What’s wrong with bitterness and self-pity?
In my blog excerpted here Monday, I referred to the fact that Americans themselves – ourselves; I am American and live in America – “will soon be on the receiving end of drone surveillance.” (It turns out we already are. See this Los Angeles Times article about how a man and his family in the remote state of North Dakota were arrested in June with the help of a Predator drone.) My piece elicited this comment from one anonymous Dawn reader: “Life is unfair. Drone victims are not going to get any satisfaction in this world. If this is all they get, this will have to do. After all, it is these ‘innocent’ Americans which enable drones with votes, taxes, and opinion polls.”
The comment’s bitter tone is strikingly reminiscent of the many comments on an article I published in the summer of 2010, in which I tried to enlist the human sympathy of Americans for victims of the horrific flooding in Pakistan. Here’s a representative response to that article:
“Every year, the United States sends billions of dollars aiding Pakistan from [sic] their own people who are trying to bring down the Pakistani government and turn their country into a brutal dictatorship run by thugs that claim they speak in the name of God. Our thanks? Nothing but demands for more money that we cannot afford. In return for the help we have provided, Pakistan allows people who are actively trying to destroy our country to operate, train and plan inside their borders. Those that are not directly supporting al Qaeda and similar groups passively do nothing to stop them. So, like many others, I just have a very difficult time caring.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Both writers – Pakistani and American – are indulging themselves with self-pity and a willful refusal to acknowledge each other’s humanity. It’s an unedifying spectacle, on both sides of the looking-glass. And what’s notable about the self-pity is that it’s not even properly personal, but nationalist. We see the human suffering on our own side all too easily, and just as easily reduce many millions of people into mere cogs in the other side’s state machine. This truly is pitiable, because it’s inconsistent with any individual’s self-respect.
Identify your own interests uncritically with those of the state – any state – and you will inevitably end up both betrayed and brutalised. As George Orwell wrote in a great essay from which I keep finding myself quoting: “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” Nationalism in any form is anathema to humanity. I fear this is what we’re dealing with today, in both America and Pakistan.
You might have noticed that since September I’ve been appearing more often on Dawn.com, but that some of my contributions are excepts from articles that appear in full on my own website. The way it works is that, starting in late September, my editor and I agreed that instead of writing once a week on issues relating directly to Pakistan, I will do that on the first and third Fridays of every month and, in addition, publish every Monday on my own site a column about American topics, which Dawn.com will excerpt.
My American column is ironically titled “Home Free,” which will also be the title of a book I’m planning to write next year subtitled “An American Road Trip.” I bring it to your attention now because its purpose is consistent with – in fact identical to – the purpose of all my writing on Pakistan: to help sustain humanity and undermine nationalism. Nationalism’s tactic is always to score cheap points on behalf of “us” by simplifying and reducing – dehumanising – “them”. This is ultimately not very interesting, and George Orwell (and others) saw through it a long time ago, but it’s surprisingly durable, because people are all too gullible. So it needs to be undermined anew in every generation.
While I am American – rather, because I’m American – I claim the right that my country’s founders explicitly acknowledged, to disagree with and even to work against the intentions of its government. Nothing is more dispiriting, or aggravating, to me than when Pakistanis lecture or abuse me personally simply because I’m American, unfairly assuming that I must support American actions or state policy, or that I’m fair game even if I don’t. I don’t do that to you, and I go out of my way to urge other Americans not to do it to you – so please don’t do it to me or to the millions of hapless Americans who, yes, “enable drones with votes, taxes, and opinion polls,” but in most cases know not what they do. They need to be educated, not disdained and dehumanised. I don’t support American state policy, but I do love and cherish my own society (warts and all), just as you love yours (warts and all).
A postscript on a related subject: a Pakistani reader, Mahvesh Khan, has written a thought-provoking guest article at my invitation, responding to one of my own recent articles about Greg Mortenson. “If money is being sunk into development projects,” Mahvesh writes, “I would suggest that the citizens themselves ensure that the project is actually carrying out the work it is supposed to be doing. Physical verification of that work, and an impact analysis, would be good ideas. After all, it’s hard-earned money. Why waste it?” I invite you to read, share, and comment on Mahvesh’s article, “It is indeed about Greg Mortenson.”
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.