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Made of clay

December 16, 2013


“THEY shouldn’t have shown Jinnah like that, smoking a cigarette. That’s not Jinnah!” This is the reaction a friend of mine had, years ago, after we had finished watching Dehlavi’s movie.

We had both been brought up in the Zia era, where the Quaid’s farman was “Kaam, kaam aur kaam.” There was a lot the Quaid didn’t say, he was silent about going to your temples, he didn’t remind the armed forces that they were the servants of the people, and he certainly never smoked.

My friend seemed genuinely upset at this very different Jinnah he saw because apparently, it wasn’t enough for Jinnah to have been the leader he was or to have achieved what he achieved; he must also live up to his ideal of morality.

My friend isn’t the only one to feel this way. For many, it seems as if someone’s personal failings and vices, to use those terms very loosely indeed, have some bearings on his actual ability and accomplishments. They don’t. Not really.

Not being able to keep your family together has little to do with being able to run a country. Having one or more drinks at the end of the day doesn’t mean you can’t also be a visionary economic planner. Cheating on your spouse doesn’t make you any less of a master statesman, even if it may make you a horrible person.

There’s more: Would you expect a man who can’t control his own body to control an empire? Well Julius Caesar did just that. An accomplished general and politician, Caesar also suffered from what is believed to have been epilepsy. If you ask the Gauls, they’ll say it really didn’t matter.

What about letting a man suffering from bouts of crippling depression conduct a war on which your national survival hinges? The British did, in the Second World War, and that seems to have turned out well. The non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian Hitler on the other hand proved to be a bit of a letdown.

If you think a heavy drinker and opium user couldn’t defeat multiple armies in fairly rapid succession, go look up Babar and his various battles. Nor does Gandhi’s rather disturbing relationship with his grandniece take away from his achievements. These people did what they did in spite, or perhaps even because of their weaknesses.

None of them are likely to survive the electron microscope scrutiny those in the limelight are subjected to today. Every detail is picked over, every flaw exposed and linked to every single aspect of that person’s career and ability.

Ironically, rather than cause leaders to be more open, it forces them to hide behind a façade of morality, and in Pakistan’s case religiosity. Which leader today can even think of declaring, as ZAB did, that he drinks, but didn’t drink the blood of the people?

Not a single one, so cowed are they (and rightly so) of the intense judgement of the moral brigades. It is telling of course, that the same man who made this pronouncement had to later make a political decision to ban alcohol; a desperate decision made to appease the right-wing. It didn’t work, of course. It never does.

Our heroes are as flawed as the rest of us. None of us really have clean slates, or closets free of skeletal remains and assorted baggage. We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of.

For the most part, it doesn’t stop us from going on with our lives and work. To perform surgeries or teach classes. To direct traffic or write pithy columns that will wrap a bun kebab the next day. We’re flawed, and we should celebrate that not only in ourselves but also in those we look up to.

There is, of course, a caveat to all of this. When a leader’s personal foibles directly affect his ability to lead then there is cause for concern. When a champion of political Islam is in fact personally corrupt then yes, there is cause for concern. When a leader preaches austerity for the masses but lives in a mansion, then we have an issue. If he champions education and fair play, but holds a fake degree, then yes, call him out. Most of all, beware of those who seem to have no flaws. Those are the ones you can be sure have something truly sinister to hide.

Also understand that leaders are, by necessity, liars. It’s the nature of the job. Sometimes different audiences need different messages. Sometimes the unwilling masses must be led, by deception if necessary, towards the greater good. It is of course arrogant for those who lead to assume what this greater good is, but arrogance is also in the job description. Not everyone is a Madiba, after all.

Unfortunately, too many of us seem to be bent upon searching for the mythical sadiq and ameen in the daylit streets like latter-day Diogeneses. It’s a bad idea for a number of reasons.

Turning good or even great people into idols is dangerous business: When the cracks surface, as cracks inevitably do, the all too human clay shows through and that loss of faith can be quite painful to those who would rather admire the alabaster smoothness of a marble cheek, and not the often pockmarked skin real people have. More practically, the more you deify, the easier it is for others to demonise.

Worse still, we then relieve ourselves of the responsibility of living up to their example. We can admire, but never have to emulate. That’s lazy, and says more about the idol-makers than the idols themselves. After all, they rarely have any say in the matter. We do.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro