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Thursday, July 4, 2024

Op-ed: Fake news, economic disappointment drive people towards ‘saviors’

Political tempests and resultant disorder have historically ended with emergence of fascist leadership, writes Asim Imdad

“The thing that strikes me more and more…is the extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty of political controversy in our time…I mean that almost nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that objective truth matters so long as you can score a neat debating point…Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a ‘case’. With complete disregard for fairness or accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don’t want to see them…It is more immediately satisfying to shout that [an opponent] is a fool or a scoundrel, or both…”: George Orwell, 1944.

And Orwell reached this conclusion much before the advent of social media, a tool recently invented by humans that undeniably has aggravated the “extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty of political controversies”. Whether in international affairs, i.e., blaming foreigners for domestic economic mess and disappointments, or in domestic rows, i.e., attributing those whose skin is of a different color for social decay, or closer home in blaming “mafia” for accumulated mal-governance of decades, we find that political opponent is nowadays always called “a fool or a scoundrel, or both”, or even worse.

Read more: ‘Best of times, worst of times’: PTI government completes two-year economic recovery

What we are witnessing during election season across the Atlantic is uber-Orwellian. Political opponents are tearing each other apart in front of the entire globe, making a fool of themselves, and harming their own political system, that was carefully devised centuries ago by more wise heads. There is no chance during this tempest that “objective truth” will emerge as most actors are “putting forward a ‘case’…with complete disregard for fairness or accuracy”.

There can be two explanations for such political vortexes. One possibility is that social media has exacerbated existing political divisions, and even leaders are unconsciously caught up in this whirlwind. Supporters of this explanation consider that political storm is merely a case of wrong new tools being managed by less than competent people. Even those who want to give benefit of doubt to this viewpoint, fairly do wonder whether political titans inside the arena are even fully cognizant of their historical legacy.

We go the full hog and label those who do not agree with us, or dare criticize our national “noble falsehoods”, as fifth columnist, agents of foreign powers, or wagers of some new form of warfare

After all, it was in United States, that governance system of “we the people” was crafted for the first time, and death knell of other antiquated systems of selecting rulers was rung, which gave hope to many generations that democracy “shall not perish from the earth” (Lincoln)! Do the political actors understand the risk embedded in their behavior and conduct, as it may take the country towards some undesirable end, e.g., a disruption of democratic and smooth transfer of power, or even worse thereafter.

Our new tools have so transformed us, and not always for the better. Joseph de Maistre, the 19th century sage of Savoy, said, “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.” [Every nation gets the government it deserves.] So may be our political leaders are indeed a reflection of what we ourselves have become due to our newly acquired addictions!

Second, and some will assert more plausible, explanation for such political tempest of “viciousness and dishonesty” could be that it is deliberate and devised. Under this explanation political chaos is deliberately designed by owners of the country, i.e., economic and financial elite, as a diversionary tactic so that people remain hooked up to the seasons and episodes of this soap-opera or reality-show and do not focus on substantial issues of equity and justice: this is shock-and-awe, through other means!

Read more: ‘Pakistanis are becoming poorer under PTI’: An interview with former finance minister Miftah Ismail

One part of modern politician’s job description, as a true representative of the elite due to election-campaign funding, is to craft and implement policies that generate more gains and profit for the elite. Evidently, such policies, by allowing concentration of wealth in the hands of the minuscule few, generate domestic wealth and earning inequalities.

The other part of politician’s job description is to divert blame for such obnoxious domestic inequities onto “the Others”: domestically on those who have skin darker than the elite, and internationally on China (current bogeyman). This is done through spreading fear that future is going to be worse than the present and the past: it is all downhill in the future! This blame game, this fear mongering, and the political antics, keep attention and focus away from required policy-reforms that would create a more equitable economy and more harmonious society.

