Revolt of the ordinary - Rafia Zakaria - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

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LAST week I wrote a column titled ‘The curse of the almost elite’ that focused on the pervasive hypocrisy that plagues Pakistan’s upper middle class. I received hundreds of letters, some encouraging and others denouncing the caricatures I painted.
Some readers took issue with my definitions of class, pointing out generalisations that they found troubling. Others insisted passionately that the affectations I had listed were, in fact, true markers of elite status. Added to this mix was the usual smattering of accusations that goaded me to address the ‘masses’ or focus on ‘real’ social ills.
Much of the criticism of the column was valid; the article did play fast and loose with definitions and pointed fingers instead of making arguments. The reasons are simple: every week I write painstakingly researched arguments relating to one or the other of seemingly endless problems, from unending violence and discriminatory laws to extremism. They appeal to the rational reader, take a few moments of his or her time and allow everybody to walk away — informed but happily unmoved.
It is a well-oiled exercise; all of us are by now painfully adept at coming up with the right reaction to the tragedies around us. We feel the required amount of outrage at yet another assassination, and voice suitable expressions of horror at the rampant criminality that surrounds us — and then go on to think of what we should have for dinner.
Last week’s article was not aimed at any of the usual targets. Its only objective was to make readers squirm. Discomfort is an unsung virtue in Pakistan, because of its rarity. We hold dear our cherished rationalisations and insist on living in a world that substantiates them — whether they require imagining our grandmothers as deposed queens or our servants as somehow inherently deficient.
Such delusions of grandeur need provocation to unravel. Being uncomfortable and angry is after all a sign of life and perhaps even of hope.
Much is written every week in Pakistan analysing our political situation, our bad laws, our numb masses and our corrupt leaders. A grass-roots revolution that would take to task all these evils would be welcome indeed, but honestly I have no idea how or whether such an event will take place. As a member of the middle class, complicit in many of the pretensions of the almost elite, I cannot pretend to know the recipe of such an awakening.
Of course, in the middle class spirit of resourcefulness, I could read several books and regurgitate what I have learned in a neat packet of steps that point out a possible trajectory. But we all know the futility of such a project; the Pakistani masses, beset with their own problems, do not read English newspapers and must prioritise the procurement of their next meal over dreams of revolution.
My prescriptions for revolt are thus quite ordinary. The aim is not political change where our flailing systems are magically transformed into bastions of egalitarianism (although that would be lovely). Instead, I suggest we aim lower and simply let go of the pretences that make our past and present a sad lie.
Such a project requires an elevation of virtues different from the ones we worship; virtues that are a source of shame today. If we don’t have the money to have a big wedding, let’s be honest and celebrate with the 50 people who actually care about our lives and future. If we don’t have three cars standing outside our home let’s not pretend that it’s because we park them elsewhere.
Let’s also talk openly about the budget we must stick to in order to make ends meet and even be proud of frugality. And every once in a while let’s clean our own bathrooms so that we can learn that self-worth is based not on what we avoid but on what we do.
An ordinary revolt then is ordinary only in its transformation of what is mundane and taken for granted into something worth thinking about and changing. The idols we have erected to the emulation of hereditary wealth and the denigration of work have reduced personal and communal relationships among the Pakistani middle class to a pantomime.
At every party and during every dinner conversation the goal of interaction is to ‘substantiate’ our delusions. There is a status-conscious hypocrisy attached to every meal eaten at a restaurant, every vacation taken and every party invitation received.
In the meantime, the real issues of our lives — the challenge of subsisting in times of inflation, limited opportunities, the problems of two-career marriages, of finding a suitable spouse, of educating children, etc. — are banished to the land of denial. They emerge only in lonely, dark moments. The weight of these lies hollows out the very personal relationships that are meant to sustain us, erecting invisible walls between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters. Surrounded by the similarly struggling, we are condemned to isolation, unable to share our collective pain because of our undying devotion to our pretences.
This ordinary revolt will not produce radical changes or cataclysmic shifts, for those are not the territory of the middle class. It can by definition only be silent and surreptitious since its purpose is to transform the personal by reclaiming the ordinary as something worthy. It asks you only to claim the middle class label and be proud of being a self-made Pakistani — a task that appears difficult given our seeming inability to accomplish it.
The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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