibility takes through such blatant dishonesty and therefore has no foundation on which to complain about being undermined by other political forces.
The pro-war government spokespeople exhaustively cite the disruption to basic government functions such as law and order and education in the area. While these are genuine issues, one again, the veracity of the government’s concern becomes dubious when one looks at the state of affairs in places where it isn’t hindered by the Tehrik-e-Taliban. Since this government was elected, up until last year, education standards seem to have been slipping throughout the country. Law and order (other than terrorism) hasn’t seen much improvement either, with many suspecting partners within this very government of complicity in the deteriorating situation in Karachi. So tomorrow, if the government is unable to find support for its program to ‘establish the writ of the state’ in Waziristan, should we really be surprised?
Of course, conspiracy theories don’t just begin and end with our own government; they involve a good many others. Again, can the population of a third world country, with low literacy, a colonial history, a corrupt government and uncomfortably close dealings with a super-power really be accused of irrational distrust on that account? I am no expert on history but I don’t really think I need to be one to know that the history of the CIA in the past sixty years is not one of honesty and fair-play. It is a history of supporting mercenary forces, causing civil wars and military coups, bribing, threatening and sometimes overthrowing governments, and on the whole being a general nuisance. The US government has, on more than one occasion lied about events in order to use them as pretexts for wars with devastating consequences. If there’s one thing the CIA hasn’t being accused of it’s being too scrupulous!
The situation is further harmed by examples of military adventurism in the recent past by the US, as well as a feeling of being sold short by our own representatives. Pakistani leaders throughout history have been perceived as being all too willing to serve foreign interests at the cost of the local population. In recent history, the stories of arrests and extraditions for bounties by the Musharraf regime served greatly to undermine his credibility in selling the war. The more recent disaster to emerge for this government was the cache of diplomatic cables brought out by Wikileaks. These went a long way in confirming suspicions people have long held about the level of involvement of the US in the running of the country. These included offers by aforementioned Rehman Malik to provide access to the NADRA database, as well as almost all major political players regularly turning to the US Ambassador for mediation in internal politics. I say again, if the government now tries to “own” this war, how will the people know whose interest is actually being served?
But perhaps the biggest failure of the government and non-government advocates of the war is their failure to identify and effectively articulate the TTP phenomenon. While representatives such as Faisal Raza Abidi can eloquently quote statistics and shower their descriptions of the TTP with examples of their barbarity, they are unable to present a lucid, logical thought process for their enemies and are therefore (as described in my previous post) heavily reliant on the Crazy Terrorist theory for support. This theory (as also described in my previous post) has more trouble finding roots in Pakistan than it may do so in other parts of the world.
There are many attempts at colouring this theory, the current shade referring regularly to an ‘ideological war’. But what is an ideological war? Arent all wars simultaneously ideological and non-ideological? A good example may be the Afghan war against the Soviets, where there was no dearth of ideologies running around. Among these were the international Jihad to rid a Muslim country of foreign invaders, there was a Capitalist fight against Communist domination, there was Communist resistance to Capitalist infiltration, a rural Afghan uprising against foreign occupation, ethnic and tribal attempts at dominance, and possibly much more. And yet, at its simplest, it was a battle for influence over Afghanistan by the two opposing superpowers.
This time around, the ideological backing from the US hit a new low when, post- 9/11, George W. seemed to consider it too much of an effort to come up with a complex political, economic or religious framework (though some may refer to his ‘crusade’ comment), and started talking simply in terms of good and evil. Perhaps someone in the White House decided not to befuddle the President with intricate ideas and to let him deal on a plane he could manage. The result, of course, was perhaps the biggest ideological claim of all times – the US was out to rid the world of evildoers!
This heavy reliance on the Ideological War theory greatly hinders possible support for any action against the TTP because it takes away material aims and leaves a void in terms of explaining their motivation. Excessively referring to the TTP as zealous nutjobs takes away the public’s ability to assess the situation and leaves them with a need to rationalise the behaviour of the TTP in other ways – enter foreign backing theory.
The Pakistani public also appears much more circumspect about the prospects of such an operation than the experts. This is also because arguments calling for military action seem to end just there, with a military operation, and no explanation of time-frame, fallout and long-term solutions. Carrying out an all-out military offensive in those regions would appear to be a gargantuan task, especially with an enemy identified, supposedly, only by his belief. Making such an operation worthwhile in the long run would appear even more difficult. This is a real concern with no apparent answers forthcoming.
What is needed is a much more scientific and rational approach to the assessment of the situation and its possible solutions. Unless proponents of the war are able to successfully and plausibly articulate the motivation of the TTP, to unemotionally calculate the costs and benefits of a military operation and explain them to the population, and perhaps most importantly, establish their own credentials as being driven solely by the interests of the state, they face an uphill task of trying to convince the Pakistani people that a military operation is absolutely necessary.
So far, most of the effort is in the form of emotional outbursts and in trying to present the operation as a movement to establish the rule of law in the northern areas; basically doing the right thing. This narrative no longer sells in the justifiably cynical land of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan no longer trust that their leaders, or opinion formers, act simply to do the right thing, they need more in terms of explanation!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Crazed Terrorist

*Note: I wrote this about three years ago and didn't dare to put up. It might be a little out of date but I guess it's still something to keep in mind. Also, it sets up something else I was thinking about and may write!