The real managers of our land, the mini-Prussians of Bakerstown, have directed and produced our own local version of political soap-opera or reality-show, commonly known as the “One-pager Play”, which is more of a smoke-and-mirrors show

Seen thus, the current tempest of political “viciousness and dishonesty” actually provides perfect diversion, while the elite quietly enact, strengthen, and implement self-serving wealth-concentration policies. Hence, the noise on political stage: a typical diversionary tactic so that the elite “keep calm and carry on” adding billions to their worth, while the vast majority of credulous people remain busy watching the storm-show on political stage, forgetting during the endless seasons and episodes their own life realities.

The more somber issue that needs reflection, especially by the current political opponents, is that the experiment of “we the people”, though easily corruptible and usually malfunctioning, is too precious a historical legacy to be so endangered by such vicious tempests.

The alternative to “we the people”, if it eventually becomes new fate, will be a historic reversal where “the people” will again be governed either by some medieval system under which ruler will again falsely claim to be “shadow” of some form, or even worse be governed by an less than average human mendaciously claiming to be descendant of sun or wolf or some other life form, that was born in mountains and sent down to rule the lands, or be governed by some ideologue who will be maliciously dictating what is black and what is white. None of these outcomes will be good either for United States or any other system of governance: “we the people” is worth protecting at all costs.

Read more: The Man Behind Imran Khan!

For the directors of this political storm-show (the owners of the country) a real nightmare would be, if the producers and actors of this show refuse to produce the show, and instead deliver this speech by Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s Tempest (the storm-show by the Bard):

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

For this speech to be delivered, much water has to flow under the bridges, and many moons have to wax and wane, before we get to that outcome. For now, it seems the storm-show seasons and episodes will go on.

In our unique political discourse, we have coined a perfect epithet for such “shifting phantasmagoric world”: it is called “U-Turn”

We, in the land of the pious and the pure, have learned fast from best sources. The real managers of our land, the mini-Prussians of Bakerstown, have directed and produced our own local version of political soap-opera or reality-show, commonly known as the “One-pager Play”, which is more of a smoke-and-mirrors show. Being adept at copying learnings from other sources, we have also gone ahead and tweaked the original play. We have actually gone two steps further in our domestic squabbles than what Orwell apprehended, or what others practice.

First, in our case, we are not “immediately satisfy[ied]” with such innocuous epithets of “a fool or a scoundrel, or both”. We go the full hog and label those who do not agree with us, or dare criticize our national “noble falsehoods”, as fifth columnist, agents of foreign powers, or wagers of some new form of warfare. It is current fashion to paint each iota of self-criticism as some deviant and malicious form of warfare. Any criticism is immediately called out and labelled as conflict, aimed always at weakening the sacred, though mythical, internal and domestic unity of command.

It may be useful that we remind ourselves of warning by philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr: “Since there can be no ethical action without self-criticism, and no self-criticism without rational capacity of self-transcendence, it is natural that national attitudes can hardly approximate the ethical…For self-criticism is a kind of inner disunity, which the feeble mind of nation finds difficulty in distinguishing from dangerous forms of inner conflicts. So nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals…” [Moral Man and Immoral Society].

Read more: Imran Khan and U-Turn Policy: Why or Why Not?

Secondly, in the land of the pious and the pure, we experience a unique situation. Undoubtedly political opponents in many other countries have become more dogged and vicious (due to recent tools or due to requirements of their job description). But unlike our actors, they remain steadfast to their core. Our local political “dogmatism” and self-righteousness is ephemeral and based on “shifting phantasmagoric world”, that George Orwell always dreaded.

The frequency and speed with which our political elite change positions, parties and allies, is sui generis. For any serious politician, in most other systems, such frequency and speed of “shifting phantasmagoric world” would indeed be political suicide. But our local actors, with souls of acrobats, have never a qualm in performing their chimerical roles on stage.

