Dawn News

The American learning curve

On June 1, I took part in a TEDx event hosted by the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. The TED people bill what they do as “ideas worth spreading,” and during the weeks I spent preparing my talk I pondered what ideas I wanted to spread to an American audience. I titled my talk “What Does Pakistan Have to Do with Haiti? (The full text is on my website, and I’m told the video will be online soon), but in an important sense it’s really about the United States. A friend rightly suggested that my talk was a kind of summa of many things that have been on my mind for several years.

I used the occasion to try to make some sense of the weird coincidence that the two countries I care about most deeply and personally, other than my own, both were devastated in 2010 by horrific natural disasters. I did find a number of things they have in common, believe it or not, but the most salient is that Pakistanis and Haitians both see the United States from the outside. And what they see is often ugly and cruel, because they live on the receiving end of the American power that we Americans usually don’t experience, because we’re the ones wielding it. This is a point that’s very clearly apparent to many people worldwide, but not always easy to get across to Americans.

One way I tried to do it in Princeton was by arguing that both countries are prime examples of what the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, in an excellent TED talk in 2009, called “the danger of a single story.” We Americans tell ourselves a single story about Haiti, and a different single story about Pakistan. Dr. Paul Farmer, a celebrated physician who works in the poorest areas of rural Haiti, wrote a book titled The Uses of Haiti. We use Haiti rhetorically and ideologically and, every time there’s a new fitful spasm of American interest in Haiti, our uses for it rear their heads anew. It’s never an edifying thing to see, and it’s maddening to those of us who know Haiti.

America has different uses for Pakistan, and those are not unlike the uses we used to have for the Soviet Union. If Haiti meets Americans’ need to have someone to pity, Pakistan fulfills our need to have someone or something to fear. Fear, pity, and contempt are easy, self-indulgent emotions. But much more demanding, I said, is to cultivate and practice respect. Respect implies distance and difference, and to practice it entails acknowledging that difference is inevitable and even desirable.

Another thing Haitians and Pakistanis have in common is their experience as immigrants and visitors to America. I tried to bring this home by telling the audience about novelist Edwidge Danticat’s 81-year-old uncle, who fled violence in his neighborhood in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in 2004 and made the mistake of asking for political asylum at the airport in Miami. US Immigration officials threw him into the infamous Krome Detention Center and denied him his diabetes medication, and he died in detention. Danticat tells the story eloquently in her wonderful nonfiction book Brother, I’m Dying, which is above all a beautifully composed story about family love, immigrant struggle and aspiration, and the tortured and all too intimate relationship between Haiti and the United States, told by a Haitian who is also an American. I often find myself telling Pakistanis the story of Edwidge Danticat’s uncle, and I know that many Pakistanis would recognize its elements.

The idea I tried to leave the American audience with was that, as I put it, our lazy and self-comforting reductionism says nothing about Haiti or Pakistan, and all too much about us Americans – that the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan were natural disasters, to be sure, but didn’t happen in a geopolitical vacuum. I gave them a lot to think about, possibly too much. What I want, by the same token, to offer Pakistani readers is an occasion to reflect on just how big and delicate is the task of influencing American awareness and opinion. The novelist Upton Sinclair famously quipped that it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. There’s a national analogue that applies to Americans: we are no less innately patriotic than Pakistanis or anyone else, and no one wants to think ill of his or her own country.

So the job of educating and influencing the American public is a long uphill battle, and changing US foreign policy is like turning around an aircraft carrier: it has to be done carefully and very patiently.

Perhaps it can be helped along by American friends of Pakistan like myself and, even more, by leaders and members of the Pakistani-American community (about whom I hope to write next week). In the meantime I urge Pakistanis to remember the humanity of ordinary Americans, who have been on a steep learning curve since at least September 11, 2001.

