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Our spectacle spectacular

Updated January 18, 2012

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. Salon.com 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.