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February 1, 2017

Can politics be re-humanised?


February 1, 2017

Do politicians ever learn? Imagine the long line of near genocides that have taken place in the 20th century in the name of the ‘other’. Whatever the cause may be, when you pull in race, religion and ethnicity to mobilise support, it always ends up in mindless and endless hate and violence.

The destructive part of ‘othering’ is and has been the same throughout history – be it the Serbs fighting the Bosnians, the Afghans against the Soviet ‘non-believers’, the Americans against the Sandinistas, whites against blacks in South Africa or the butchering of the ‘other’ within the Muslim societies. The horrifying part is that when you raise the spectre of the ‘other’, the power of hate dominates all other reason. It’s time to pray for human sanity.

The abiding challenge that human history throws at us is how to spread into the political space – and indeed within political discourse – the human goodness we see peppered across so many non-political spaces. This goodness embraces the diversity of religion and race in a common space that is guided by principles of justice, compassion and sensitivity. The list is endless. Look around you; how many non-governmental groups in societies across the world – from Pakistan to Israel, from Turkey to the Scandinavian countries, from the US to Morocco – work using the intrinsic good in the human spirit to struggle against injustice in its many forms? 

The latest executive order by Trump, banning citizens from seven Muslim countries, raises these questions. The response to Trump’s ban, within and outside of the US, is itself divided into two strands. Those who oppose him include hundreds of thousands within coastal US, New York, San Francisco, Boston etc where melting pot America is at its best, where the immigrant has come and settled, co-existed and integrated into the turbulent dynamic of life. There the complexities arising from different cultures have created an accommodative energy where the diverse parts still fall in together. American politicians, including some from Trump’s own party, are also opposing him. They foresee the hate such a ban can inspire, the kind of hate that can destabilise their country from within. The fire from such hateful and divisive talk of populist politics engulfs societies, often reducing them to ashes. There are enough examples in history of this.

Trump’s ways are underscoring the ironies of US policies and of our times as well. For example, in a bizarre way Trump is leading the mess of American policy right back home. The irony in the ban is that these seven Muslim-majority countries are the ones the US entered to disrupt their home-grown and organically-linked – even if very slow and distorted – political evolution, to supposedly expedite the evolution and inject democracy. The facts are now known of why the US really intervened and what tools Washington used to promote its policy objectives.

The important point here is that the US has been a partner in the creation of the chaos that these countries are now experiencing. And Trump’s racist ban is now attempting to secure the US from this chaos.

Similarly, in this digital age, with social media providing a platform to every thought and every emotion, huge holes are being drilled in the previously robust and hierarchical thought structures. In a world where thought control seems to have given way to thought-mayhem, the endless questioning by millions via social media is creating unprecedented chaos in the human mind and emotion. Hence we are experiencing a world virtually unhinged, with stand-alone structures of control, ranging from the home to the state, all weakening and many proving ineffective.

This era demands a holistic and all-inclusive vision, the articulation of which can provide the compelling answers to the endless questions that arise out of questioning systems, ideologies, individuals and institutions.

Another critical aspect of the digital world is word power and word play. All words can potentially spread at lightning speed, both the good and the bad. That indeed there still are takers of the best in human emotion is illustrated by photographs and videos that empathise with the wronged going viral. For example, we have seen pro-refugee photographs, speeches, statements and videos going viral. But hate talk, the talk about the ‘other’, too gets many followers on social media. The question is: what is it in society that generates the staying power of goodness? What structures of delivery, of justice, of accountability manage to do this?    

The questions Trump raises are questions that many in the US are raising and now Trump seems to be taking seriously. This is a moment of reckoning for the US. Whose concern will dominate and will the White America of Trump have the wherewithal to push its vision? The honest truth is that by just talking about this resentment you can unleash a monster of hate. The challenge is to address resentment in a win-win, not a zero-sum way (which is what Trump has used).

The Trump-trail, from the beginning of his bid for presidency till his ongoing executive orders and tweets, displays the ugly power politics that promises quick-fix solutions to the complex problems of our times.

Even so, few expected such widespread opposition to the policies that Trump has begun to implement. Trump himself did not expect this opposition, or at best had calculated that it would die down. Clearly he is not backing off any time soon. But it seems the energy of the protesters won’t sag any time soon either. In fact, on the contrary, it will increase as their ‘pro-humanity’ adrenaline rushes to new levels. Good luck to the world. These are testing times. Is Trump the wakeup call that was badly needed within the US and beyond? Will Trump’s policies be enough to pull us off the suicidal path of hate, violence and lack of tolerance? Clearly not; but it’s a good beginning.

Interestingly what peoples’ opposition to Trump’s ways underscores is the power of proximity. Proximity to the ‘other’ actually erases the divisive notion of the ‘other’. Neighbours, colleagues, friends – these are binding relationships that flow from proximity. Hence proximity is indispensible to the re-humanisation of politics.

While physical proximity is not always possible, affinity through principles and common human bond is. The human connect is often central to the ascendency of human values. In the US and in our own spaces, the sharing of common spaces and the diversity and coexistence can be seen.

Yet there is something else that trumps this power of proximity – the power of politics of hate, of rage and of division. Call it a brand of dehumanised politics. And for as long as this brand sustains itself it is going be a rough ride; within and outside of Trump’s land.

The Trump problem, as we in Pakistan well know, transcends American borders. At varying degrees and in different modes we see it here too. The challenge to re-humanise politics is indeed global.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra