How a blog post aimed at defending Prof. Chomsky revealed the extreme fault lines in Pakistani society and underlined the broken relationship between North and South Left
So how does it feel to know that you are the reason your intellectual idol is currently inundated with mail, a lot of it hate, from all sorts of crazies or otherwise curious souls? I asked myself this question as I realized that my blog post aimed at defending Prof. Chomsky, had gone viral–crazy viral, having been picked up by almost all mainstream Pakistani TV channels and several news sites, and having sent Imran Khan supporters on a rampage!
I also realized, amusingly, that the only two posts of mine which got a wide circulation (one way more than the other) were both written in defense of Prof. Chomsky. More about the above viral post below, but almost ten years earlier in 2012, I had decided to write an article in response to Google’s Engineering Director Peter Norvig. In a lengthy essay in which he argued against Prof. Chomsky’s criticism of big data and statistical approaches to science, Peter Norvig had “humorously” compared Prof. Chomsky to Bill O’ Reilly. I remember saying to myself then, “Oh, so now we computer science nerds are being funny, are we? Well, I am a computer science nerd too but I have read Muhammad Khan and you haven’t, so I will show you what funny is”. And in my humorous disdain for nerds who haven’t read literature, I wrote an Orwellian fable titled Big Data or Pig Data, a humorous critique of the statistical approach to science. Not to toot my own horn, while certainly not the most scholarly, this post is still the most accessible critique of the oxymoron “data science” for the layperson. This post was somewhat widely circulated in science and philosophy circles and I mostly received positive feedback and there was no controversy.
Fast forward ten years: the reason that led me to write this current blog post which ended up taking a life of its own and attracted an insane amount of controversy, was Prof. Chomsky again. I was shocked to see that some famous Pakistani journalists had retweeted Idrees Ahmed’s usual misrepresentation of Prof. Chomsky. In this Twitter thread Idrees “chastises” Prof. Chomsky and the Western left for their blind spots and as usual mischaracterizes Professor Chomsky completely. The retweeting of this thread by some Pakistani journalists happened at the same time as some curious takes were coming from western leftists who also seemed to be peddling the conspiracy theory that Imran Khan had been ousted in a US backed coup. Further, as Tooba Syed and Ammar Ali Jan have separately noted, they appeared to be heralding Imran Khan as some anti-imperialist hero. Given the timing, I felt that this retweeting of Idrees Ahmed by Pakistani journalists signified the (justified) disappointment that some in Pakistan were feeling towards the western left. Of course, in my love and admiration for Prof. Chomsky, I wanted to make sure that it became clear to everyone in Pakistan that he was not among such western leftists. Therefore, I decided to do a writeup based on his response to my questions to him about this alleged coup, and the so-called evidence being presented for the coup: a diplomatic cable from Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US. The gist of Prof. Chomsky’s response was that while it was not impossible that the US was involved, he had seen no meaningful evidence for this assertion. Furthermore, the diplomatic cable that was being used as evidence certainly did not constitute substantial evidence, and it was meaningless to tout it as such. Happily, I drafted a nice little story around Prof. Chomsky’s answers detailing how I had first come into contact with him on ZNet etc., and posted it on my blog.
What happened next was surreal. For all my old blog posts, the reactions had come in on the blog itself and I had always had full control. This time, the post became viral courtesy Twitter and the issue was no longer about what I had written but it was mostly about what was being said in mainstream media, and by people who dislike Imran Khan and PTI, and responses to the same by PTI supporters on Twitter. Of course, it is also almost certainly the case that the post was picked up by the government and those in-charge, who played no small role in its circulation. If I had known they would be using it, I would probably have thought twice before publishing it. Regardless, I believe I would have still published it because one cannot control how one’s work is quoted and circulated.
At first many Imran Khan/PTI supporters claimed that it was a fake, anonymous blog post possibly planted by the current ruling party (even though I had mentioned who I was in the post). Then when I shared my Twitter handle on the post and it became clear I was a real person, PTI supporters become more furious and proceeded to inundate Prof. Chomsky’s inbox. This led to some creative memes on the part of non PTI folk:
Prof. Chomsky reminded all his unexpected questioners that he had said that while it was not impossible for the US to have been involved, he had seen no meaningful evidence for this assertion. Luckily, some PTI supporters ran with this and felt vindicated by it.
The inundation of mails reached a level where Prof. Chomsky had to resort to a form response:
In the larger picture, there are more important results of this ill-fated post than what Prof. Chomsky has had to endure because of me (I have already apologized to him for all the hate mail and he has very generously set my mind at peace). This episode reconfirmed and underlined two things. Firstly, there is simply no talking or understanding between PTI and non-PTI supporters. Yes, it is exactly as bad as Trump vs non-Trump people, or Modi vs non Modi supporters. A lot of the blame of course goes to Imran Khan who has purposefully built a cult of personality around himself. But it is not the whole story of course. There are probably PTI supporters as well who do not buy into the cult. Their main question usually is: If not Imran Khan, then who? For the record, this is exactly the same question that “reasonable” Modi supporters (oxymoron?) have always asked: If not Modi, then who? The reasoning behind this question seems to be:
“Okay, we will grant you all the weaknesses of our man but you have to admit that he is better than the alternatives”. Maybe it’s not even an unreasonable question because even a neutral person like Mehdi Hasan subscribes to some version of this question as can be gauged from his reaction to Ammar Ali Jan’s Jacobin article:
However, given that Imran Khan ended up spending more than three and a half years in power, the statement that he is better than the alternatives is now an empirical question and cannot merely be asserted anymore. One can easily riposte that while Imran Khan may not be financially corrupt like his predecessors (though that too is suspect now but let’s leave that aside), in many dimensions he is much worse, be it his lust for power and his government’s disastrous economic performance, or his dismal record on freedom of expression, forced abductions of activists, and women’s rights etc. So it’s not straightforward to say that Imran Khan is better than the alternatives. In some respects he may be better but in many others he is much worse. So we can dispense with the lazy assertions that Imran Khan is better than the alternatives, pathetic as they are.
