Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Looking for Refuge in Poetry - "In Memoriam" by Tennyson

In grim times, there is always solace to be found in good poetry. Whatever the tribulations of the present it is always wise to regain a modicum of optimism without which life can become quite unbearable. Lord Alfred Tennyson's new year excerpt from his great poem "In Memoriam" is particularly apposite for the occasion even though I am a few days delayed in ringing it in. Perhaps this poem can usher in the new year afresh.

"In Memoriam" [Ring out, wild bells] -
 Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

(Slow) Death of a Nation

The governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assasinated today in Islamabad by one of his security guards. The motivation for the cold-blooded killing seems to be Governor Taseer's vocal advocacy for the reform of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws which are often abused to persecute minorities and frequently exploited to exact personal vendettas. I was not much of an admirer of Mr. Taseer's political style but in a nation cowed with fear of extremists I had enormous respect for his courageous opposition to the dark forces of religious obscurantism that are devouring Pakistan. He had the great virtue of standing up unabashedly in public for his liberal beliefs which were quite evidently not shared by a vast majority of his compatriots. He knew that there were threats to his life but he did not shy away from expressing his views unlike dozens of other politicians who maintain cowardly ambiguity or even worse kow tow to reactionary forces.

Even though I follow South Asian politics closely, I don't much comment on the sorry state of Pakistani state and society on this blog. There are many inside and outside the country who are chronicling the country's tragic downward spiral. I have instead preferred to focus in this space on the historical and cultural richness of the place where I spent my formative years. However, there are times that it is not possible to maintain the hope that the ship of state will one day be righted and that the perenially suffering ordinary citizens will some day find relief from their unending misery. Today is one of those dark days which signal a steadily accelerating slide into the abyss.

There are many complex reasons why Pakistan today stands at the precipice of catastrophe. Perhaps the most important is the unrelenting exploitation of the country by its ruling elites (military, political, feudal and bureaucratic) since the country's independence. From 1951 onwards Pakistan has been a rentier state whose rulers utterly ignored investment in their own citizens but mastered the art of monetizing their geopolitical location by selling their alliance to imperial patrons. They were first put on the payroll for an extended period by the U.S. during the cold war to join the anti-communist camp which also happened to fit perfectly with the military's obsessively anti-India view of the world. Along with the founding ideology of a religiously-based state, disregard for the needs of its own citizens and military emasculaton of democratic institutions, this uncritical alliance with the likes of the medieval Saudis and the cynical Americans against the "godless" Russians continued to push the population toward creeping intolerance and fanaticism.

The straw that finally broke the camel's back was the disastrous military rule of Zia-ul-Haq and the country's frontline role in the decade long war after the Russians invaded Afghanstan in 1979.  Pakistan became both a major conduit and destination for drugs, guns, refugees, mujahideen and mullahs with billions of dollars channeled through the Pakistani military to turn Afghanistan into Russia's Vietnam. The seeds of fanaticism and systemic rent-seeking by the ruling elite were now firmly planted. After the Russian departure and the end of the cold war, the U.S. lost interest in Pakistan in the 90's and the ruling establishment was temporarily set adrift without an imperial sponsor. The establishment knew no other way of how to run the country and the patterns of empowering intolerance, financial mismanagement and ignoring the needs of the populace continued unabated. The state had temporarily lost any reliable rental income and turned to arms deals with rogue regimes to finance its unsustainable policies but the post-9/11 "war on terror" brought the country back in the limelight. Suddenly, the U.S needed the former client state yet again for a new mission but with the added twist that the ally was also the source of much of the trouble. Also, by now too much had changed for the relationship to return to the former coziness as the population had been radicalized dramatically having been reminded repeatedly of the former friend's treacherous abadonment. More ominously, the children of the Zia years had now grown up and the malignancy initiated in those years had metastasized in every nook and corner of society.

This leads us to the Pakistan of today: a poverty stricken population with a dangerously radicalized youth that lacks education and opportunity and is susceptible to all manner of conspiracies and angry paranoias; a nuclear country living beyond its means hurtling toward anarchy. The country may be past the point of no return with the society now tipped permanently toward the religious fanatics and their sympathisers which includes significant sections of the urban middles classes. Only a very concerted effort by the ruling establishment to unequivocally change direction may have a chance of arresting the slide. However, the ruling elites have demonstrated scant understanding of the existential crisis facing Pakistan let alone showing the willingness and capability to take on the challenge. If things continue as they are, the assasination of even flawed liberals like Salman Taseer and of Benazir Bhutto before her will be seen as signal events hastening the rapidly extinguishing hopes for a moderate, democratic state that can provide opportunities for its people.   

A coda: There has always been a deep confusion about Pakistan's identity and the question of what sort of state its founder intended to establish has never been resolved. It is a topic that can be debated for a long time but Pakistan's example makes one thing plain. Modern nation states cannot thrive when their ideological basis is exclusionary. A state based on primacy of religion or ethnicity will, in a pinch, always relegate minority citizens to an inferior status. In the contest between equality before the law and ideological purity the state's ideological reason for existence will always trump the facade of supposed legal protections for the weak. This is as true of Pakistan as it is of Israel and post-revolution Iran. A state based on principles of absolute equality of all citizens under the law is a prerequisite for a modern nation state. Even when states fail to live up to their principles in practice sound constitutional principles make it possible for individuals to defend their rights and liberites from a position of moral strength. The history of the United States is a gradual march in the direction of greater individual liberty and equality before the law. American minorities won these freedoms by arguments and struggle based on the virtuous founding principles of the constitution even when in practice the principles were not always upheld. The struggle for equal rights in the U.S. is a ongoing process but the principles enunciated by the founding fathers always provide intellectual, legal and moral support for those seeking equal rights under the law.