Jeans, Candy and Nationalism

1940s Mars Bar Vitnage Illustration Advertisement CandyToday, I happened to re-read a bit of Partha Chatterjee’s critique of liberal and conservative (and Marxist –see Benedict Anderson) theories of nationalism, and it reminded me of this op-ed recently published in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) about modernity in Pakistan. Note: I do agree with the author about the need to “let Pakistan make its own progress”, but dammit, the route she takes to get there, really sucks and it’s dangerous. Here’s why. Chatterjee first.

Chatterjee argues that both conservative and liberal theories of nationalism fundamentally share the same Enlightenment-era beliefs about Rationality and Progress. The main debate between them then is whether non-Europeans have the ability to grasp these notions, to in effect, become ‘civilised.’ The conservatives say “no”: non-Europeans are mired in “traditional loyalties” masquerading as modern political organisations. That’s why nationalisms in the post-colonial world are such bloodthirsty, regressive exercises. The liberals say “yes”: give them time and these ‘backward’ features will disappear, modernisation will take hold and

once the conditions that are detrimental to progress are removed there is no reason why they should not also proceed to approximate the values that have made the West what it is today. But neither side can pose the problem in a form in which the question can be asked: why is it that non-European colonial countries have no historical alternative but to try to approximate the given attributes of modernity when that very process of approximation means their continued subjection under a world order which only sets their tasks for them and over which they have no control? [1]

Modernity is inscribed as European modernity, and even that becomes a caricature of itself in much impressionistic reportage. So, back to the article. What are Ms. Naviwala’s signs of Pakistani modernity? Back when she moved her family to Pakistan in the 1990s and lived there for a maximum of 6 years, there were  “shootings in mosques, kidnappings, violent break-ins and streetside executions if you belonged to the wrong ethnic group.” It was bad, really really bad:

Worse than the violence, for a Pakistani-American child, was that Pakistan was boring. As far as I am concerned, Pizza Hut was the only good thing that happened to Pakistan in those years. Prior to that, there was no American fast food in Karachi, let alone malls or highways. You couldn’t even find a decent candy bar.

But now, well now, on her recent trip to Karachi, Naviwala noticed:

I never imagined that I would see Pakistan the way I saw it this summer, after a mere 14 years. Karachi today looks like any major, cosmopolitan city — movie theaters, restaurants, and cafés full of boys and girls smoking, in jeans, mingling together.

More women are finishing college and getting jobs, and they have traded traditional baggy shalwars for trousers and capris. The city has been aggressively transformed by a mayor so impressively capable that he seems misplaced in a culture of corrupt politicians and broken bureaucracies.

This is Naviwala’s laundry list of modernity: American fast food, malls, highways (to get to the malls), Pizza Hut, movie theatres, restaurants, smoking, jeans, and capris. First, I’d advise Naviwala to step off posh Zamzama Blvd and have a look around the rest of the city. Second, what’s the point here exactly? That if Pakistanis didn’t zip over to malls dressed in jeans and engorge themselves on Pizza Hut, then what…Pakistanis should be bombed and killed? Because that’s what she’s arguing: Pakistan is becoming modern–that is, it’s a mini-America–so don’t bomb it. WTF? This is a peculiarly liberal style of argument that Uday Mehta also discussed in Liberalism and Empire. Rather than being external to liberal thought, empire can be thought out within the liberal paradigm. (Mehta discusses J.S. Mills.) In Naviwala’s statements, there’s more than a little racism, unintentional though it may be, because Pakistanis are only pardoned on account of them being like us, her liberal readers who so gleefully lap up these slipshod arguments that feed American and European nationalisms by fortifying their sense of their imagined communities. This is an op-ed, but much ‘objective’ reporting looks the same, teasing out symbols. That’s what description is. It’s not just filler space, but ways to get the reader–liberal, objective–cues as to how to read a story. And often, that reading–when it comes to reporting politics in the Muslim world or frankly anything in the Muslim world–has to do with inscribing national ideologies into apparently objective stories.

Third, what interests me is that what’s on offer here is consumption packaged as modernity. Fourth, women, or at least their bodies, play a special role here. Naviwala mentions capris; elsewhere she mentions burqas and “traditional dress”, a perfect collusion between liberal feminism and capitalism. Take a look at this if in doubt.

And in case you don’t think that’s what she’s arguing, this is what she says of Afghanistan:

Pakistan is a different story from Afghanistan — it is far more developed and modern. Afghans may not have the ability to lead themselves out of this mess, but Pakistanis do.

Fuck those backward, un-malled, un-jeaned mofos. Signs of us/modernity are lacking in Afghanistan. That’s why, after all, Afghanistan is the good war. Culture–that big word–is just another  tool of war. And now, a “cultural unit” has been set up among British troops in Afghanistan to understand the locals better. According to Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford, assistant chief of the defence staff responsible for operations,

The unit “will help improve the military understanding and appreciation of the region, its people and how to do business there”

Presumably the business of how to kill them.

1. Partha Chatterjee. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Tagged , , ,