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans and www.ethancasey.com 



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (46) Closed

Jun 14, 2011 12:44pm
If the americans want Pakistanis to remember the humanity of ordinary americans, they must not forget that Pakistan has suffered much more than the americans after September 11, 2001. The devastation they (the americans) have created and caused has made our (Pakistanis) every day a 9 11, and we have lost much more than they have. They just lost around 3000 on that day, we have lost more than 38000 in the last two three years due to their war which was brought to our region by them.
Jun 14, 2011 12:58pm
Love your article and can not wait to read about Pakistani American Community
Palvasha von Hassell
Jun 14, 2011 01:37pm
Pakistanis are too self-critical, and need to assert themselves and Americans need to become more so (self-critical, that is)...but why should they indeed? It's uncomftable to doubt oneself! I have seen how perfectly likeable, intelligent Americans have become insufferably self-righteous post 9/11, terrified by the prospect of being accused of being unpatriotic. Shame on them!
Tahir M. Raja
Jun 14, 2011 02:05pm
Salam/Hello Mr. Ethan, I am still in the process of thinking in details about your article. However, thought of atleast appreciating the realistic manner in which you have instigated the process of each side needs to rethink some integral aspects of the relationship. I studied in States 1977-1983 (Iranian Revolution time period) prior to 9/11 so I in a way am aware of the "humanity of Ordinary Americans" . Although as you wrote they 'have been in a steep learning curve" ,however, the system / tools within which they have to think may take even more time to change thn as u wrote "like turning around an aircraft carrier". On the other hand the ordinary Pakistani doe s not have the time to think about such matters and if they do it is as they are told by the so called educated class( which includes the a english medium policy makers,politicans, new born media, non educated religious teachers etc.)
john kilcher
Jun 14, 2011 02:08pm
I couldn't agree with you more, Aamer. Since 9/11, as an American, I have come toss my country as I beleive it truly is. I am not a supporter of the military complex and it's enormous power over oue feeble legislative branch. I fear for the world peoples more so than americans who could care less about the current wars being perpetrated my america. I hear over and over that what we are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan,Pakistan not to mention clendestine operations elsewhere, is for "what they did to us" on 9/11. Absurd, ignorant and from my point of view a patriotic venture that every american shoud endorse. Not me or the "silenced folks" like myself.
Jun 14, 2011 03:40pm
While I agree on the figures given by you, just to blame Americans alone is not proper. As a matter of fact each country should introspect and see where they can improve. For a short term gain, Americans used the tool of Jihad, but Pakistan agreed to the same for its own so called "Stretegic interests". If we look these as lessons of history, it teaches us that what one feels a right thing at a particular point in time, may prove to be a problem for future. I would recommend you to read "Fifth Discipline" by Peter Senge, where he has shown such archetypes, and how the seeds of future problems lie in the action being taken now. Hence means are eqully or more important than the ends.
Policy Analyst
Jun 14, 2011 04:39pm
Ethan: I am not at all convinced that it is worth the effort trying to make America understand or learn. I think the only way America will understand - and learn to respect Pakistan - is we work on Pakistan and become strong and powerful. There is no point begging for understanding, you simply have to earn it. There is no other way. True, this comes with consequences i.e. when you're just a number - a collateral damage - for the biggest elephant in the room there is a possibility you'll get trampled a few times here or there but thats happening anyway even with America being our "ally".
Jun 14, 2011 04:57pm
To change a perception, "strong" alternate sources of information are vital.
Jun 14, 2011 05:24pm
I was at an air show once when a USAF bomber aircraft flew overhead. An excited voice over the speakers went: "Ladies and Gentlemen, now here is a sight you rarely get to see!" to which my friend quietly remarked with a chuckle 'Well, brown people across the globe get to see it quite often and it's the last thing they see flying towards them". As the article says, it's a matter of perspective.
Jun 14, 2011 07:19pm
While Mr. Casey has tried to say there more to individual cultures than meets the eye (or the media), that is true for almost anything in life. But a deeper study of contemporary Pakistan is (IMHO) reveals nothing different than a cursory glance - intolerance, self-righteousness, bigotry. Americans have been through these phases and can see its manifestations elsewhere - and don't care much for it anymore.
