I have sinned. I must confess that the Great Human Cockroach–Liberal Lynch Mob–Don’t Act Surprised–Kondemn the Kommunity Klan Debate has left me more amused than contemplative. The Apollonian seriousness required to make use of such a debate I seem to be deprived of. Worse, I think I am none the worse for it.
No Pericles or Cicero here to lend himself to such seriousness, not only because that requires argumentation of a higher kind but also command of the language, the kind we now call a purple patch.
This is what I would call the Great Latke-Hamantash Debate sans humour, sharp wit and of course style. The Latke-Hamantash Debate originated at the University of Chicago in 1946 for several reasons, but primarily to spoof the high seriousness that attends the academic environment.
Jewish in origin but not confined to Jewish academics thereafter, it sought to debate the merits of Latke, a fried potato pancake, over hamentaschen, a triangular wheat-flour pastry. Latke, according to the Jewish tradition, is eaten during Hannukah, the hamentaschen on Purim. The debate has since been held regularly at various top universities and has included some of the sharpest minds from multiple disciplines, begetting in the process great wit and hilarity.
The debate of course is not meant to resolve anything, though for reasons entirely other than why “we” cannot resolve issues. In the words of historian Hanna Gray, also a former president of U-Chicago, “both the latke and hamentasch are simply wonderful. We welcome them to our diverse, pluralistic and tolerant community of scholars,” going on to state that “Renaissance humanism grew out of the revival of the latke!”
So maybe our cuisine is not suited to either humanism or the ability to have a pluralistic discourse where instead of talking at each other we can talk to each other. (That of course came out all wrong.) In our Great Debate in these pages, if I were pressed to take sides, I’d probably go with Messrs Zaka and Fulton, not because they were making some great points but because they weren’t. They were not even offering any arguments, academic or otherwise. They just used the middle finger and pursed their lips to spit out that great four-letter word without which life would come to a standstill.
As someone who has often used the middle finger to great effect, for instance, while driving, I can vouch for its cathartic usefulness both for myself and the one to whom it is directed. Ditto for the four-letter word whose effectiveness in all grammatical forms is undisputed. Sometimes, it is also good to stand in front of the mirror and middle-finger oneself. That’s what Messrs Zaka and Fulton did, and I see no reason, to mix metaphors, why their fulminations should have begot quasi-academic arguments. They weren’t mounting any arguments!
In other words, what we have had in these pages was the Great Non-Debate! In principle I think it is good to have such exchanges. But we can either have them just to score points or attempt, genuinely, to find common ground. It might surprise some, but my own reading is that none of the writers in this non-debate was at cross-purposes – except on one point. Are Pakistanis, constituted as we are, the only cockroaches, to borrow from Mr Zaka? The answer is no. But to mount arguments against that meant losing the larger point he was making.
In fact holding a passport accounts for zilch beyond an imagined identity and therefore “Pakistani” means nothing in any genetic, biological sense which could be said to suffer from some malaise, like haemophilia, in collective terms.
My only gripe, if I can put it like this, with Messrs Zaka and Fulton, is that it would have been great if they had created a P J O’Rourkian rather than Kafkaesque environment in their pieces. But then that is my preference and does not reflect on the efficacy of their style or how they wanted to vent their emotions.
Finally, all’s well that ends well and one hopes that if for nothing else, for reasons of sheer fatigue, we are about to move up the evolutionary ladder to whatever form is higher than cockroaches! Allah be praised!
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2010.