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Our spectacle spectacular


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It all started last week when on January 11, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani fired the secretary defence, Khalid Naeem Lodhi. It seemed all but certain that our country was revving up for another coup d'etat — the fourth in its 65 year history.

I have a confession to make and I have a feeling I wasn’t alone in this, but there was a part of me that was hoping for the theatrics that entail a military coup. All evening there was a feeling that something was a-brewing in Islamabad and it was a matter of when, not if.

You didn’t have to venture far to get the question, “So you think there’s going to be a coup?” The answers varied, but not by much. I got variations of, “I hope not!”, “I really don’t think so”, and even “the era of military takeovers is over.”

But let’s be honest, it’s been a while. Our last coup was in 1999 with ol’ Mushi. We were dealing with things like Y2K, the Harry Potter series as only three books in and the world had yet to be inflicted by the scourge that is Nickleback. I don’t know about you but sue me, I was feeling a little nostalgic.

Many of us kept a watchful eye on our TVs last Wednesday, waiting for the Breaking News segment and the images of the uniformed men swarming to take over the PM house or whatever it is they do for coups.

In all seriousness don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of military rule and a little democracy never hurt anyone, although that might be debatable all things considered right now. But for all intents and purposes: Democracy good. Military bad.

But our political discourse has become part spectators’ sport and part theatre. Essentially it’s the equivalent of professional wrestling without the steroids and the body oil.

For the past few months, we as a nation have watched the soap opera of our political landscape unfold like a tween novel about vampires and werewolves. In years past we might have called it a circus, but pale vampires are so en vogue these days.

Every day we go home from work and settle in on our favourite chair and switch on the TV. The rival party members prattle on about the importance of the judiciary, the meddling of the military and the impotence of our elected officials, while media pundits play referee in a version of reality TV that is more farcical than the staged and scripted reality shows we’ve all come to know and loathe.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but usually it goes something like this:

Generic Pundit welcomes guests Generic Party Member X and Generic Party Member Y.

Party X Member blames Party Member Y and vice versa. Argument ensues.

Pundit introduces non-partisan Generic Political Analyst Z who blames both Party X and Y.

Shouting and screaming ensues.

Generic Party Members and Analyst all speak in unison making sure nobody understands anything they say and Pundit quietly calculates his year-end bonus on account of rising show ratings.

Generic Pundit says he/she is out of time and thanks Generic Party members X and Y and Generic Analyst for coming on the show.

That’s all folks. Good night and good luck.

Over the years we’ve all seen the evolution (or devolution?) of the news business, not just in Pakistan, but in the US as well. writer Glen Greenwald wrote recently that “By and large, most establishment news coverage consists of announcing that someone or other has made some claim, then (at most) adding that someone else has made a conflicting claim, and then walking away.”

The fine line between what is news, and what is spectacle has increasingly blurred. Without the help of the Internet, such a comparison would seem wholly contrived, but once we have the medium to place the two concepts side by side, the parallels are undeniably real.

People are constantly searching the Web for new links and images, e-mailing and forwarding the most appalling, the most exciting and the most humanising parts of everyday life.

It’s easy to claim that it’s the overcrowded communication systems that have enabled us to abstract and dull reality to the point of creating numbness. But I think part of it is rooted in the news business — and we as an audience — having fallen prey to a rubbernecking phenomenon where we ogle at new car wrecks on the side of the road.

At the risk of sounding naïve, the answer lies in questioning our reactions to new sources of spectacle as they appear — be it a political talk show, or a true and blue riot in the streets and to use the tools at our disposal to probe, instead of mask, what is real.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

sana Jan 18, 2012 02:54pm
like it very much especially the way you have described a typical 'news/analytical' talk show!
Asif Jan 18, 2012 06:40pm
"But our political discourse has become part spectators’ sport and part theatre. Essentially it’s the equivalent of professional wrestling without the steroids and the body oil." Beautifully put and I completely agree, and this is what I most enjoy about Pakistani politics.
raika45 Jan 18, 2012 07:06pm
Regarding this professional political wrestling.Has your newspaper ever have consensus among your people as to what they want?Do they want a peaceful life,or one of religious dominance, army control,sub sect state power or the general turmoil in your country.Then ask them how are they going to bring about it.By voting corrupt people,rich land owners or religious fanatics.Ask them where can they find people willing to serve the nation and it's people.Out of the 180 million people, I an sure that the vast majority is looking for a way out of this mayhem.
Pankaj Bose Jan 18, 2012 10:49pm
You are wrong ! The majority of Pakistanis I have met believe that there is nothing wrong with their country and they will rule the world once the Americans stop the drone attacks, leave Afghanistan and Imran Khan comes to power.
zafars Jan 19, 2012 01:27am
Well there is good news in all this. ,finally, after many attempts the United States is catching upto us in all these areas, specially when it comes to news and talk shows.
Shakeel.Quddus Jan 19, 2012 07:29am
Considering the abject conditions in all four provinces, with high unemployment and high inflation, and a war next door, the coup would only exacerbate what is already viewed as beyond redemption. The military General has to be out of his mind to even consider staging a coup. I knew it all along that there would never be a coup. But what an incredible distraction for a country that suffers from one of the worst problems any country could face.
A Rashid Jan 19, 2012 10:56am
Another storm in the tea cup Spontaneous reaction to Supreme Court’s contempt notice to Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani has exposed the fragile character of the political conglomerate of the country as well as the media. Storming of the Supreme Court, like the PMLN workers did in 1997, by the PPP workers on the eve of Prime Minister’s appearance in the apex court was a foregone conclusion by the political opposition including the leadership of PMLN and Imran Khan. All these leaders sounded devoid of imagination to correctly visualize the prevailing perspective being radically different to that of 1997. Drawing a parallel between then and now betrays something materially wrong with such naïve thinking. Then Nawaz Sharif enjoyed an overwhelming majority in the lower house and was generally on the rampage like a bull in china shop. He had reached the highest executive office of Pakistan on the shoulders of the establishment. As opposed to that Mr Gilani has reached the slot, the hardest way, via the prison, official persecution and finally by the genuine vote of the people. Moreover a contempt notice does not mean a death warrant of the government. It is only a show cause notice. The prime minister will explain his side of the story and then, depending upon the strength of prime minister’s council’s presentation, the court will decide whether to charge the prime minister or to drop the allegation. All those predicting fireworks in the apex court on January 19 will be disappointed to find it a routine affair except that an elected Prime Minister will be appearing in the court to respond to a contempt notice for the first time in our history. Politicians, media as well as the analysts must refrain from sensationalizing routine issues as it takes a heavy toll on the psyche of our simple folks. The great Khan as well as PMLN leadership must rest content for now and wait for the coveted fireworks another day. In 1997 and 2012 there is a time lag of almost 15 years while lot of water has passed down the rivers of Pakistan. It will be an exercise in futility to drag history to distant past.
Ronnie Dsouza Jan 19, 2012 12:15pm
You are wrong, Mr. Pankaj as you are completely unaware of the ground realities in Pakistan, where fanaticism has taken deep roots and even if drone attacks stop, the suicide & bomb attacks will never stop there. Imran is an establishment guy and time will tell how he delivers.
Piyush Jan 19, 2012 05:18pm
Pankaj is only mentioning what the Pakistanis in general think.