Jun 14, 2011 07:23pm
Aamer, Whats happening in Pak is not due to war in Afghanistan, it got exuberated sure but Pakistan is simply reaping the toils of labor it invested in non-state actors in India an Afghanistan. Pak thought that it would be able to control these actors but remained woefully unaware that this religion based war mutated the Pakistani socio religious structure as well. Now Pak is left facing the very monster it created. Like they say, What goes around, comes around!
Jun 14, 2011 07:27pm
was 9/11 a work of the Pakistani nation? Besides, there is enough drama and contradiction surrounding it that it cannot even be justified to make a military action anywhere in the world....The author talks about the double-standards of the US by overlooking India's clandestine operations in Afghanistan to support insurgencies in Pakistani provinces of Balochistan and Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa....Clear cut evidence of Indian support to these groups have been found....Secondly, India's unjustified and barbaric occupation of Kashmir (against the UN resolution) and the brutal killing of Kashmiris on a daily basis is the prime reason of militancy in Pakistan...not to mention, the violation of the Indus water treaty and India's attempt to suck Pakistan dry of water....why is US supporting India after all this?? To subdue China and Pakistan and establish US hegemony in the region??
Jun 14, 2011 07:40pm
Mr. Casey, You and other people believe that we need to influence the american people more about pakistan. The fact is, in current form, you can not sell pakistan to even a blind man. Pakistan has to be reformed and reinvented before it can be sold to the world.
Jun 14, 2011 02:43pm
When it comes to the "humanity of ordinary Americans", the concept is unbeatable. Yes, we should link the humanity of Americans with the humanity of ordinary Pakistanis. It was only few years ago when American or any Europeans tourist, sitting on a bus in anywhere the former NWFP, was never charged fare considering them "mehman" i.e tourists. There is nothing wrong with the American people whose genorosity has no bounds. It is the problem with the foreign policy makers of both countries, the one who demands to "do more" and the other "give us more". Let us confine to the facts that the most incompetent government is ruling Pakistan with the active blessing, support and intrigues of American an England. The whole apparatus of Pakistan needs to be changed.
Naushad Shafkat
Jun 14, 2011 07:58pm
Amit, I will only answer for Pakistan. The US cares for Pakistan because it is in the interest of the US to do so. America is a super power who will not allow another country to become too powerful to challenge it. There is therefore a purpose behind the American support for Pakistan. Pakistan needs US backing for several reasons, all of them based obviously on self interest. For example we have a neighbour who has devoured many smaller states (Goa, Junagadh, Manavada, Kashmir etc.) and has pretensions/aspirations of becoming a global power. It follows the maxim that might is right. Unfortunately we live in the same region. So we have to gang up with someone who can at least in the short run exercise a soothing influence. And how dear Amit do you connect Pakistan with 9/11? It was Afghanistan if I can remind you.
Jun 14, 2011 08:04pm
Good to see your positive approach to build a much needed loving relationship between nations. Just to give you more insight about people of Pakistan is they dont hate Americans but the foreign policy of America. And same goes for Pakistan's foreign policy. I respect your opinion that how the other side of the story can be told. But its only possible when Media is not biased and doesnt speak the language of spy agencies otherwise facts speak itself. But I am afraid its very difficult as long as Leon Panetta is around.
Jun 14, 2011 08:10pm
Ethan, I found your article really interesting. As far as the “Us and Them” ideology is concerned unfortunately there is nothing one can do about that. The US being the superpower it is will always look upon weaker countries as a resource and categorize them with different labels as pointed out in your article. Its up to the weaker nations on how it positions itself in the international community so that it counters those labels being assigned to them and that’s where the country’s sound foreign policy, domestic policy , strong economy and patriotism comes in. How we perceive ourselves reflects strongly on how others perceive us. If we separate the politics from the equation, I believe the majority of Americans are very reasonable people to deal with and they are always willing to understand the others perspective. Pakistanis have to make a tough choice on how they want to progress with the rest of the world. They have to sort the mess out at home first by removing the corrupt politicians, dealing with religious fundamentalism investing in education, health care and institutions, strengthen the economy and so on. Only then “others” will start to perceive us in a different light. On the other hand, the US government and its allies should start viewing Pakistan as a developing country rather than an “unstable Muslim country with nuclear weapons”.
