Politics, race, violence and America

You do not rise the top of the food-chain by being irreparable

Farrukh Khan Pitafi June 06, 2020
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi

Those who have known pain and loss intimately do not take pleasure in another person’s misery. That is if they are not broken beyond repair or informed only by superficial analyses of the resentful lot. In Pakistan, we have stared into the abyss and held its gaze for two decades. We have truly known what it is to suffer, lose and hurt beyond the known range of madness. When the terrorists came for our children, when the earthquakes shook our lives and floods inundated our souls, what kept us going was faith in something bigger than our mortal challenges. And to survive that builds perspective which comes handy in appreciating the suffering of others, not losing the sight of hope and seeing the fundamental goodness in people.

The United States of America is engulfed in yet another crisis. And not a normal one. When the four Minneapolis cops were killing George Floyd, an African American man wrongly accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit 20 dollar bill, in broad daylight, they must not have thought that it would provoke such a massive nationwide backlash. For one, and regardless of the racial overtones, the police or the other law enforcement agencies in most parts of the world are known for their heavy-handed tactics. So, at best, the outrage was supposed to be local. Nothing the local police union could not handle. Business as usual then. Except it went nuclear. And why did it go nuclear?

Because a correction was long overdue. In the past four years, the media’s open criticism of Donald Trump as the county’s alleged racist-in-chief has convinced us that America has lost itself to racism. In inhaling these assumptions we forget that we are talking about a nation which waged a civil war against its own kith and kin to end slavery and won. Every contested right there has a long history of heroic struggles behind it. It is easy to think that such a place would surrender to the worst human instincts without a fight but that is not true. I know it because we would not either. Even then there have been moments when our faith in the fundamental good nature of human beings shakes beyond limits.

There are many ways to judge America. Its foreign policy and forever wars offer one place to start. If your homes have been bombed by the US drones or the old normal in your country was dismantled with a promise to build a better future which never materialised like in Iraq, you are unlikely to view America kindly.

If you are an African American and you have discovered the vocabulary of racial suffering in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me which has become such a massive cultural phenomenon, you are unlikely to forget your own misery. If you are a white male who hangs out at online message boards like 4chan, 8chan or its latest incarnation 8kun instead of reading serious literature and has an impressionable mind, you might have started believing in harebrained conspiracy theories like the white genocide. And to do that is to suffer needlessly. Other communities can also see themselves as the victim and wallow in self-pity or do something rash. Critics of the US often use the story of native Americans to get back at the country.

A careful study of the history of the United States reveals that in foreign and domestic policies there is no guarantee that the country would not make mistakes. This, after all, is the country which has fought wars with both its rather peaceful neighbours. But sooner or later a correction inevitably sets in. That is precisely why the US foreign policy and security establishment is usually polarised among the interventionist and the isolationist schools of thought. Domestically too, the country has consistently marched in the direction of more inclusion and mending fences. When another crisis breaks out that which Lincoln called “better angels of our nature” in his inaugural address brings people back together. That is not to say there exists no such thing that Dr Arlie Hochschild calls an empathy wall in her Strangers in Their Own Land. Countries with huge populations do have subcultures that are wary, unforgiving or ignorant of others. It does not make them inferior in any way.

Since we are trying to understand the problems America is facing right now there is a remarkable clue in the dying words of George Floyd. In his last sentence “I can’t breathe”, you can see the suffering of a community or an entire nation. Later an autopsy revealed that even though it was not the reason behind his death, Mr Floyd was found Covid-19 positive. That this tragic incident took place right in the middle of a global pandemic and national mitigation efforts, which have rendered more than 42 million people jobless since the lockdown began in the middle of March, must have contributed significantly to the intensity of the reaction. These are frightening, unnerving times for every nation in the world. From the panic buying witnessed at the start of the pandemic to the deplorable looting that accompanied recent protests, you can see a hint of this nervous desperation in everything.

The assumption that Mr Trump won the election because there was a groundswell in racist sentiment among the white Americans is deeply flawed. He won because he deftly used the controversial public service record of his opponent to rob her of the last shreds of credibility. He has been a constant part of America’s popular culture throughout a generation’s lifespan. No one actually thinks he is a racist. A smart, if opportunistic, operative perhaps. But not a racist. His base has some racist elements too but they are almost negligible. There is one fact that should worry him in an election year though. In 2016, Hillary Clinton looked like the most expensive choice. In 2020, owing primarily to his impulse control issues, he seems to have assumed that mantle.

The assumption that black voices do not matter is also patently wrong. Want proof? While its misgivings are not entirely unreal it was the African American community which rescued Mr Biden’s sinking campaign by rallying behind him. Ann Coulter, a conservative pundit and provocateur often accused of anti-immigrant racism who once was the lead member of Mr Trump’s base in 2016, has all but endorsed Keisha Lance Bottoms, the black and phenomenally articulate Mayor of Atlanta, for the position of Mr Biden’s running mate. Think about it.

In conclusion, it is easy to jump to the hasty assumption about that which might be wrong with America. But if you harbour ill will against the country, do not keep your hopes up. Sooner or later it will find its way back and will do so through introspection and dialogue while making amends for its past mistakes. You do not rise the top of the food-chain by being irreparable.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2020.

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