Pakistan: A Primer for the New York Times

March 20, 2009 § 2 Comments

These are a couple of reminders for the paper of record:

  1. It’s the social forces, stupid.
  2. When writing editorials, making sense is a Good Thing.

Let’s start with the first. Here’s the lede to the NYT story announcing the reinstatement of the Chief Justice:

LAHORE, Pakistan — The Pakistani government agreed early on Monday to reinstate the independent-minded former chief justice of the Supreme Court, a stunning concession to the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who had been heading toward the capital in a convoy threatening to stage a mass protest over the issue after he broke free from house arrest at his residence near here.

This is just wrong. The concession was not to Nawaz Sharif; it was to the lawyers’ movement, you know, those thousands who have been marching in the streets defying government repression and getting their heads bashed in by the police.  Those people. The concession is to them. And while Nawaz Sharif and his party have been pushing for the reinstatement of the judiciary, the movement does not belong to them. They belong to the movement. The Sharif brothers know this. In fact, they’ve glommed on to the movement in a shrewd political manoeuvre to polish-up their tarnished image, and it’s a tenuous alliance.

It was Nawaz Sharif after all who smacked the judiciary around in 1997 because of criminal proceedings against him. He twisted the body, finally crippling it: that CJ, Syed Sajjad Ali Shah, was ousted.

Pakistanis remember these inglorious political moments. Writing in the aftermath of this Long March, a blogger at a popular Pakistani blog site atrributes to the Sharif brothers

a number of adjectives; none of which are flattering, to say the least. A few might include “Thieves”. “Crooks”. “Plunderers”. “Looters”. “Extortionists”. One may even go so far as to even call them “Murderers”.

So, the question for the democracy movement is how to retain its independence whilst ignominious politicians marshal influence in it. An op-ed in one of the largest mainstream dailies, The News observes:

Some will mistake the Nawaz League and the Imran Khan League (not to mention the sad and fading Jamaat-e-Islami) as having been the core of such political action. Others will make the even greater mistake of associating the heart of the movement that has ostensibly met with success as being a victory of Pakistan’s opposition political parties.

The truth is that the political parties, whether it was the PPP and the ANP in 2007, or the PML-N and the Great Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf in 2009 were leveraging a people’s movement that was at its core and its periphery a product of the single most impressive and successful social mobilisation effort in Pakistan’s history.

That mobilization effort is the consequence of organized communication and network building. Groups that crisscross lawyers, students, workers, feminists, businessmen, shopkeepers -in short a broad swath of Pakistani society-coordinated and executed the Long March. These included Sharif supporters but not only. It also meant a lot of labour. Flyers had to be designed and mass-produced. Black flags had to be procured. Slogans, posters, armbands and all the parapharnelia of protests had to be produced. Meeting times and transport for protests in a a public-transport challenged country had to be organized.  Communication, too, was synchronized. A particular feature of Pakistani activism has been the relatively sophisticated distribution of information via SMS, live blogging, and collaborative websites organized around live coverage from participants in the movement.

Over all this, the NYT rode its ‘journalistic’ tractor til all that was left was one pudgy, Punjabi ‘lion.’  Of course, Sharif wants to be seen that way (well, maybe not pudgy), a leader who commands the abject loyalty of the masses. To fall for for that however is to mistake political manipulation for fact, perhaps not unsurprising in a paper that has been–how shall we say it?–fairly gullible when it comes to politicians these last eight years. So, how does it happen that a mass-based movement becomes conflated with one man?  Mere credulousness on the part of the NYT is too simplistic an answer. It’s more than that. It’s about those technical requisites of  modern American journalism that employ the techniques of fiction to explain events. Journalists are familiar with having to find “characters” and “scenes” for their narrative. In so doing, the field sometimes breaks a cardinal rule of the social sciences: individuals are not stand-ins for social forces. Sharif is not the movement. It’s a theory of history that’s silly and deadly.  It’s what walked the US into Iraq and has it looking for Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda incarnate, now.

Once social forces are written off the page, it becomes easy to forget that they ever existed or can have an autonomous impact. The story that is ‘Pakistan,’ in the NYT, hangs together as a small cast of disparate, unseemly characters: the demagogic opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, an oily Zardari, a hapless Gilani, the inscrutable Kayani. It’s the actions of these great men, not ‘great’ in the normative sense of excellent, terrific, first-rate, but rather mammoth personalities that seem to drive events through their charisma and skill. Those who marched from Quetta, from Karachi, from Lahore only constitute a delirious mob, full of fury, signifying nothing. This is a particular kind of story about how change happens except that in ‘Pakistan,’ the story never changes.

In ‘Pakistan,’ these great-men unbound by institutions, social movements, networks, continually chance intricate political games in a space that’s only peopled by, well, bat-shit crazy extremists, an economic meltdown and a nuclear bomb:

The concession, broadcast on national television by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, came after a tumultuous weekend in Pakistani politics in which a dispute between President Asif Ali Zardari and Mr. Sharif escalated into a crisis that was destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, already under pressure from a growing Islamic insurgency and severe economic troubles.

Shudder. And that’s how, within two graphs, the NYT reduces and transforms a broad-based non-violent democratic struggle into a sinister game of Chicken that might kill us all played by a cast smaller than the Sopranos. The apocalyptic narrative of crisis and crisis-averted is always the same, and it’s not limited to the NYT. See the Economist, “Pakistan: The World’s Most Dangerous Place”, Washington Post, Newsweek, or even Yahoo Answers “Why is Pakistan the Most Dangerous Country in the World?” In the final instance, the ‘great men’ are hackneyed aspects of a pre-penned narrative in search of scene and character to stage itself.

How to talk, then, about the concerns of those who marched? They are contemplating their victory. They’re wondering if their leaders–in the plural–were too hasty in calling off the Long March. They recall that they have been duped before. This is Adil Najam at Pakistaniat:

We also remember that promises and announcements are made by our political leaders to be broken. We also note that in listening to the speech it is not clear exactly what the terms of the decision are and exactly what the nature of the reinstatement will be.

But, what is clear is that the dynamics between Pakistanis and their only real national party, the PPP, have shifted precisely because it was a mass mobilization and not single-politican politics. The party lost key politicians including Sherry Rehman and Aitzaz Ahsan.

It is very clear that this is a moral and political victory not of any political party or political leader but of the Pakistani people and of the Justice movement. But we also know that victory has a thousand fathers and many, including the vanquished will seek to take credit for it. -Adil Najam

These turns can spell a sea-change in the internal politics of Pakistan. But the very moment that Pakistanis scored their first victory towards a stable country and against a government that has been failing them, some of the early comments by NYT readers to this article were these:

As the government crumbles, who controls Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? How secure can they be in an environment like this? — H, Cleveland, OH

Just what the world needs right now; another crisis and failed state. — George Ennis, Toronto, Canada

Paranoias have effects too. As Americans run for the bunker while the US government drone attacks the fuck out of small border villages killing hundreds of innocents and de-stabilizing Pakistan, there is less time to dig out from under the avalanche of words: “threatening” “tumultuous” “escalated” “crisis”  “nuclear-armed” “Islamic insurgency”, to say this was not the madding mob, to explain:

It was the multitudes that marched.

***

more to follow…

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