- 22 Sep - 28 Sep, 2018
•PAK-US RELATIONS: THE REAL PROBLEM
- 11 Aug - 17 Aug, 2018
- A Letter From America
Recently in the Washington Post, the Islamabad-based journalist Mehreen Zahra-Malik wrote of “An enduring sense of dread and paranoia at having crossed a thinly drawn red line, a fear of the unknown” that is “a reality for journalists who report on Pakistani politics, particularly on the power struggle between the military and civilian governments that is as old as the country itself.”
“The threats, as shadowy as they may sometimes feel, are all too real,” she suggested. “Indeed, the country that [Imran] Khan inherits as prime minister is practically run on scare tactics. … He has supported a draconian blasphemy law that has led to at least 69 vigilante killings since 1990. Day after day on the campaign trail, he started fires and fanned flames, calling upon his followers to suspend disbelief and vest faith in conspiracies.”
All of which sounds drearily, and ominously, familiar to me, sitting here at home in the United States. The particular pieces of the perpetually fluid puzzle recombine in different ways, but the big picture is all too similar. And it’s not only legitimate, but actually important, to draw comparisons. Much of the problem, in both countries, is what has been dubbed “whataboutism” – the lazy proclivity to demonize or condemn only one side of a polarized standoff, because our loyalties are to the other side. George Orwell covered this ground very thoroughly and incisively seven or eight decades ago, not only in his famous dystopian novels, but also in his wartime journalism and in durably important essays such as “Politics and the English Language” and “Notes on Nationalism.”
So just because Trump is bad doesn’t mean that every person or institution who opposes him is good. Just because Imran Khan’s new government is potentially scary doesn’t mean that the PPP and/or PML (N) are upstanding beacons of benign democratic enlightenment. The American writer James Howard Kunstler, who is no Trump fan, uses his own access to readers’ attention not to state the obvious about Trump, but to point out helpfully that “the vested permanent bureaucracy of Washington DC, and especially its vastly overgrown and redundant ‘Intel Community’ … has achieved critical mass to take on a life of its own within the larger government, makes up its own rules of conduct, not necessarily within the rule of law, and devotes too much of its budget and influence defending its own prerogatives rather than the interests of the nation.”
In both cases – Pakistan and the USA – the ominous truth, the proverbial elephant in the room, is that a hidebound, self-interested, and corrupt political and military establishment has been rotting from within for decades and now is proving vulnerable to the unpredictable dynamism of a new element that refuses to follow the old, polite rules of how things are done. There is nothing good about Trump, but the pervasive and deeply entrenched corruption and arrogance of America’s mainstream parties and institutions is what has allowed him to thrive. It follows that getting rid of Trump is necessary, but not sufficient.
Thus one thing that’s very much on my mind these days is what we’ll be called to do, to try to pick up the pieces, after Trump is gone. And one thing I do to prepare for that is read about Germany before, during and after the Nazi era. The traditional polite thing to believe about the Nazis is that they were uniquely evil and destructive, and that any comparison between them and any other political phenomenon or situation whatsoever is beyond the pale. Like most polite fictions, that one is unhelpfully evasive, and at this point it has simply been overtaken by events. Hence I take note of American journalist Milton Mayer’s reflection, in his remarkable 1955 book They Thought They Were Free, recently republished by the University of Chicago Press: “If I – and my countrymen – ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm.”
They Thought They Were Free is a book I’m immodest enough to hope I might have written, had I had the opportunity. Its spirit and methodology are similar to my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, in the sense that Mayer did something like what I did: He took a genuine, human interest in ordinary people living and coping, and making personal decisions that are inevitably morally and politically compromised, in a society where he was an outsider but that he wanted to understand better. And he expressed that interest by showing up, meeting people, and listening to them in a sustained way. His book is the product of a year he spent as a faculty member at a university in a provincial town in West Germany in the early 1950s.
In his foreword, Mayer recounts how, in prewar Berlin in 1935, he had tried and failed to interview Hitler. “Then I traveled in Nazi Germany for an American magazine,” he wrote. “I saw the German people, people I had known when I visited Germany as a boy, and for the first time realized that Nazism was a mass movement and not the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions. Then I wondered if Adolf Hitler was, after all, the Nazi I wanted to see. By the time the war was over I had identified my man: the average German.”
“Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany – not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler,” he concluded. “It was what most Germans wanted – or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.
“I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusion. I felt – and feel – that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man.” •
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