In my childhood, it seemed apparent that an act of terrorism was the ultimate form of protest. While being vehemently condemned, acts of terrorism were considered worth note and examination. Each act was symptomatic of the existence of an aggrieved party, stemming from faulty policy-making, governance or pure negligence. In short, if a bomb was set off, it was because the world was not in a state of balance, and the political, social or economic homeostasis was disturbed and required rectification. Apart from a few acts of violence attributed to the lone, mentally unstable misanthrope, acts of terrorism, especially from organized groups, indicated the failure of the targeted party to suitably address the needs of the aggrieved.
There was a need to understand and rationalize terrorist movements. The concept of one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter existed, and was referred to.  It was understood that the French and American Revolutions had resorted to violence against their perceived oppressors to achieve their aims, the Blacks in South Africa were charged with terrorism and treason, even Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movements inevitably resulted in violence being carried out by his followers against servants of the Raj. While considered an uncivilized last resort, violence has, and will always remain a tool of protest. If peaceful methods fail violence may well be the only course open. Marching in the streets can only take one so far.
While acts of violence and terrorism were supposed to depict acts of desperation in furthering a cause, suicide attacks added a new dimension. The perpetrator, in using himself as a weapon, demonstrated that he was not only willing to kill for a cause but was also to die for it.
Recently this concept has disappeared. Governments and state organizations have started to neglect the existence of motive or cause in dealing with terrorist situations. Instead there is a growing trend of declaring any and all acts of violence to be the act of frenzied maniacs bent upon imposing their ideologies on others. The notion of attempting to dissect incidents is fast disappearing. The most simple and apparent cause for this behavior seems to be the complete absolution of the state machinery from any responsibility or wrongdoing that may have led to the event. 
The increasing trend is to disenfranchise the ordinary citizen from playing a part in the study of this phenomenon. Instead, simplistic explanations are made and debate is avoided with the use of words such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Governments dictate to their citizens who is good and who is evil, who is to be trusted and who isn’t. The intricacies of how these divisions are made are kept hidden from the public. The basis of democracy, whereby each citizen is to participate in governance, has been decimated.
The most monumental of catastrophes to hit the United States were the attacks of September 11th. These attacks also serve as a prime example of the government’s reluctance to assess the social and political causes of a calamity of such magnitude.  In the aftermath of the collapse of the towers of the World Trade Centre and the plane crash into the Pentagon, the grief and disbelief gave way to a frenzy of assigning blame and planning an appropriate military response. There was an obsession with the two questions: Who committed this act? What are we going to do about it? The most important question was lost: Why?
The world waited for ordinary American citizens to raise this question, to ask their democratically elected representatives why 19 men were willing to lay down their lives with the express purpose of causing death and devastation in their homeland. What had their government done to cause such a massive movement to take root around the world? According to the US Government the 19 men were acting at the behest of a larger anti-American movement, al-Qaeda, a movement with significant following and financial support from various quarters around the globe.
The task of the concerned, patriotic American citizen was to take his government to task, not only on the procedural security lapse, but more so on policies that may have caused such a backlash.
If there was any serious questioning of the Government going on, the mainstream media failed to pick up on it. Little or no time was dedicated on news shows or discussions to ascertaining political reasons for such hate. Instead, ordinary citizens blindly put their faith in the workings of their government, and decided to value conformity with government policy rather than demanding a detailed logical assessment of the causes and the various courses of action open to them.
Al-Qaeda’s demands regarding US foreign policy in the Middle East and specifically Saudi Arabia, found little time on the airwaves. Reassessment of these policies was never publicly considered. The officially stated motives of Al-Qaeda were ignored, and Americans were told to prepare for a war to “defend their freedom”.  The heated national debate that should have ensued was lost in the hysteria of war.
It is possible that the debate may have resulted in resounding support from for maintaining the prevalent foreign policy. American citizens may have decided that their dedication to Israel, or their policies in the rest of the Arab world were worth defending with military might. Unfortunately, nobody asked and as a result the United States became embroiled in a war that not only threatens to destablise the entire region, but also considerably damages the image of the United States as an agent of peace and justice.
The fact that American soldiers are being put in harm’s way for a war whose aims are have not fully been conveyed to, or understood by the American public, suggests a lack of trust in the public from the government and media institutions. It appears these institutions consider ordinary Americans incapable of understanding the complexity of their decisions. As a result they deem it necessary, and acceptable, to present a simplified, fairy-tale style picture of the events in a manner aping the functioning of fascist government.
The concept of the crazed terrorist has become the explanation provided for any antipathy in the world towards the United States. The underlying concept in this explanation is the complete lack of rationality among a considerable population. These people are out for blood for the sake of blood. At most, they are dogmatists wishing to impose their own ideologies.
The convenience of this explanation has subsequently been recognized by governments across the globe and is now in frequent use. Citizens across the world are told to abandon any attempts to rationalize the behavior of terrorists as they are a breed too different from normal people to be comprehensible. So far, most citizens, including the intelligentsia, seem to have acceded to this assessment. Acts of terrorism, with their increasing occurrence, are just what they are: schemes to spread “terror”, being elabourate Halloween pranks at their simplest, and Lex Lutherian ploys at world domination in their most rational form.
