Merchants of Misery: The Vulgarity of Benevolence and Grievance

Posted on September 12, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Disasters, Environment, Politics, Society
28 Comments
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Adil Najam

Watching the news from Pakistan has become increasingly painful. All the more so this Eid when so many Pakistanis remain in distress. But this Eid the broadcasts on just about all news channels also had a touch of vulgarity that made things all that much more unbearable and made one cringe in distaste.

On newscast after newscast, in newsclip after newsclip, there was a cartoonish parade of one ‘leader’ after the other giving ‘Eidee‘ to and ‘spending Eid’ with flood victims. It was not just the artificiality of these clips – each of which seemed to be an exact copy of the other – that was nauseating, it was the sense that neither the leaders nor the newsfolks who were covering it understood or cared for the effect that this “manufactured news” has on the flood victims that they were using as “props” in their little dramas, or on the national morale.

For one it was another political photo-op and for the other just another way to fill airtime.

It does not matter who the ‘leaders’ were, because it was everyone – politicians in office, politicians out of office, politicians with no chance of ever being in office. What mattered was just how predictable the script was for these merchants of misery, politicians as well as media: newsclip starts with the most depressing picture of flood victims you can find; show a politician standing on dais surrounded by a coterie of hanger-ons, distributing boxes of goodies (often with their own pictures and political slogs printed on the boxes), obligatory head hand on head (dast-e-shafqat); cut to reporter who informs you that the politician has fulfilled his ‘promise’ of spending Eid with flood victims but also that there was discontent in the camp immediately after the leader left as people broke in on the goodies being distributed; cut to a victim claiming that he or she got nothing and only political favorites are being given the goodies; back to reporter who theatrically highlights grievances old and new, real and imagined, feed and fuels bitterness.

Both politician and reporter, it seems, leaves happy: the politician can claim that he is benevolent (you can be sure that they will tell the nation every detail in that evenings talk shows, and in some cases on their twitter feeds); the reporter can claim how they ‘exposed’ the truth (that the truth was manufactured for their convenience matters not).

So flood relief is about giving someone a dabba of mithai and a few other goodies with your own picture and slogan printed on the box? And a ten minute photo-op is what “spending Eid” looks like? And, by the way, that is exactly what the flood victims want and need right now: the security details, screenings, and being put on display as props for the benefit of political theatre and news cameras!

Reconstruction. Development. Livelihoods. Rehabilitation. All that can wait! What of the flood victims and their plight, you ask? That matters not. They, after all, are just props for this little drama meant to fill the airwaves!

I am sorry. I know I am getting carried away in my own emotions. But, maybe, sometimes we should. The vulgarity of the feudal mindset – barra sahib, the chaudhry, the wadeera, the sardar, will help out of the “kindness of his heart” and then, for all times to come, you will owe him for that benevolence – is what this was about. “Here is your gift. Remember very clearly who the gift is from. And in case it is not clear, let us print that on the box!”

This is not a display of citizens getting the assistance from their state, their society, and their institutions. This is serfs being reminded of who they owe their allegiance to. And through this all the media remains a willing accomplice; captives of theirs own narratives and forever chasing misery and grievance for a good story.

I understand  that this is politics and this is media in the modern world of soundbite reporting. This is what the merchants of misery do. That you will see some of this everywhere. I understand that. But seeing the wall-to-wall vulgarity of benevolence and grievance  that was on display this Eid was painful. Even heartbreaking.

At the very point when the flood victim’s biggest loss is their loss of dignity – that is what homelessness and helpnessness is really about – we choose to put their indignity on display in this most vulgar manner. Indeed, we add to that indignity by turning what were self-respecting citizens till a few weeks ago into groveling serfs and beggars.

Yes, aid provisions can come from sources and motivations that are charitable. But the provision of aid must never be at the cost of the dignity of those we are supposedly aiding. These are people who have lost nearly everything already. Let us not rob them of their dignity too. You do not treat or talk about them as if they were beggars and you doling out your largess to them.

They are not beggars and they must not be made to feel like beggars. These are citizens. They were the pillars of your economy yesterday, and they will define your future tomorrow. In a society where entitlement is already a disease of the powerful, do not make begging the affliction of the weak. They need, deserve and have a right to our generosity. But because it is the duty of the state and of society to assist them.

The story we need to be writing today is the story of institutions of state and society fulfilling their duty. The story that the children of these flood victims need to tell to their own children tomorrow is a story told by citizens of how state and society rose up for them in their time of need. Instead we (leaders, media and individuals alike) are writing a story of vulgar benevolence and entrenched grievance. A story that will told in the language of servitude, in the language of abandonment by state and society, in the language of beggars.

No nation can ever survive that story.

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28 responses to “Merchants of Misery: The Vulgarity of Benevolence and Grievance”

  1. Rizwan says:

    I totally agree. I worry about what these people will get from this vulgar ‘khairat’ for the future.

  2. moniems says:

    Isn’t it high time we start thinking why our country is what it is?

    Going through all the comments above by so many learned and thinking Pakistanis leaves one in a rather worried state of mind.

    Looking at our journey so far after the birth of our nation, and where we stand today, it seems impossible to see which way we are headed; what our future is, and what kind of a country our children will live in. The future, to me at least, does not look very rosy. The most worrying part is how the world is starting to look at Pakistan as a nation.

    In my humble view, all such debates and discussions should lead us to some concrete action. Let us have some ideas for such action.

  3. Naeem Akhtar says:

    **”Don’t give a fish rather teach fishing”**

    I just wish someone comes up with a plan of empowering people, not giving them food but means to earn the food. I am not here to criticize politicians rather I would ask if anyone here has a plan to do something positive.

    @Dr. Adil, you have previously channelized individual efforts at ATP, can you please think on these lines.

    P.S. I have seen “Adopt a Family” program at CIIT already, but they are quite slow in organizing themselves so far, any such program can be planned at ATP

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