Vijay Kumar
Jun 14, 2011 08:12pm
It is so simple to blame another country for self inflicted wounds. Why not blame corruption, extremely poor governance, irrational support of extremists in the case of Pakistan for it's problems. Most countries have achieved success thru their own efforts and not blaming others or having a perpetual begging bowl in hand.
Azhar hussain
Jun 14, 2011 08:32pm
Amit, Thanks for bringing in your two Indian paisa into the discussion. 26/11 really, ask our Kashmiri brothers/sisters, their 26/11 every single day; Sikhs had their 26/11 in the 80's and so did the Indian Muslims in Gujrat and Mumbai. I don't need to go and I am sure you got my message. Now lets get back to the actual article, and see we Pakistanis American can teach our American brothers to what is going on. I tell my my American friends, when I am in Pakistan 'I am America's Ambassador to Pakistan, and when I am in America (where I live) "I am Pakistan's Ambassador to America".
Jun 14, 2011 08:46pm
The ignorant americans are to blame for all the world problems while the rest of the world are their intellectual superior…how do you enlighten such an ignorant populance
Jun 14, 2011 08:57pm
An extreme islamist ideology has taken root in Pakistan. It is this ideology, which is responsible for the terror attacks of 9/11, for the post-combat insurgency and civilian attacks in Afhganistan, for the post-combat insurgency and civilian attacks in Iraq, for the daily suicide attacks in Pakistan, and for thousands of other barbaric attacks over the past several years, which must be confronted and defeated. If there is a nation on earth where the perceptions of the population need to be steered in a new direction, it is Pakistan.
Jun 14, 2011 10:00pm
Thank you Amit for your comments. I have to ask you that is it very important for an Indian or indian American to hate and humiliate Pakistan or Pakistani anywhere,anytime, and at any front. We Pakistani are enough to destroy and humiliate ourselves. Pakistan is always thankful to India for being civilized and just to its neighbors e.g in implementing the UN resolution to solve the Kashmir issue, creating chaos in Baluchistan, helping East pakistan to become Bugladesh, capturing Hyderabad Decan, by blocking our rivers, being so nice to your own Indian Muslims in Gujrat et., and slums of Mumbai, and .......By the way I need your help in naming any Pakistani involved in 9/11, and other famous dated events mentioned by you.
Jun 14, 2011 11:37pm
I really fail to understand the logic of linking and comparing Haiti with Pakistan. Haiti is a poor country with hardly any resources. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a begging bowl. Why do people in USA have to understand the problems these countries face. Countries like Pakistan are never happy with whatever aid USA gives them. Every country in the world has natural disasters, even USA has them. Why does Pakistan demand aid as their god given right whenever any disaster strikes them. After getting aid, still pakistanis have very low idea for USA. As somebody said before, pakistan demands aid by putting a gun to their own head.
Jun 15, 2011 12:05am
Mr. Casey's bold and fresh approach on the subject is commendable. Breaking down media sponsored bigoted mindset is a worthy and noble cause. Pakistan never was and will never be a threat to the US. If anything, Pakistanis want a state where a hard working, fairly honest and knowledgeable individual can have his share of the cake in the government and policy making. Our core values and shared beliefs are not much different and neither our aspirations. US needs to sponsor more authentic native sons of the soil. The elections every five years should be considered sham owing to massive irregularities. That would certainly boost America's image amongst the common folk and help elect true people's representatives.
Jun 15, 2011 12:41am
Yes Amit, there are over 200 countries in the world but America is not involved and inextricably linked to the affairs of all of these countries. American public has a duty to be aware of and be knowledgeable about the key elements of American foreign policy. Pakistan and America have a multifaceted albeit complex relationship and it will serve American people well to know more of the country and its people. These little things could contribute positively to more constructive engagement with Pakistan.
Jun 15, 2011 01:00am
The root cause of all this misery is lack of accountability by the ruling class of pakistan. before USA all was wrong in Pakistan due to India and India agents. Now all is wrong due to USA and CIA and after a few years it will be China and Chinese agents. When will Pakistan start thinking for itself?
Coexist - AZ
Jun 15, 2011 02:08am
