The first sin: conformity

By Ayaz Amir

Ayaz Amir’s letter to the editor, The first sin: conformity, is printed in full for this web edition of The Lawrentian.The following article was submitted by Yawar Herekar, who knows the author, as an outstanding explanation of the issues that his country, Pakistan, is facing.

By Ayaz Amir

c The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2003

What are we to make of the single most pressing issue facing the world today: the military build-up, which is a prelude to war on Iraq? The question is not of someone’s evil past or the sufferings to which he might have subjected his own people. If the tyrannical nature of a regime were an excuse for war there would be no end to strife and conflict on our planet.

At issue is something altogether different: the justifications for this coming war being advanced by the masters of the universe, a war fairly certain unless some miracle intervenes.

Do these justifications stand the test of truth? Are there linkages to Al Qaeda that have been traced to Baghdad? Have weapons of mass destruction been discovered in the ruins of Babylon? Has Iraq balked at extending cooperation to the weapons inspectors? Has it breached Security Council resolutions? The demonstrations in western countries, the growing chorus of disapproval even among sections of the American public, would seem to suggest otherwise: that the case for war is full of holes.

The other case, backed by a growing body of opinion, is that this whole thing is about oil and the huge reserves (the second highest in the world after Saudi Arabia) on which Iraq and Saddam Hussein are sitting. Modern economies need fuel, the US economy more than others because of its size and its insatiable appetite for cheap energy.

The US is in thrall to the power of the motor car, its huge suburbs a testimony and homage to the freedom of movement conferred by the motor car. But we know what the abuse of any freedom leads to—some form of anarchy. Did nature design this planet for so much misuse of energy? Could the first inhabitants of the Garden of Eden have imagined such wastage of the earth’s precious resources?

Like an addict hooked on heroin, the US is hooked on cheap gas. The angry fulminations of the oilmen sitting in the Bush administration are leaving the world in no doubt that the war on Iraq is about oil, about making sure where the next fix is to come from.

And yet if you scan the newspapers or switch on your television set and tune in to the great sources of 24-hour news – CNN, BBC, and, I daresay, Fox News – you might miss the oil connection altogether. What you’ll get is some statement from Mr. Blix, which you’ll have a hard time deciphering, and angry words of denunciation from the White House or the State Department suggesting that time is running out for Saddam Hussein.

Never in all his years at the top has the megalomaniac dictator of Iraq swallowed such humiliation. But none of his back-bending is satisfying his remorseless pursuers in their quest to get rid of him and impose some kind of a protectorate on the golden bird that is Iraq.

At the time of the Gulf War it was famously said of Kuwait that if it had grown carrots instead of oil its plight would have gone unnoticed. The analogy fits Saddam. If his tyranny was the issue, there are several other tyrannies to choose from in the Muslim world. If weapons of mass destruction, then Israel qualifies for closer attention than Iraq.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter. Freedom of expression in all its glories is spread out in the democracies, guaranteed by law and constitutional dispensation. The means of conveying information are mind-bogglingly diverse and clever: at the touch of a button, all that there is to know, at the click of a mouse a shower of knowledge from the skies. The ancients reborn would call this magic–wonders conjured into existence by Aladin’s lamp.

Yet, what is this freedom or technical wizardry worth when the truth, instead of appearing brighter, is obscured? In the constant babble of the global village, getting to know what really is happening is not as easy as the 24-hour news channels would make it appear.

Surely, a paradox is at work here. In the past your lips were sealed. On pain of death, you couldn’t say what you wanted. If you questioned the doctrine, which placed the earth at the centre of the cosmos, you aroused the wrath of the church and suffered Galileo’s fate. In Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, or any other tyranny the problem was lack of freedom.

Freedom’s triumph, or rather its supposed triumph, should have settled this matter once and for all. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the global village should have meant the end of the old conflicts. The logo for our times should have been not just the end of history but the end of all attempts to stifle different aspects of freedom.

If only life was that simple and uncluttered. About the First World War it was said that it was a war to end all wars. It paved the way, quicker than anyone could have imagined, for a fiercer and more devastating conflagration. The Second World War was meant to end tyranny. It ended one, Hitler’s, but added muscle to another, Stalin’s. Who can tell what is enshrouded in the mists of the coming war on Iraq? In the very war against terrorism who can tell what dragon’s teeth are being sown?

Whatever its other virtues, the greatest iniquity of the global village is the premium it puts on conformity. You must think alike on Iraq because that is what Washington decrees and that is what the great news channels all conspire to present and convey. Once upon a time Saddam Hussein played to the American tune when he fought the Iranians. Seen as a check on the spread of the Iranian revolution, he was then visited and encouraged by the likes of Rumsfeld, the same warrior chief now sitting in the Pentagon planning war moves against Iraq.

We must all think alike on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute because that is what Kublai Khan ordains. That all the cards are stacked against the Palestinians and every advantage given to Israel is beside the point. How much of this reality is accurately reflected in the global media? In much of the reportage about this conflict it is often hard to figure out who the occupier is and who the victim of oppression. Robert Fisk of the Independent is a rarity in this field. Most other journalists find comfort and security in running close to the pack.

This great push towards conformity of course comes from the fact that the world is dominated by a single power. To think of the closest parallel to the present state of affairs we’d have to go back to the Roman Empire. Napoleon had his rivals and so did Hitler. There is nothing on the horizon to daunt the United States, except perhaps its own fears, nothing to check the exercise of its power except its own excesses.

In the crisis over Iraq the US is guilty of ‘intellectual” excess. It has deployed arguments and a measure of hysteria, which are an insult to anyone’s intelligence. But it is having its way because the collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed the global balance of power born in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Here lies another paradox. The demise of Soviet totalitarianism has allowed America to act in a willful manner on the global stage. Totalitarianism’s death should have been freedom’s opportunity. Instead it has set the stage for a new form of imperialism.

This is a bad state of affairs. Not because the US is evil. It is not. But because, “a play in which one side has all the best of it is a bad play.” (This from a book I recently happened to look into.) The Greeks knew this. The Iliad is not Greek propaganda
. Homer treats the Trojans with equal sympathy.

So the problem boils down to one of balance and perception. When there is a great pull to conform and think alike, it becomes the duty of those of us who are in the media to keep alive the idea that the best drama is that which is able to see and feel contrasting points of view.

c The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2003