The unknown

October 22, 2019

Being a Pakistani-American who has lived in the US for over four decades, I often get asked by my American friends what Pakistan is like.In this age of instant mass media we develop impressions of...

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Being a Pakistani-American who has lived in the US for over four decades, I often get asked by my American friends what Pakistan is like.

In this age of instant mass media we develop impressions of faraway lands based on snippets we see on television or on the internet. How does one really answer in a simple way what a country of 200 million is really like? Similarly, in my travels abroad I often get asked about the US. Everyone has seen and heard a lot about the US, yet how accurate could any impression really be?

The US is a complex country for sure and there’s no way to explain easily the difference between New York City, rural Alabama and the West Coast. These differences also play out in the politics of the country. How does a country that elected its first black president in 2008 and then re-elected him in 2012, go on to elect someone like Donald Trump? Obama’s election was supposed to have signalled the transition of the country into a ‘post racial’ era. Following him, Trump has not only tried to reverse every single accomplishment of Obama — from healthcare reform to global treaties — but also rejuvenated trends towards white nationalism, if not outright racism.

So as a country where is the US headed? The country is seeing dramatic demographic shifts. Starting sometime in the 1970s and 80s the immigration policies of the country and its ability to attract many from across the world set in motion changes that saw dramatic increases in immigrant populations. At the same time, declining birth rates among whites in the country put it on a track where today more than a third of the country is non-white.

The year 2013 was the first year when the number of non-white births surpassed the number of babies born to white families. This has had profound implications for both the social and political life of the country. On the one hand, these demographic trends have created a sense of loss among many, while on the other minority populations feel empowered to stand up for long denied rights, real or perceived, leading to new tensions which are playing out in the political and social discourse.

I was recently planning a trip to Beirut, and the most often asked question by my friends here was “is it safe to go there?” To which at times I responded by saying “people outside the US wonder if it is safe to live here”. While I was being provocative, we should remember that on average 100 people are shot dead in the US every single day. Of course, living in the US most of us do not feel unsafe. This is after all what we know.

It was expected that proliferation of information through the internet would make us all more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, that is not how it has worked out. We have only so much capacity to absorb information, and many who put out the information

are often pushing their own narrow agendas.

Over the past decade or so how information is shared across the world and how opinions are formed has changed in fundamental ways. It still remains to be seen whether we humans will make something good out of it. The outcomes so far are not encouraging.

The writer is a freelancecontributor based in Washington DC.

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