The Mumbai attacks present a potent example of this phenomenon. After three days of unimaginable terror that ended in the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians as well as all but one of the perpetrators, the whole of India went into shock. Security lapses were questioned, possible suspects identified and political and diplomatic stances were prepared. However, no-one was concerned with the lack of stated motive in the attacks. More than a year on, the situation persists.
The idea of the irrational being proposes only one solution: the extermination of all such beings. So, governments set about massive military campaigns to quash with force the problem of dealing with the disgruntled. With every attempt, government agencies pledge to redouble their military efforts, hence escalating the situation without any attempts at analyzing the root cause. If any such attempts are made, they remain out of the mainstream media and consequently are not shared with the man on the street.
Today, the situation has hit Pakistan, and in a big way. This time, the perpetrators are not barbarians from some distant land. However, the idea being sold to the Pakistani public is very similar to the one being sold to their Western counterparts: The terrorists are radical Muslims too frenzied by activism to be rehabilitated, and acting with the agenda of dominance. The possibility that forces within Pakistan are reacting to antagonisation from the government or establishment has been shelved in favour of this more palatable explanation.
Of course, Pakistani citizens are having a harder time swallowing the idea of the Muslim extremist and suicide bomber. For one, they have lived alongside them for a long time and often sympathized with their causes against Israel and the US. As a result, they have never perceived them as being irrational or acting without a cause. Also, given the state of the nation, the average Pakistani has a lot more cause to be suspicious of the government and the establishment than Western citizens.
It is now time for Pakistanis to take up the issue of questioning government policy. There is a need to reassess the government’s provision of all-out logistical support to an invading force engaged in a war whose legality is dubious at best. It is time to question the government on its silent condoning of violations of Pakistani territory and the murder of innocent civilians by US drone attacks. It is also time to demand greater transparency from the government and establishment to fully assess the relationship of our government agencies and the various forces at work in the troubled regions.
It is also essential not to abandon attempts at rationalizing acts of terrorism within the country. The first response to an act of terrorism should always be a thorough and honest evaluation of government policies. Though deterrence is a necessity, all out military retaliation should be the absolute last resort. Only when all courses of negotiation have been exhausted, and when there is overwhelming demand from the populace to exercise the military option to defend government policy (after a clear logical assessment has been made and shared) should a State resort to violence. If this course is not followed, even a successful military campaign will result only in offsetting the issue and making it more acute the next time it raises its head.
The responsibility here lies with the citizen, not with the government, to find out the truth as to the root causes of terrorism. While the moral responsibility does lie with the government, it will always be simpler for governments to resort to violence in an attempt to cover up failures in policy. As a result propaganda machines will be involved to present the truth in a way that aids this. The basic question arising here is under what circumstances a government has the right to endanger its citizens. The answers to this will always be fluid and need to be assessed in a case to cases basis, hence the required vigilance from the citizen.
Before getting further militarily embroiled in the war, Pakistanis need to get more plausible explanations from their government for the recent spate of attacks than simply intangible labels such as terrorism and extremism. An angle the government is eager to push, furthering it with recent attempts at Fatwas and meetings with religious scholars. If a terrorist resorts to Islam for motivation in carrying out his tasks, it does not mean that religion is his prime impetus. When the Pakistan army goes to battle against India with cries of ‘Allah o Akbar’ and refers to its losses as ‘Shaheeds’, no one is deluded into think that the war is in the name of religion. Everyone understands there are territorial and political issues at stake. Similarly, a better understanding is required of the main purpose and incentive for terrorists willing to take on the Pakistan Army.
Pakistan does not have the luxury of a quiet retreat if military campaigns do not bear the fruit of eradicating terrorism. It is therefore imperative that political options remain open. The threat of a military operation may well serve to be more effective than an actual operation. When it comes to last resorts and alternate options, Pakistan is one country that has far from exhausted all possible policies to combat lawlessness.
Education, health and development programs have been woefully neglected in the regions that now supposedly play host to terrorists. Few attempts have been made to enfranchise the population of this region as citizens of Pakistan. The government has also been criminally deficient in its ability to protect the rights and lives of its citizens against the actions of foreign “allies”. As a result there is a logical lack of faith and loyalty to the State and Government of Pakistan.
All these measures require time and more critically they require freedom of movement. If the war on terror is truly a war for the survival of Pakistan, then it must be the people and government of Pakistan that dictates the terms of fighting it. The war must not be allowed to be fought on the terms dictated by foreign forces occupying neighbouring countries, and local policy must not be formed tiptoeing around US policy. If US policy does a cost-benefit analysis for the wars it is fighting, loss of Pakistani civilian life is not a consideration. It is time that the Pakistani government and people looked to putting their interests first in carrying out a detailed cost-benefit analysis of our own.
Pakistanis must try to understand whether the nation entered this war because of a growing threat on the Western border, or whether it was simply a decision to support the stronger party, out of fear. Pakistanis must also look to see if there are changing factors that demand a reassessment of the wisdom of this decision. So far, all that has been seen as a result of escalated military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been the heightening and increased determination in the spread of violence and hatred, a phenomenon that has fueled many a conspiracy theory. Is it wise to continue on this path? If things get too bad, the Americans can simply pack up and leave, Pakistanis need to start thinking that far ahead.
