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.