Wednesday, October 15, 2008

pakistanis, control and conspiracies

Conspiracy theories, a study recently presented in the magazine "Science" has found, are likely to be believed by people whenever they feel they are not in control. For outsiders following Pakistani media, it would seem Pakistanis definitely feel they have no control over their country. Conspiracy theories, wherever the war in the tribal areas is discussed. Most popular is the search for a "foreign hand" behind the militancy. It's quite common these days to hear a TV host, such as Javed Chaudhary on "Express TV", tell his viewers:
It's a fact that weapons and technology for the war in the tribal areas are coming from Russia. Russia is providing large amounts of ammunition and explosives which are brought to Mazar-e-Sharif via Iran. And from there into the Pakistani tribal areas. In Pakistan, commandos have been arrested who were no Muslims, who eat dogs' and cats' meat and drink alcohol.
Well, personally I find it difficult to imagine the tribal areas full of dog-eating foreign agents, but there are definitely more extreme characters on Pakistani TV. Take Zaid Hamid, for example, who runs a think tank and a series of programs on News1 channel, both called "Brass Tacks". He presents a totally closed and confused view of the world in which everything can be explained logically - and which is full of enemies of Pakistan - such as India, obviously, with whom a final showdown is inevitable, according to Zaid Hamid. Who, almost needless to say, has lots of fans...

In two recent articles in the Pakistani daily "The News", Fasi Zaka has criticized some of this hate speech which is freely published in the Pakistani media. About Zaid Hamid, he writes:

In this postmodern world where people have surrendered a good deal of their intimate freedoms to impersonal institutions, where the interlinked nexus of governments and corporations creates ripples that people find difficult to understand, the conspiracy theorist takes the easy way out by assuming that all events are at the hands of a secret few. Despite the invalidity of these theses, they have staying power because they offer no proof, and hence they cannot be disproved, especially if they are the product of a paranoid imagination. Common to most of these conspiracy theories is 'de-individualization', which is lumping people into impersonal groups and taking their humanity away from them. That's what Zaid Hamid does when he rants about the inferiority of Hindus, the inherent evil nature of Jews or Pakistani leaders he disagrees with. He neglects to realize that his method is what also drove the neoconservatives in creating a world in their own ethnocentric image and in the killing fields of Iraq.

All of this is not without its negative fallout. As Fasi Zaka rightly points out,
crucially, what people like Zaid Hamid do is hurt the process of self-reflection which is needed. Why look inwards for self-improvement if it is someone else's fault?
The only way out would seem to be transparency. As long as people feel no control at all, that not even their most basic questions are answered, many will be ready to believe anything...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

issues, dogmas and "bullshit" in us presidential debates

I found Obama more convincing than McCain overall during the first debate, and I gather that's what most polls have shown to be the majority reaction among viewers in the US. However, I would like to add that on the issue of Pakistan, about which I have written here before, McCain certainly made more sense. Considering McCain's stance on not talking to Iran and his very hawkish anti-Russian rhetoric, though, Obama clearly appeared much more rational on these issues.
On the whole, I was positively surprised that both spoke well and knew what they were talking about - after eight years of Bush, this is a step forward! There is progress in other fields as well, such as in both candidates' condemnation of torture and the realization that America can not go it alone, but needs its so-called "allies".
At the same time, it is disturbing to see that there are entrenched foreign policy dogmas in the mainstream US discourse which nobody questions: The manichean world view about the good guys and the bad guys is one of them - all the debate revolves around how the good guys can defeat the bad guys. Seen this way, the scope for a real change in US foreign policy after the elections seems very limited.

I still find it difficult to get used to how much of the US media cover the election campaigns, including the debates - that there is relatively less discussion of the campaign issues and more focus on the "performance" of candidates. It leaves me with the impression that not looking your opponent in the face is considered a worse flaw than wrong policies. Or, as "The Onion" has put it, US elections are eventually decided by "bullshit".
Of course, issues do matter to some people, and they are certainly being discussed in the US media: CBS had a "reality check" on the first debate and ABC News a similar "fact check", exposing some factual errors both candidates made. The liberal online newspaper-cum-blog Huffington Post compares the candidates' stands on key issues in great detail.
But then, of course, there is the Sarah Palin factor. Sarah Palin clearly was no match for Joe Biden during their debate last week. On many occasions, she clearly didn't answer the questions she was asked, but gave some other rehearsed statement instead. She certainly does not know what she is talking about. And yet, it doesn't seem to have damaged her chances, as the contested swing voters are not so pre-occupied with issues either. As "The Times" put it,

On the substance, you might choose to award the debate – just - to Senator Biden. He seemed more in command of the issues and answered the questions from Gwen Ifill, the moderator, more directly...
But impressions may matter more to voters than evidence of detailed knowledge of Washington policymaking.