Ethan rightly referred "Fear, pity, and contempt are easy, self-indulgent emotions". Your inference implies that contempt is yours. These uneasy times call for many more like Ethan Casey to help build bridges through mutual understanding and respect rather than fear and contempt mongering towards any nation (or religion for that matter). Pakistan is at the forefront today for reasons of its own doing and maybe some not. Ethan chooses his cause wisely. For the sake of a brighter and safer world, support him and others like him – or at the very least refrain from the same negativity that fuels those indulgences and sets us all back
Jun 15, 2011 02:15am
I am not really sure what Ethan is trying to convey! America has given so much aid to help both Pakistan and Haiti cope with the natural disasters (all other countries togethere have not given so much aid). This is in addition to the aid that continues to flow to these countries to finance 'american interests' (what ever they may be). Inspite of receiving so much aid, the public perception of American in both countries is negative. It is impossible to rationalize this reaction to unsolicited aid. Perhaps Ethan will serve humanity better if he tries to understand the behaviour of Pakistanis and Haitians!
Jun 15, 2011 03:53am
Mr. Amit, Wish you had your facts right before jumping on the keyboard. This article is about Pakistan and America. Not the uncivilized world that you belong to. 9/11 -> there was no Pakistanis involved, all Arabs. 26/11 again an indian guy speaking hindi pretending to be a Pakistani. 7/7 was done by British people. Now coming to the 'civilized world' that you belong to: What are you doing with Kashmiris? What is your 'civilized world' world doing to the minorities Muslims in Gujrat? What did you do to the Sikhs in 1984 ... and the list continues.
Jun 15, 2011 03:58am
I think there may be a few self-critical Pakistanis but the vast majority are not. In Pakistan, to question the military or ISI is unacceptable. How can Pakistan flourish without freedom from oppression?
Agha Asad Raza
Jun 15, 2011 06:16am
In my opinion, America is the only country that has killed more people after WWII than all the other nations in the world. It has the biggest arms industry, its leaders and people lie all the time. It destroyed a whole country (Iraq) based on lies. There is nothing that these people offer the world other than death and destruction.
Jun 15, 2011 06:43am
@Amit-Atlanta - Lets not get carried away with Pakistan wrecking the 'civilized' world that caused two World Wars, a nuclear arms race, death and destruction in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Extremist retaliation is a result of some of these invasions but will not last as this ideology is not sustainable.
Jun 15, 2011 07:06am
Amit, my friend, this attitude of yours is precisely what this article is about.
Muhammad Hanif
Jun 15, 2011 07:32am
Amit, it looks like even if you are in USA but still you have not left the habit's Indian typically have towards Pakistan. Now think as realistic if you are talking about some countries such as Gr8 China or Gr8 Pakistan, you will talk about them only WHY should one bother to talk about India? Although Pakistan is suffering currently due to two issues Nr 1. "Kashmir" which has ignated all this extrimisum and Nr 2. Afganistan, where Pakistan should not have helped USA against Rusia in first place. Cheers as now I have talked 5 countries out of 200+
Muhammad Hanif
Jun 15, 2011 07:39am
Only one thing is required, make Pakistani economy strong. 1) Have proper system for tax collection 2) eradicate corruption 3) Spend more on education (Specially technical one, where school and colleges are factories of skilled people) 4) Get rid of corrupted politicians That's it, Pakistan will be economically strong, all the symptoms of extremisum will automatically gone once the issue of Palestine and Kashmir will be resolved !
Jun 15, 2011 08:02am
"America has different uses for Pakistan, and those are not unlike the uses we used to have for the Soviet Union....Pakistan fulfills our need to have someone or something to fear." Well said. The nationalist in the US need enemies and after the demise of the Soviet Union there was a vacuum in the political space. The Clinton years were without an enemy but that was also the time when the ultra nationalists in the US were enamored by the Monica Lewinsky affair. That was not to last long. Then 9/11 happened and the US found an enemy to fear. The fear of terrorism in the American mind has served the US establishment well. Now that OBL too has gone, a fragile supposedly nuclear power would be a great fit for the next enemy the American would be made to fear about. This is not one sided. Check out what the Pakistani establishment does despite remaining a US ally for the last 10 years, the Pakistani establishment too puts the fear of the US in peoples minds. Every story is a conspiracy theory where the US is the villain and the poor Pakistani establishment just can't do anything about it. Look at the new polls in Pakistan, the US has replaced India as the number one enemy. This is a big game that both parties play. US inventing the game and the Pakistani establishment learning from it to maintain its control of the country. I am glad that you know the game why use Haiti's crutches to create a false analogy. You could have said it in a better way.
