Lately, I've been seeing an Internet meme doing the rounds on Facebook. It's the image of a TIME magazine cover about Pakistan: the tagline reads “Pakistan’s Dark Heart” and shows a dead body sprawled on a street. Andrew Marshall’s accompanying article calls Karachi, my hometown “desperate, chaotic, and ungovernable – and essential to global security”.
This melodramatic image is accompanied by a letter to the Editor written by Tony Lazaro, tagged “An Australian’s Rebuttal to Time Magazine’s Story on Karachi”. Mr. Lazaro relates how on a recent charitable trip to Pakistan, he saw the beautiful side of a much-maligned nation, and feels that the Western media must promote “something positive” about the country. “If we really care about global partnerships… I suggest we try and give Pakistan a helping hand… given a little help from the Western world, Pakistan can become a dominant economy. She doesn’t want aid and she doesn’t need money… I believe we have a fundamental obligation to assist.”
I appreciate the good spirit in which this letter has been written. I'm trying very hard to control my inner cynic, which whispers to me that this is an attempt to improve Pakistan's image in the eyes of the world, not a blatant attempt at self-promotion. I'll ignore Tony Lazaro's full contact details and link to his Web site, although I'll also resist the urge to click on it and see what business he represents. Tony's come to Pakistan, he's clearly loved what he's seen, and he wants Western media to adjust the bias when it comes to reporting about Pakistan. There's so much good here, why spend all your time focusing on the bad?
I've written before about how the image of bad Pakistan is needed to fit the global narrative. The Western world needs a villain, and these days Pakistan is it (thanks, Katheryn Bigelow). Western journalists who I know pitch “Pak positive” stories to their editors, and get shot down all the time because a good story isn't sexy enough. This is one of the perils of journalism, and it can be blamed squarely on the economics of selling newspapers. It's not about circulation; it's about selling readers' eyeballs to advertisers, whose money is what really powers any newspaper or magazine. This isn't going to change any time soon, either. Pakistan could undergo a magical metamorphosis and become a model nation and the editors will just turn to the next basketcase and hype it up beyond belief.
There's a reason nations like Iran and North Korea and even China like to control information: whoever controls the information holds all the power. There's also a reason nations like India hire public relations organizations, plan media campaigns, market themselves so aggressively. In our fickle world, image is king. And Pakistan almost always turns out to be the court jester.
Take a look at some of the news in the last couple of days: Pakistani-Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri receives dressing down in front of Supreme Court; President Zardari builds opulant Bilawal House in Lahore; unknown people blow up a gas pipeline in Karachi; PIA plane crash lands in Muscat and shuts down airport; Sindh Assembly votes to drop the "H" from the word "Sindh" (which is later found to be a mistake). The headlines just write themselves, don't they? I'm amazed how anyone is able to even say the word "Pakistan" while keeping a straight face.
On the other hand, Lazaro's letter going viral on Facebook (at least amongst Pakistanis with bruised egos) is cause for concern of a different sort. It is the continuation of an old colonialist trope: white people explaining "the natives" to one another. TIME Magazine explains how bad we are, while Lazaro takes the opposite side: Whilst on a charitable trip to Pakistan (white knight syndrome) I discover how good-hearted and intelligent the Pakistanis really are, and make it my mission (crusade) to explain this to an uncaring world.
We Pakistanis do not need another foreigner arguing our case to the International Court of the Media. We do not need a helping hand, a little help from the Western world. We do not need well-meaning foreigners to fulfill the white man's burden, no matter how well-meant it is.
What we need is to pull up our boots and transform ourselves. We know who we are, we know what we're capable of, and how short we are falling. That's our tragedy, and we have to own it. Millions of us realize this, and we're working on changing it. How successful we will be, and how we manage to raise ourselves in the eyes of the world is solely our responsibility.
What we need from Western media and Western philanthropists and Western organizations, is to be truthful and honest in their dealings with us. Don't use Pakistan to sell your newspapers, your elections, your drone wars, your military weapons. Don't use Pakistan to ease your conscience one way or the other. You don't have to pretend that we're a nation of Osama bin Ladens, or a nation of poor, helpless brown people who need saving from ourselves. How about just seeing us for what we are: a nation that's screwed up, with a little help from our friends, but mostly due to our own hubris, inadequacies, and short-sightedness? Editors, reporters, correspondents: how about not "promoting" one image or another, but just being objective, like you're supposed to be?
Oh, and one more thing: Stop calling Pakistan "she". Pakistan does not have a gender; neither do ships, abstract values (such as justice or liberty), or nature. Pakistan is not a damsel in distress that needs rescuing by strong, masculine arms. Now come back and see us again soon, you hear?