In our unique political discourse, we have coined a perfect epithet for such “shifting phantasmagoric world”: it is called “U-Turn”. And the mind-boggling U-Turns that we see happen each day makes one wonders whether there is, after all, any core, apart from the nation’s most-revered doctrine of necessity? Former political opponents can be today’s or even tomorrow’s allies: U-Turn. Former parties are abandoned and new parties joined, with a straight-face and with no explanation: U-Turn. Former positions on people or policy are abandoned and new views on these matters espoused with complete hypocrisy and loud-mouthed self-righteousness: U-Turn. Today’s truth can easily become tomorrow’s lie “because political landscape has changed” (Orwell).

People who have been out of work or on the verge of bankruptcy for ten years may be actually relieved to hear of the approaching end of civilization

Centuries ago, Shakespeare thus moaned how convenience (commodity) becomes the “purpose-changer” and “break-vow” of “kings and warned that gain (profit) becomes the lord of “king”:

“With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker, that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids, —

Who, having no external thing to lose

But the word ‘maid,’ cheats the poor maid of that,

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity, —

Commodity, the bias of the world;

The world, who of itself is [poised] well,

Made to run even upon even ground,

Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,

This sway of motion, this Commodity,

Makes it take head from all indifferency,

From all direction, purpose, course, intent…

Since kings break faith upon commodity,

Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.”

Seeing this convenience-commodity and doctrine of necessity driven politics of U-Turn unfold daily in the land of the pious and the pure, one is reminded of the famous speech in Orwell’s Animal Farm. “Napoleon’s speech was short and to the point…For a long time, there had been rumors circulated, – he had reason to think, by some malignant enemy – that there was something subversive and even revolutionary in the outlook of himself and his colleagues…Nothing could be further from the truth! Their sole wish, now and in the past, was to live at peace and in normal business relations with their neighbors.

This farm which he had the honor to control, he added, was a cooperative enterprise…but certain changes had been made recently…which should have the effect of promoting confidence…Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike…The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”.

Read more: Imran Khan & his ‘Team of Rivals’

With the advent of social media, this political “viciousness and dishonesty” is going to be here with us. As people spend more time on social media and as these tools gets more embedded in our lives, these political divisions are going to be further hardened: tools will continue to dominate humans and their relations with other humans! U-Turns, that Orwell predicted in last century, where today’s truth becomes tomorrow’s lie, or the other way around, mean that this circus, generated by information bubbles, and perpetuated by elite necessity, will continue to mar any effort to have serious pursuit of objective truth.

As more fear is instilled, people will get more scared and, in the end, become tired, and may be even welcome “father-figure”, like Hitler or Stalin, who will continue to claim that “I am the only option” or “I am the best chowkidar”, for waging “war on terror” or “war against China” or “war against mafia”. Orwell already visualized that the lethal combination of fake news and economic disappointment may in the end drive people into arms of so-called “Savior”: “…the people most likely to be affected [by fake news, for example, of the end of the world] were the poor, the ill-educated and, above all, people who were economically insecure or had unhappy private lives.

The evident connection between personal unhappiness and readiness to believe the incredible is its most interesting discovery…People who have been out of work or on the verge of bankruptcy for ten years may be actually relieved to hear of the approaching end of civilization. It is a similar frame of mind that has induced whole nations to fling themselves into the arms of a Savior.”

Read more: Pakistan’s Age of Accountability: Will it sustain itself?

What Orwell feared, sans social media, is already happening and is a reality for us. If this political tempest takes a wrong turn, either far away or closer to home, it may set the stage for “end of the world” mentality, which may engulf the owners and directors themselves. Such political tempests and resultant disorder have historically ended with emergence of a leader who will, once again, make that ancient claim: My mouth shall be the Parliament of this land!

Asim Imdad Ali is currently a partner in an Islamabad-based law firm. He earlier served in Central Superior Services, at positions of increasing responsibility, in its prestigious DMG group (1992-2006), and later served as Head of legal and regulatory affairs in a major multinational company. He is LLB (gold) from Punjab University, LLM from Kings College London, and did Masters in Public Administration at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University where he was an Edward S Mason Fellow. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.