Jun 15, 2011 08:13am
You should doubt Aamer a little more, Mr. Kilcher... sure, Pakistan has suffered many more deaths than the US... but that is because official and unofficial Pakistani policy has resulted in the blossoming of an attitude that civil discourse is replaced by Kalashnikov culture. If you think it is ok for militants to fight with Kalashnikovs in foreign countries, why not your own country? As you sow, so shall you reap.
Jun 15, 2011 08:16am
Aamer has a point. Americans for their own interests has turned our (Pakistani's) each day as 9/11 and instead of recognising.....they are asking Do More.
Jun 15, 2011 09:42am
Funny, you see almost no comments from Pakistan on a Pakistani website... do you guys have internet there? Anyway, this article holds the US to impossibly high standards of self awareness. If you hold Pakistanis or Indians to even a tenth of those standards, both countries would do WAY better than they do now. Cut the American's some slack. they are, on average, way better than most Haitians or Pakistanis or Indians or even Russians for that matter. Don't even get me started on the Italian!!! Ap.
Jun 15, 2011 11:31am
We have so much to go over and come to terms with (every single day) that it's hard to reply to every blog. LOL
Jun 15, 2011 11:32am
Pakistanis involved in 9/11? Dude we have accepted that the whole world hate us, but please don't over do and make stuff up. Thanks.
Muhammad Ahmed
Jun 15, 2011 12:57pm
I think one thing common about Pakistan and Haiti is that we both have a long history of military dictatorships and to have icing on the cake such dictatorships are supported or more correctly manipulated by USA by using "Carrots and Sticks" methodology in terms of foreign policy which was initiated by Teddy Roosevelt. The problems in both, Pakistan and Haiti, stem from a colonial mindset which was transferred to our armed forces by our beloved masters. They initially took orders from British and French and then the same officers who were never groomed to take orders from civilian governments took over because they considered civilians unworthy and unpatriotic. The problem in Pakistan was further increased because of corruption of civilian governments which has provided military with enough reason to take over to "save" Pakistan. I think the best thing USA can do for Pakistan is to cut off the aid programs and leave us on our own. Let us have the embassy with actual five to six employees instead of over a hundred whose presence becomes a great ambiguity since none of these are issuing any visas any sooner. The Pakistanis who actually make it abroad are looked with a sense of envy by majority of the Pakistanis and I would not be surprised that majority of our urban population would not jump and do cartwheels upon getting an opportunity to go to America. Apparently, Haiti is also in the same boat but their people are more honest about showing their desire to actually get to USA. The Americans are interesting breed who love to see things as black or white and both Haiti and Pakistan cannot be understood without adding a lot of grey in the picture. I am not sure TED is the best forum to communicate the concern. It may be better if the information was communicated simultaneously on TED, Oprah, O' Reilly factor, 20/20, NBC/CBS/FOX news and The Daily Show. Pakistanis and Haitians should stop living in fantasy and stop feeling less appreciated by rest of the world. We should focus our energies towards building our countries on our terms with our own limited resources. We should with USA just like another country and try our best to learn good grey things from them and avoid the bad grey ones. Americans are not bound by any responsibility to understand these countries.
Joel Kidds
Jun 15, 2011 01:17pm
Sweeeet !
Jun 15, 2011 01:32pm
"...but Pakistan agreed to the same". To be more accurate, the Army agreed to the same without consulting any one else in Pakistan and with zero transparency. 30 years later, Paksitanis are realizing this is the Army's war, not ours. Our war is limited to acquiring education, finding a job, running a small business, raising our children, trying to secure their future. It does not include cultivation of militias, developing 'strategic depth', or becoming the battleground for America v Taliban, America v Qaeda, America v China, Saudi v Iran.
Usman Shahid
Jun 15, 2011 02:05pm
Can you give a single proof that Pakistan was involved in all 3 incidents that you have mentioned?
Pakistani in US
Jun 16, 2011 10:45am
Yes, in a perfect world. You are only quoting text book solutions but the ground realities are completely different. Offer short/ long term resolutions that can be subsequently implemented.