The above reasoning perhaps cannot convince PTI supporters. However, the situation is not all doom and gloom. For the Left in Pakistan, as Tooba Syed points out, there is a golden opportunity for it to fill the void created by the bankrupt mainstream parties, including Imran Khan’s PTI. Further, the superficial, thoughtless anti-imperialism that has been cynically ignited by Imran Khan among his young supporters is something that the left can exploit and expand upon. It’s the left in Pakistan that can boast of a history of real anti-imperialism and this proud tradition may be used to attract at least some young PTI supporters. Hasan Nasir belongs to Pakistan’s left, Habib Jalib belongs to us, it was the Pakistani left that led the journalists, farmers, students and peasants protest movement against the brutal US backed Zia-ul-Haq military regime, and on and on. What has the right (or the center) ever done viz a viz anti-imperialism apart from empty sloganeering and posturing?
The second lesson is related to the main reason I wrote the blog post. In reaction to reading my blog post, several Imran Khan supporters sent me victorious links showing Western leftists peddling the conspiracy narrative. This made me acutely aware of the divide between the global left and left in Pakistan, or more accurately between the left in the global north and the global south. Bridging this gap may not be as easy as it seems. One quick and superficial solution that is often proposed is to ask the left in the global north to listen to the locals. But this is meaningless as Vijay Prashad in one of his talks tried to make clear. Listen to which Indians? Narender Modi and his supporters? They are also Indians right? Listen to which Palestinians? Those who collude with Israel? And so on. If the answer to this predicament is to further refine the above stipulation and declare that northern leftists should listen not to locals but to local leftists, that too does not help much. Is it not true that many Pakistani leftists and liberals were silent as US prepared for war in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 and some actually welcomed that war as they felt it would help Pakistan get rid of religious fanaticism?
Thus, we should not take the easy, politically correct way out and say that its always the North’s fault. Not at all. Harmonizing North-South left viewpoints on war and imperialism is tricky. For instance, in her brilliant article quoted above, Tooba Syed says that there can be no anti-imperialism without anti-capitalism. In my view that’s way too stringent. A leftist in the Global North may reply, and justifiably so, that even a regressive, pro-capitalist, or otherwise rightwing regime in the South may be anti-imperialist to the extent that it defiantly resists imperial power. Of course, Imran Khan’s government was doing nothing of the sort obviously but the general point stands.
On the other hand, where the left in the Global North surely gets the blame is when it really does see everything from a Western perspective and is quick to blame Western imperialism while foregoing all evidence and realities of local politics. Some leftists in the North, going by America’s track record, declare any and all regime changes to be a result of American imperial design, the latest case being the alleged coup against Imran Khan. Such a cavalier attitude on the part of western leftists towards local events in the Global South is childish at best, dangerous at worst, and as a scientist, dare I say quite unscientific. It is unscientific and irrational to stretch evidence and to indulge in unwarranted speculation as is/was being done in the case of the alleged coup against Imran Khan, be it highlighting the message from Donald Lu as evidence, or the speculation that the coup relates to the war in Afghanistan. I note that like Prof. Chomsky I am not rejecting out of hand the possibility that the US might have been involved. All I am saying is that the “evidence” that is being given by the supporters of the coup, both in Pakistan and in the West, is meaningless. It is precisely this unscientific, irrational, attitude which has resulted in many American leftists still pathetically hanging onto the JFK conspiracy theory!
The only solution to bridging the divide between the north and south left is certainly not listening to each others dictates but rather continually talking to each other and learning from each other, as the shortcomings lie on both sides. And this will not be achieved by merely interviewing famous leftists around the world and feeling warm and fuzzy listening to how nicely they fit their countries’ respective problems into the general left themes of say neoliberalism and capitalism. That’s a given; we know that already: neoliberalism has destroyed the whole world. If we are going to talk to each other, we need to delve into the nitty gritty of things. For instance, Western leftists who were going gaga over the size of the protests in support of Imran Khan need to know that many politicians in Pakistan, including a certain gentleman called Altaf Hussain in the not too distant past, could call forth protests that would make Imran Khan’s protests like picnic parties. And believe you me, Altaf Hussain, for all his virtues and vices, is certainly no left hero. Internationalism is the only solution to our problems and internationalism will only be achieved by continually listening to and learning from each other.
@Update 1/6/2022: Ammar Ali Jan drew a positive conclusion from all the above in the following amusing tweet 🙂