Thursday October 21, 2021

Parents and patriotism

September 16, 2021

During my recent visit to Karachi, I happened to talk with an ordinary resident, a father of two, about the dilemmas of conventional patriotism, expectations of children, and challenges of middle-class parents. What follows is the story that he told me [I am not sure if I have done justice to his story. Sometimes the meaning and sentiments of the narrator are lost in translation.]:

“For parents, there is growing concern about the future of our children in Pakistan. The sense of insecurity grows as state institutions crumble, the economy plummets, and rising inflation continues to negatively affect the purchasing power of even the upper middle class. My two children now complain about being overburdened by the so-called ‘rote culture’ and indifference of their schoolteachers. I spend around Rs50,000 (30 percent of my monthly income) on my children’s school expenses per month. I am neck-deep in debt and am unable to enjoy the riches of life; my dreams of a happy family are now fading away. When I watch the news, I cannot hope for better days. It feels as if I am taking the collective burden of an impending social and political chaos.

Even though the country’s economy is dependent on Western financial institutions and the prime minster frequently quotes the Scandinavian and Chinese economic models as the best systems to follow, he recently appreciated the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and added that Afghans had broken the ‘shackles of slavery’.

I have grown up serving my country as a staunch supporter of its ideological basis, and my job requires me to be a patriot. Let me tell you that I have always been a patriotic Pakistani not because of my job, but because of my conviction to protect my political identity. I sincerely believe that as a responsible citizen, I cannot imagine instilling unpatriotic feelings in my children. When I do not find reasonable answers to their well-articulated questions about our decaying systems, I simply scold them to refrain from asking disturbing questions.

I act like an authoritarian father under duress just to divert the discussion towards a lighter subject. I try to engage my kids in storytelling and in corporate promos of footwear, food chains and Hollywood hits. My wife tries to weave together inspiring and thought-provoking stories of our national heroes. She takes our children to museums and other places with national monuments, and motivates them to watch patriotic movies. She tries to act like a confident and satisfied patriot to paint a rosy picture of a promising future. But it all proves to be just a momentary diversion in a world where information flow is swift. Our inquisitive children verify the answers from online sources because they feel we are unable to satisfy them. They have started to discredit our stories because we as parents have failed to articulate genuine answers to their genuine questions.

This takes a heavy toll on us because we as parents feel irrelevant to our children. My elder son maintains a daily comparison of how Pakistan performs on the economic and education fronts in South Asia. The other day, he shared statistics that proved that Pakistan is the worst performing South Asian country on the economic front. The factors that lead to this low performance are a weak democratic system, institutional decay and inconsistent policies. He questioned my analysis where I tried to present a rosy picture like a good supporter of the present government. He said that my analysis did not provide a concrete plan to overcome the existing structural barriers to our development. He wondered that since being a loyal and patriotic Pakistani means being honest and upright about our longstanding problems if we want to build a better country, why do we not trust democracy and inclusive governance? In his opinion, our current situation has partly to do with our inability to strengthen democratic institutions. He finally added that even though he was loyal to his country, he couldn’t be loyal to those who don’t respect the sanctity of state institutions.

In a state of shock, I put together an apologetic view of allowing more time for the present government to address these well entrenched barriers to development. My son was quick to dismiss my apologetic perspective. He said that even if we were to assume that the government would fix these problems, empirical evidence from the last three years suggested otherwise; some of the key facts from the official documents that suggest that the government is not moving in the right direction are: Pakistan has accumulated Rs15 trillion of additional debt in the last three years, which did not translate into a productive economic proposition for the country; Pakistan has accumulated over Rs38 trillion of debt which is more than 85 percent of its GDP, whereas Bangladesh owes to its lenders only 45 percent of its GDP; and Pakistan’s total exports have dropped to $25 billion, while Bangladesh has crossed the $45 billion mark. Bangladesh is 45 percent richer than us, and the reason for its success is a healthy democracy and continuation of policies.

He added that despite the unprecedented crisis, our government does not seem to be working seriously to overcome the institutional barriers to economic growth and political inclusion of people in the system of governance. He said that the best patriots are those who pose disturbing questions for the larger good of the country instead of stubbornly defending the government.

My son came up with strong arguments with a clear message to all parents of our ilk to rethink the notion of patriotism and love of the land. Love is short-lived if it does not care for the welfare of the beloved. This sort of love is only hypocrisy to which we cling for immediate benefits. When I recall the conversation I had with my son, I end up murmuring these words, ‘when you consider democracy and patriotism as antagonists, you invite fascists to fill the gap’.”

The man added that he was happy to share his sentiments with me and hoped that my readers, many of whom are parents, will have something to think about. “Patriotism cannot be submission to folly; it must be an assertion for the better. We should not look like fascists to our kids,” he concluded.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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Twitter: @AmirHussain76