Citizens must always be cautious about the ambitions of their governments especially in cases of war. The following is a quote from the Nuremberg Trials.
“Naturally the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  This is easy.  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger.  It works the same in every country.”
   --- Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Reich Marshall, at the Nuremberg
Trials after World War II.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Elusive Common Man

Obviously, no self-respecting blogger could pass up a comment on the whole blasphemy story and the arising ‘situation’ on Friday. Although I’ve never thought of myself a as a ‘blogger’ (possibly because I write once a decade or possibly because the number of people who voluntarily read my blog has never actually hit double digits), I do own a blog and I think it would be improper of me to just let this one pass. Of course, much has been said about the whole violent episode, and I think we’ve all had it up to here (go ahead, do the gesture as you’re reading this!) with the analysis on the insensitivity of the West and the gullibility of our people. And so, like Syed Noor, I understand and value the importance of originality and innovation to keep people interested. This post is truly going to be unique and insightful! I wish you all the best getting to the end.
The cinemas and KFC weren’t the only things ablaze in Pakistan last Friday, so were Facebook and Twitter. As we locked ourselves in and logged on, everyone’s feeds were inundated as the battle of the wits raged online. Everyone was appalled by the violence, its inanity, and our complete helplessness to do anything about it. With a dash of sarcasm, a hint of depression, and sprinkle of condescension we spent the day preparing, doling out and consuming vast quantities of this heady concoction.
But there was one major problem – the guest of honour was absent. The simple fact is (at least on my feeds) that the people making most of the noise (yours truly included) understood very little of what was going on. Consequently, all these people are even less able or inclined to influence, reach or even identify the one person responsible: The Common Man.
Tales of The Common Man have travelled far and wide and I have even come to suspect the veracity of some of these accounts. Either some people have been inventing stories about him, or he has deliberately and craftily been developing a confusingly contradictory persona. If it is neither of these two, then The Common Man has to be one of the most fickle characters ever to have walked the earth.
For if everything I’ve ever heard about him is true and accurate, The Common Man is illiterate, lazy and dishonest. At the same time, he is essentially wise in the ways of the world, works like a dog to feed his children, and is greatly disturbed by the increasing lack of good old honesty.
The Common Man also holds religion very close to his heart. He is devout, but not really a nut about it, except when he is a nut about it and is willing to burn, maim and kill at the slightest provocation. But he doesn’t really believe in God at all – the rampant godlessness is evident in his amorality. This is a good sign, though, because he is on the brink of breaking the shackles of this oppressive construct. Oh, and at heart, The Common Man may just be secular, though, somehow, all politicians feel the need to pander to his religious sentiment.
Perhaps Religion is not the right platform to gauge The Common Man’s stability of views. It is rumoured that he is particularly susceptible to exploitation by Mullahs and Pirs. Does this exploitation extend to other facets of his life? Well, he has us chasing our tails over that one as well. Sometimes, he is a serf; exploited left, right and centre by wily politicians, crooked bureaucrats, feudal lords and powerful industrialists. On other occasions he is a shrewd operator who knows how to play all the powers in the system off each other to maximise his personal gain.
While his wants and needs are catered to by a paternal feudal lord, he happily toils all day to go home to enjoy the simplicity of his life. But simultaneously he lives in perpetual fear of the monstrous inhumanity of his exploitative masters, who spare no trick in keeping him subservient, kidnapping his daughters, murdering his sons, etc.
In the factories, The Common Man presents himself as the oppressed worker, cruelly held in servitude by his poverty. At the same time, he is also busy organising unions and bringing work to a halt at the slightest denial of his outlandish demands.
The Common Man has been ruthlessly lied to and misled by his television, the newspapers and his history books. This in itself is very odd as The Common Man cannot be fooled since he’s an excellent judge of character and is a master at reading the political implications of any and all actions.
And what opinion does The Common Man hold about social issues? Well, essentially The Common Man is conservative, everyone knows that. But he’s not really a fraction of the Conservative us urban Middle/Upper-Middle-classiyas are. In fact, everyone knows he’s a Liberal. His views on women are sometimes confusing though. Sometimes he is a champion for gender equality, working hard to educate his daughters and allowing them to work. He also frequently subjects these same daughters to cruel and sadistic punishment at the slightest pretext to satisfy his honour.
The contradictions inherent in the most powerful man in the country could go on endlessly. There are many possible explanations for them. Possibly, like Franklin W. Dixon, the title of The Common Man is associated to more than one person; therefore, several different personalities combine to create this hodgepodge that no one is able to decipher.
Another possibility is that many people have been deliberately misattributing certain characteristics to The Common Man in their aims to strengthen their arguments. In fact, one wonders whether The Common Man even exists as a person and is not rather a vague conceptual figure to whom various obvious traits can be associated by the application of logic rather than empirical evidence.
Sometimes, poor The Common Man has been victim of identity theft. People masquerading as The Common Man have acted without his blessings. On some occasions, The Common Man just changes his mind!
If opinions on the blogosphere are to have any consequence in the long run, they need to be able to understand and influence The Common Man. His elusiveness makes this a near impossibility, but it is imperative that we track him down and interrogate him.
The Common Man does occasionally interact with us, through rickshaw drivers, domestic servants, office peons etc. but as much as a treasure trove of information as this is, it too fails at two points. One is our general reluctance to question these people about The Common Man, and the other is again the issue of misrepresentation. Anyone presenting the opinion of The Common Man will no doubt taint it with his own interpretation. This is an alternative of limited value, but it will have to do while an aggressive manhunt prevails in the country. Until this happens, speculation is highly entertaining, but no more than a fairy-tale.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Alfred's Story

I recently watched The Dark Knight Rises, and like many others came back slightly disappointed that it didn’t live up to its promise. It all started off with the somewhat gargantuan task of bringing Batman to this world in Batman Begins. Unlike all previous attempts where Gotham City was some twisted fairy-tale land, Batman Begins tried to make the movie feel as normal and real-life as possible (for a Superhero/Disaster movie anyway). Suddenly it showed up the silliness of all other superhero movies that were still stuck in that fantasy land script.
The villain selected for the first movie was also very interesting. Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows were no mutated half-man half-beast character with an army of minions, but they were in fact normal human beings with a mission. A mission, in fact, which seemed very closely to mirror the narrative on Al-Qaeda – Gotham had become too decadent and must be destroyed. So, in effect, they were high-functioning, highly sophisticated terrorists. Some say Americans have a slight obsession with the concept, but who can say? Obviously, all ends well when Batman intervenes and Gotham City can go back to its decadent ways. Well, not quite, while Bruce Wayne and Wayne Industries work tirelessly to give back to the community, his alter ego is out at nights cleaning up scum the old-fashioned way. A two-pronged long term approach to a complex problem – so far so good.
And then came the Joker. The simple fact is, the second film of the trilogy was just too good to be matched. The Joker was the ultimate villain, and if I may be so bold, the ultimate terrorist. A man whose simple pleasures of dynamite and gunpowder meant he had no higher purpose than to instill terror, making him impervious to reason or threat. The randomness of his actions was what made The Dark Knight thrilling and brilliant; there literally was no telling what he might do next. And to top it all off, the movie gave you a feeling of depth, as if some profound philosophy was being imparted amidst all the cool gadgets and explosions. Phrases like “the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now” just blew your mind.
When the law was powerless to deal with a genius madman who brought Gotham to the brink of destruction, the caped crusader took things into his own hands. Not just being the vigilante warrior against organised crime, but also going all Patriot Act on everyone in the end because desperate times called for desperate measures. This was not the time for heroics but for practicality, because as Alfred described the Joker, they were dealing the kind of man who just wanted to see the world burn.
*Screeching to a halt*
Now this is what I couldn’t understand. I watched the movie end to end and was enthralled by it, but Alfred’s little story stuck in my head. I couldn’t make any sense of it. For a revision, here’s the link.

So, Alfred and his friends were working for the local government in Burma. The first thought that sprang to mind was ‘colonial government?’, but considering Alfred’s age, possibly not. This ‘local government’ is trying to bribe tribal leaders with jewels to get their support, but someone keeps looting the caravans, and throwing the stones away. Why? Only one possible explanation comes to Alfred’s mind – he was a madman who wanted to see the world burn. In all the time since, it hasn’t occurred to the old man that maybe, just maybe, it was someone who didn’t want the tribal leaders bribed. Possibly someone from one of those tribes wary of having his leader sold to the government for a few precious stones? Perhaps someone from the government who thinks this is not the best way to reach out to the people?
Bruce Wayne also sees no problem with Alfred’s diagnosis of the problem. Of course, it would’ve been perfectly understandable if the thief had been selling them on – someone stealing to get richer is a normal human being. But a man unswayed by money is very obviously a mad-man who only wants to see the world burn! So what happens next? Alfred and co. burn down the entire forest to get the thief!
Wow. I don’t mean to berate Batman and Alfred, after all, they made one hell of a movie, but with reasoning skills like this, I can’t help but feel that Gotham City dodged a bullet having them both leave. After all, the next time someone did something where they couldn’t immediately fathom the motive, like I don’t know, trying to prevent bribery in the city by stealing the bribe money and giving it to charity, these two may well have nuked Gotham!

Paying For The News

Much has been made about the impact of Bradley Manning’s Wikileaks and the implications of its revelations for governments, diplomats and armies around the world. The release of several documents and videos exposing the stark contrast between the private and public functioning of institutions has been a deeply embarrassing affair for all involved. However, the one faction that has perhaps been most damningly indicted by the expose and its aftermath is the news media.
Essentially, it showed that in both Afghanistan and Iraq, journalists had been caught napping, and had been unable to get their hands on even a fraction of what Wikileaks was able to expose. The fact that the new records showed 15000 previously unreported civilians deaths in Iraq should have come as an embarrassment to the news media. It means 15000 civilian deaths escaped the collective notice of their dedicated newshounds covering the war in Iraq. This further suggests that either the news media is pathetically ill-equipped to do its job of acting as a watchdog, or is not as fiercely independent as one may like to think.
