Asif Zardari is the national punching bag, and he’s helping
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Asif Zardari is the national punching bag, and he’s helping

You know those times when you’re so pissed off that you just want to wring someone’s neck? We all have them, don’t we? Let me give you a real-world example:

For the last week, my iPod Nano has been slowly disappearing in front of my eyes. I don’t mean literally disappearing. I mean functionally disappearing. First, the screen went almost-all-white, so that I could barely make out what button I was clicking on. I had to point it away from the sun and change the angle of it this way and that, and eventually I could just about decipher where I was in the menu of choices. Then suddenly it went to the other extreme, an all-black screen. There was no way of getting out of that one, so I had no option but to be on “Shuffle songs” the whole time because that’s the only option that I know by rote. And then today, while I was running on the treadmill, it just stopped. Fully charged, mind. Again, just stopped. And this is about six months old, and a fairly expensive gadget for a poor graduate student. I was majorly pissed.

Now, whose fault is this? Well, Apple’s for a start, but there was no Apple rep around at the U of C gym, so I couldn’t yell at any of them (no, that is scheduled for tomorrrow at 10am Central time, when an Apple agent is supposed to call me). So what happens when there’s no one to blame? You make something up. In my case, very conveniently as I was leaving the gym, the W called. She wanted me to get frozen yogurt for her on my way home. Of course, in the mood I was in, I refused, even though I had absolutely no rational reason to do so (I get frozen yogurt for her two to three times a week on my way home from school). The frozen yogurt place is ON THE WAY home. I don’t even have to make a detour. I mumbled something about being tired and hungry, and said “not today, can’t you get it yourself?”. I think the W was more bemused than anything, and that was that.

Now…

Was this a douchey thing to do? Yes, absolutely. Did I apologize later? Yes again. But it was a very human moment, and I defy each of you to say that you haven’t done something similar in the last week or month. I’ve seen adults get angry at each other because their kid has done something stupid and they can’t very well yell at the kid. I’ve seen drivers say and do the most vile and ridiculous things to each on the road just because there’s a traffic jam, which by definition is no one person’s fault (and not just in Pakistan, mind). I’ve seen roommates blame each other for a leak in the flush, which again, can’t be rationally ascribed to a single person.

What is my point? My point is that, for whatever psychological/cognitive reason, human beings like having someone to blame or get angry at during times when we can’t legitimately be angry at someone. So when life becomes crappy, we invent things to be angry about with a particular person or group of people, and this makes us feel better, and if you are a halfway decent person, you recognize this relatively soon and apologize.

This brings me to Asif Zardari.

In the last week, I have read and heard so much bullshit against Asif Zardari that I am honestly considering signing up to be one of those PPP jiyalas that ransack art galleries just to spite the idiots spouting all this hatred. Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week knows exactly how I feel about the man. But there are limits to hate, and honestly, those limits have been crossed in the “What was Zardari doing in Europe when the country was drowning?” hysteria that has overtaken our media, our society, and most sacred of all, our Facebook walls. I really cannot put it better than the folks at Cafe Pyala, where this brilliant post was written. You really should read the entire thing, but here’s the relevant bit for me:

What exactly would Zardari have done in Pakistan? This is a man who does not even venture outside his presidential palace, unless it’s to his bunkered home in Nawabshah, and who has never even once visited the frontline of the battle against the Taliban in two years, and we expect him to be directing flood relief efforts? And more importantly, didn’t he just hand over all executive power under the 18th Amendment, making him just a figure-head president? Isn’t PM Yousuf Raza Gilani at least correct in his rhetoric that he is the chief executive of the country and it is he who is responsible for directing relief efforts? Him and the provincial chief ministers who seem to have got away pretty unscathed so far. Yes, Zardari failed miserably on the optics and in basic decency, but does anyone seriously believe that the floods’ devastation and the ineffectual state response would have been ameliorated by Zardari being in Pakistan? I don’t think so. But that is the constant refrain we now hear as if it is the gospel truth, particularly on Geo.

So Zardari was an insensitive ass. But is that such breaking news that the media focus shifts entirely to undermining him? Were he not the president, would the suffering of the affectees of the biggest floods in Pakistan’s history be any less? Would the administration become super-efficient? Isn’t the issue of the inherent lack of capacity of the Pakistani state to deal with such crises a bigger issue than Zardari and his jaunts? Criticise him by all means but is a man chucking a couple of shoes in his direction really a bigger story than the tens of millions displaced from their homes? Or have we become so blinded by our rage and the cult of personality that we are willing to jettison all sense of proportion?

Like the Pyalas say, Zardari deserves criticism. But this much? Are you kidding me?

I would submit that Zardari is fulfilling an important role: the national punching bag. The entire nation is going through a slow, torturous period of catharsis, and hating Zardari is really helping that catharsis. So, in a weird way, his trip to Europe fulfilled important national objectives: it gave a population of 180 million someone to whine and bitch against. Can you imagine if he didn’t go? Who on earth would we direct our anger and despair on the floods against? God? (Shhhh, this is an Islamic Republic).

In all seriousness, all this has convinced me, as if I needed convincing, that the Pakistani public and media at large has no patience for real, actual democracy. They like how it sounds in text books and op-ed pieces written on Chowk, and they respond positively to it when asked by pollsters, but when push comes to shove, they can’t bear it. Memo to the public: sometimes democracy throws up leaders you don’t like. Tough shit. You know what you do then? You wait. You wait until the next elections, and then you vote the party or figure out. This is not a complicated enterprise. When you harken for immediate solutions and strong-man responses, all you’re really harkening for is military rule.

Democracy is a slow moving beast. Things don’t always work. But asking for the removal of a constitutionally and legally elected President — let me repeat, a constitutionally and legally elected President — is asinine, especially when said President has no real powers. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve read recently, both in “serious” publications as well as in email chains and status updates and so on. People have actually called on him to be assassinated. Have we lost our minds? Are we nuts? It appears so.

All this said, you have to say, Zardari really doesn’t help himself. According to Mosharraf Zaidi’s latest piece, “The president’s inner circle, to a man and woman, was against this visit.” If that is true — and I trust Mosharraf enough to conclude that it is — then it’s even more shocking. I’m often asked by people here in Chicago who don’t really know Pakistan about the difference between Zardari and Benazir. I tell those people that they’re basically the same person, except one of them was actually skillful and adroit. I’d bet my life that BB would never have pulled something like this. No way in hell. She was too smart. She’d know (and care about) how it looks. Zardari doesn’t, and that’s on him. The rest? That’s on us.