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.
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