Allow me, now, to take a bit of a leap and suggest that major news corporations are not independent. I might come into conflict with a few, but I think most people agree that even the most seemingly balanced of news corporations are, at some level, engaging in a certain level of propaganda. They act as mouthpieces to voice a certain viewpoint, and are less than generous in airing conflicting viewpoints.
These viewpoints may be guided by ideology, nationalism or perceived social welfare. But one major reason a news outlet may choose to spin its news is quite simply financial. Specifically, news channels are, at least to some extent, beholden to whoever is paying them. This threat to the independence of the news is a complex problem and has been around for a long time.
In the book Compulsive Viewing, about his life in Australian television, Gerald Stone marks the 16th of August 1974 as the day of independence for Australian television news. This day became notorious for something that didn’t happen, rather than what did.
A joint committee of the Australian senate had tabled a report which accused soap producing giants Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever of misleading advertising as well as using their collective eighty per cent market share to maintain profits at an unreasonably high level, and recommended that they cut back both their claims and their profits. All three of the major commercial television channels in Sydney failed to report this. Two days later, a program called Media Watch on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation called them all out on this, suggesting that television executives had leaned on their newsrooms to steer clear of the story in order not to offend their sponsors. These accusations resulted in an inquiry by the Australian Broadcast Control Board which gave birth to what he calls the ‘journalistic magna carta’. Essentially, the board threatened to revoke the licenses of any news channels found guilty of suppressing news. The result was the emancipation of the newsroom from executive financial interests. Obviously, the act could never be objectively complete, but the precedent was set.
This brings us home, to the fast-burgeoning and now rampant news media in Pakistan. From the obvious rating-chasing, sensationalist, caution to the wind attitude of our news outlets, it is fairly apparent that these channels have little to fear in the way of government regulation. Quite apart from stories of journalists being up for sale, and the general rumours of corruption that surround almost all facets of our lives – the Mubashir Luqmans and Mehr Bokharis, the Aamir Liaqats and so on, who seem to emerge from each scandal unabashed and unscathed, there is another angle that needs close examination. The Mubashir Luqman/Malik Riaz incident was a glaring example of a businessman using the news media to further a personal agenda. It was highly publicised and vociferously condemned on all channels (well, almost) as being against all journalistic ethics.
However, more recently a much more alarming accusation has been made against the Pakistani media by Usman Peerzada. The by now famous falling out between the Rafi Peer group and USAID consisted of USAID publicly accusing the Rafi Peer group of financial mismanagement and cancelling their association with the group over the production of a local version of Sesame Street. Obviously, it is not possible to comment on the veracity of these allegations, but the ensuing counter-allegation made by Usman Peerzada is that their side of the story was quashed because several news channels are heavily reliant on USAID for funding and could not afford to go against them. He points to the failure of any news channel to air three separate press-conferences held in three different cities, and attended by representatives from these channels.
This is no small accusation. It suggests that local political and commercial interests are not the only ones controlling the media, and consequently influencing public opinion – foreign governments are at it as well, and are perhaps more adept at doing so than anyone else.
While Peerzada’s accusation is serious, it is not entirely shocking. First Geo, and now Express News have been happily giving Voice of America time on their channels for years now. The fact that Voice of America is the mouthpiece of the US government and is cited in the Wikipedia article on Psychological Operations by the United States as an example of White PSYOPS (which is factual and official and meant for foreign audiences only) is not too troublesome. Most of the content of this programming has been generally harmless, but what are the sums of money involved in the deal, and what influence does it allow them to yield at these places?
There have long been reports of the US government flooding money into Pakistani media outlets, such as the clip from Russia Today that’s being doing the rounds declaring Obama’s 50 million dollar “PR move”. This was followed by news that journalists at Express and Dunya News were drawing salaries from a Non-Profit organisation that in turn received funding from the State Department. When this story was highlighted, and their failure to disclose questioned, officials on both sides downplayed the oversight.
Incidentally, the US is quite obviously not the only one who has some interest in getting a foothold into Pakistani media. Radio Pakistan also has a number of hours dedicated to Chinese broadcasts.
Recently, of course, perhaps unsatisfied by their success with the media so far, or simply to fortify it, USAID has stepped up their ad campaign. It started with a somewhat disappointing photo exhibition that toured the country. I had hoped to find someone to explain their work, or at least some literature about USAID, instead it was photographs of various institutions in Pakistan they had helped out, without much detail. Everything that was already up on their website in slide show form as an ad for the exhibition!
The most recent step of course is the ‘Roshan Pakistan’ ad campaign that nobody in Pakistan can escape. It’s on news websites and the ads on television showing the very common sight of Americans sitting at roadside hotels watching cricket matches with the locals!
According to the USAID website, “U.S. foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America's interests while improving lives in the developing world. USAID carries out U.S. foreign policy by promoting broad-scale human progress at the same time it expands stable, free societies, creates markets and trade partners for the United States, and fosters good will abroad.”
-A useful and, no doubt, noble marriage of purposes. But it is not necessary that both will always go hand in hand. On occasion, the objectives of US foreign policy and the interests of the Pakistani people will diverge, and it is at these points that a strong US influence on Pakistani media outlets may prove to be most troublesome for the Pakistani government and its institutions. Similar is the case for other foreign involvement in local news media.
