From the Editors
[See Part 1 here] For a literary editor, Chotiner is quite selective in his application of interpretative skills. When the Granta contributors touch on what we are already programmed to understand as the ills of Pakistani society—misogyny, for example, or religious fundamentalism—he is fully prepared to accept this as a transparent rendering of “the crueler, more vicious aspects of Pakistani society.” When the same writers represent the widespread discontent with the role played by U.S. foreign policy in fostering and maintaining this situation, however, this suddenly becomes their subjective “critique of American foreign policy.” He never actually dismisses this critique, but he wonders, as noted, whether the “resentment” is felt “rightly or wrongly.” Seizing on a piece by the Pakistani diasporic writer Kamila Shamsie, which examines a certain strand of victim mentality in a certain segment of Pakistani society, Chotiner piously asserts, in a voice of feigned innocent objectivity, “Many characters in these stories have chosen blame.”
It is this—precisely this—that marks Chotiner’s piece as a prime example of the new liberal imperialism, and that makes this larger discourse such a dangerous ideological force. Writers like Chotiner come at these issues wearing the mask of wounded American innocence, wondering why in the world these Pakistani writers “have chosen blame” instead of celebrating, like their happy Indian counterparts, the unequivocal gifts bestowed on the region by the West.
To maintain this faux-innocent tone requires a mighty dose of obtuseness. Chotiner is in no way lacking in this regard. However, in this case, it also involves at least two gaping absences. It’s time to call attention to them.
First, astonishingly, Chotiner makes no mention whatsoever of the floods that ravaged Pakistan this summer, leaving a fifth of the country flooded. The floods have been responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 people; more than one million homes have been destroyed and, according to U.N. estimates, more than 21 million people have been left homeless. The scale of suffering is almost inconceivable: the number of people affected by the floods is more than the combined total of those affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
To muse on the current state of Pakistan and not mention a tragedy on such a massive scale, one that is still unfolding, goes beyond obtuseness and enters the realm of active monstrosity. Unfortunately, Chotiner’s article is simply the latest example of the almost criminal neglect shown by the U.S. media in its coverage—that is, its lack of coverage—of the floods and their aftermath. Perhaps this is because a focus that might humanize Pakistanis is not in keeping with the relentless portrayal of the country as “the most dangerous place on earth,” a favorite phrase of the media. “The only framework the U.S. has for comprehending anything about Pakistan—be it culture, society, or politics—is the security framework,” as the historian Manan Ahmed has put it.
Perhaps, too, a focus on the floods would lead to an unwanted focus on the larger role of U.S. policy in the region. As Madiha Tahir has pointed out, the U.S. has agreed to approximately $200 million of flood aid relief to Pakistan. By comparison, it will spend close to $2 billion this year in military aid to Pakistan—over $150 million per month. Such attention might also call unwanted attention to the fact that the greatest “humanitarian aid” that could be offered to Pakistan is debt relief, since Pakistan’s foreign debt was already $54 billion before the floods hit (much of that amount was built up under the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf). “What Pakistan is going to need is not new loans but debt relief,” notes Saadia Toor, professor of sociology at CUNY and member of the group Action for a Progressive Pakistan. None of this figures in Chotiner’s version of Pakistan (though it is perfectly compatible with many of the contributions to the Granta issue that he is supposedly reviewing).
Most astonishing of all is Chotiner’s deliberate avoidance of the single most obvious answer to the cause of the “rage at America” that he finds so baffling: the fact that the U.S. has been dropping bombs on Pakistan for more than six years. Several Granta contributors mention the drone attacks; Chotiner thus convicts himself through his silence. According to a study by the New America Foundation, there have been 172 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 76 in 2010. Since 2004, between 1,153 and 1,772 people have been killed by these strikes; even according to the conservative estimate provided in this study, approximately 30 percent of those killed have been “non-combatants.” The attacks have not relented in the wake of the floods; in fact, U.S. drones killed thirteen people on August 14, Pakistan’s independence day.
Once we stare these facts in the face, Chotiner’s “innocent” questions about why the Pakistani voices he hears are not more “celebratory” in their response to the U.S. no longer look quite so obtuse. In this light, they begin to acquire a sheen of actual criminality.
The tone here is the same tone of liberal imperialism that has been applied by commentators in the U.S. time after time, whether they are regarding resistance to occupation in Iraq or Afghanistan or the curious question of why Palestinians are not embracing the “peace process” as the U.S. gives unconditional support to Israeli colonization. Willfully ignoring the bloody reality, they repeat variations on the old questions: Why are we not being greeted as liberators? Why is the “unequivocal” goodness of our intentions not being celebrated by our victims? Why are Pakistanis not throwing us metaphorical flowers and sweets in the pages of Granta?
Although it is not the worst of his misdeeds, the one that rankles most for me, as a writer and teacher, is that Chotiner exploits the milieu of literature for the purposes of liberal imperialist ideology. Indeed, he finishes his article with an claim that has often been put forth as one of the fundamental ethical virtues of literature: “If cross-cultural interaction can play a part in minimizing animosities and encouraging amity, this collection is a good place to start.”
Indeed. If readers wish to engage in cross-cultural interaction, as a first step towards encouraging peace and justice (I would substitute these for Chotiner’s rather aenemic “amity”), they should certainly read literature from Pakistan, beginning with the current issue of Granta. But if those of us living in the U.S. are truly interested in making an ethical connection with people living in Pakistan, the more urgent initial task is to get our government to stop dropping bombs on them.
Anthony Alessandrini is an assistant professor of English at Kingsborough Community College-City University of New York in Brooklyn.
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