Of course, it could all be a drop in the ocean. One of the reasons Gerald Stone cites for greater independence in the newsroom in recent times is the greater availability of sponsorships. If one sponsor threatens to pull funding, they can always move to another. It may be the case that this is the situation in Pakistan too, that USAID funding of news media is not significant enough for it to wield influence. In any case, Peerzada’s accusations warrant at least an investigation into the sources of funding for all major new organisations as well as the structure of their relationship with their donors.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Free-Market Democracy

A very interesting episode of the PTV classic Alif Noon surfaces ever so often on Facebook and elsewhere whenever there is a sugar crisis. In it, during a period of rationing, a dealer in sugar employs Allan and Nanna to buy up all supplies from the market to artificially drive up prices. They are part of a large force that purchases large quantities of sugar and then resells it for a higher price in the black-market. All is going well until Nanna accidentally tries to sell sugar to an undercover government agent who subsequently arrests the dealer. Allan is furious at his friend’s incompetence. Nanna, on the other hand, is ecstatic that he has helped arrest a criminal, and happily says to Allan, “Kuchh naiki ke kaam aise hote hein jo khud bakhud ho jaate hein, humein pata bhi nahi chalta ke hum naiki ke kaam kar rahe hein” (There are some good deeds that happen all by themselves and we don’t even realise we are doing them) to which an apoplectic Allan drily replies “Naiki ke kaamon ko bhi nahi pata chalta ke unn ke saath kya ho raha hai” (The good deeds themselves don’t know what’s being done to them).
Recently, I find that the reasoning in a lot of articles on politics seems to be following a similar principle. ‘Yes, politicians are corrupt, yes, they are selfish, and yes, they are dishonest, but allowing them to pursue their selfish and dishonest practices unfettered will result in the betterment of all’. Naiki ke kaam khudh bakhud ho jaaenge! The reason for this belief is an absolute unwavering faith in the system. The system of democracy is believed to be such that individual intentions and actions are rendered irrelevant. The state, society, its intellectuals and institutions need not worry about questioning politicians for malpractice as the electorate will automatically weed out any elements harmful to its interest. Awam ki adaalat! (The court of the people!)
As far as I can tell, this is uber-capitalism! ‘Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone’ according to John Maynard Keynes. That seems eerily close to the reasoning I’m talking about.
Of course, capitalism here refers to capitalism in the goods or money market, not in government itself. Proponents of the free market have long argued that the role and power of government should be limited to ensuring law and order. Consequently, they argue that there should be no regulation in any fields, including health or education, as any intervention results in the distortion of the free market and subsequently a sub-optimal solution. They also argue that government intervention is paternalistic and a curb of individual freedoms that will inevitably lead to the formation either of a nanny state, or an out and out tyranny. On the other hand, without government intervention or a centralised structure to regulate markets, an ‘invisible hand’ will automatically guide society towards prosperity.
The phenomenon I am trying to highlight regards the free-market nature of the political process in Pakistan. Essentially, in an effort to move away from the authoritarian rule of the past, there seems to be a concerted effort to move towards a system where the only check is the electoral process. The role of government is being removed from the pedestal of public service and brought down to a purely transactional affair. With a growing acceptance that politics is a profession devoid of scruples, the need for regulating the political process is rapidly being rendered redundant. The resultant system is one where the electorate are the consumers and politicians unapologetically pursue self-interest.
Unfortunately, the nature of the political market is such that it will most likely lead to an oligopoly and the subsequent exploitation of the consumer. There is a limited number of parties, very high barriers to entry, and with our levels of literacy, there certainly isn’t perfect information. Hopes of perfect competition are a long-shot to say the least.
The support of certain unscrupulous politicians for such a system is obviously understandable, but the growing acceptance and adoption of such views by opinion formers is more worrying. The check on individual self-interest damaging society is exercised by the society itself through the various media and through the education system. They make sure the devil is not given his due, but instead only surrender it begrudgingly when there is no alternative. This is the bulwark against the degeneration of the society into a Darwinian jungle.
Unfortunately, this bulwark is being steadily eroded in Pakistan as a reaction to years of deceptive authoritarian rules, with devastating consequences to society. Concepts such as selflessness, integrity or principle are slowing being labelled as archaic ideas that need to be supplanted by cold, calculating rationality without understanding the vital functional role each plays in a healthy society. After each new scandal, a section of the media talks about how there are no principles in politics, about how corruption is prevalent across the globe. What they seem to not notice is that while corruption scandals erupt in the first world as well, respectable journalists or intellectuals could never dream of going on television and telling the public that it was all part of the game!
This new rationality that considers sacrificing personal interest for societal benefit to be irrational is what is slowly but surely leading us to a combative naturally-selective society. If there are no principles in politics, then why should there be any principles in any other field? Why should the next COAS not march into the presidency when the opportunity presents itself? The constitution is a man-made document that is up for editing at any time. The best designed system can be corrupted and manipulated to the point of ineffectiveness unless it is backed by ideology or principle.
Lord knows our education system does little to inculcate civic sense or the principles of collective living, now these values are actively under attack. The result is the cultivation of a society where individual interests trump societal interests, and consequently power is more respected than principle. Bear in mind that natural selection does the exact opposite of what a modern society is supposed to - it kills off the most weak and vulnerable. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Man dies from lack of lunch at MM Alam Road

A man in Lahore died yesterday when he was unable to have lunch at any of Lahore’s famous restaurants because it was closed due to Ramazan. The victim suffered from a rare but rapidly spreading disease which required him to have lunch at a restaurant at least once every week.

There was outrage at the death among other sufferers of such diseases over the incident along with a protest march against the closing of restaurants during the holy month. The government also came under severe criticism over its seemingly callous suggestion that sufferers could possibly eat at home or buy something to eat from a shop.

“Once again, it shows how out of touch this government is with the problems of the common man,” said one protester, “how can buying a box of biscuits and eating it possibly be the same as having lunch in a restaurant? These people are totally clueless.”

The issue soon exploded on the social media with one angry protester tweeting, “We live in such a barbaric land. I just can’t tolerate these intolerant mullahs.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

It's really late...

A few weeks ago, we all breathed a sigh of relief as our President returned to the country safe and sound after a health scare that had everyone worried. That you are now wondering whether that sentence was serious or sarcastic highlights the conundrum that faces us all today. The government that symbolized the much celebrated return to democracy (again) is in trouble; if the various news media are to be trusted (which they seldom are), deep trouble! 
It appears the establishment (if there is such a thing), has had enough of the government’s shenanigans and is now looking for a way to do away with them. One lesson that has recently been drilled into our heads is that this would not be a good thing. Indeed, the establishment’s track record in running the country does not inspire much confidence in their decision-making.
So we should try to stop them? We have recently become much more hands on in our politics. Protests, dharnas, and whatnot are all the rage as more and more Pakistanis are beginning to realize that the affairs of the state affect us all too directly to be left to fate. Ideally, we should all get together and hold a grand rally that sends a clear signal to these establishment goons that their strong arm tactics are not going to work and we will not stand for any meddling with our democratic government.
But there’s a snag. Going into the streets to protest against a supposedly all-powerful institution sounds mildly dangerous, am I absolutely sure I want to take this risk for the love of Messrs Zardari and Gillani? Or even for the sanctity of the Bhutto name? Protecting our democracy is all well and good, but when push comes to shove, will I be ready to bear the pushing and shoving for a government that is practically synonymous with corruption and incompetence? A government that has, by virtue of selecting people like Sharmila Farooqi and Fauzia Wahab as their spokespersons, essentially shown their utter contempt for my opinion of them? The appointment of Rehman Malik just seemed like a conscious decision to antagonise us! I could go on, as is my habit to do so, but as we all know the basic charges, I will spare you all.
Going even further, there is another problem. Suppose I was to overlook what the government's performance and take a stand on principle. The problem now is, whatever case the establishment is to choose to rid itself of the government is likely to be fairly solid. In my heart of hearts, I will know that whatever charge has been brought against the government (corruption or treason or whatever else they are able to come up with) is probably true! So how am I supposed to take a principled stance in defence of democracy, by taking up the defence of somebody I believe to be guilty? 
The answer is of course, no, if the establishment finally does topple the government, I will not be rushing to provide my services as human shield. Far from it, in fact. In my opinion, any such action would just set a bad precedent.
People seem to think the establishment always had a problem with Zardari and the PPP. I disagree. As far as I can tell, the establishment couldn’t have asked for a better arrangement. The evidently inept government acts as the perfect lightning rod while the establishment goes about its business unfettered. Of course, Zardari and his government overstepped their bounds when they tried to come between the army and the US, and now the army will simply “do the needful” and either tighten their leash or send them packing. As much as the PPP shout and scream, it’s actually too late. There will be little fuss because, as snazzy as the slogan may be, that the absolute worst democracy is better than a dictatorship just doesn’t seem to be holding up as a tautology.
If the democratic process is ever to take root in this country it cannot simply be because it tries to sell itself as a lesser of two evils. Nor can it rely solely on catchphrases and supposed universal truths. It has to deliver. Democratic governments can only take on the establishment if they have the popular support to balance the strength of the deeply entrenched institutions. It requires loyalty from common citizens, not just party activists or other party alliances. In my opinion, even the common suggestion that political parties need to stick together against military rule is not really worth much if the populace is not actively supporting them.
At the very least, they need to be seen to be trying! What amuses me most is the fact that the army as an institution has always been much more image conscious than the politicians. It’s probably true that they have much more efficient PR techniques at their disposal in order to achieve this. However, the politicians need to accept that they are handicapped in this regard and that they operate on a much slimmer margin for error.  They need to start compensating, not by trying to increase this margin, but by trying to reduce their error.
A lot has been made recently on television by PPP politicians of the fact that people are willing to tolerate military dictators for a decade, but cannot put up with politicians for much smaller tenures. That is when I wonder if they are trying to be funny. Does it not occur to them that military dictators are not personally related to the entire country, but are tolerated either because it takes them much longer to inflict the damage caused by politicians in a much smaller span, or because it takes much longer for their blunders to be discovered. In either case, this fact does not reflect well on the PPP government!