When children learn to swim under the tutelage of professionals, their early efforts at staying above water and coordinating arms and legs are often aided by flotation devices. These are inflatable circlets that go around their arms and help support the novice swimmer, allowing them to gain confidence before they swim free. A similar principle applies to balance wheels on children’s cycles, holding them up until they can whizz off unsupported.
Musing on the ramshackle nature of the state of Pakistan with a friend recently, we surmised that there must be similar devices in place that prevent Pakistan from going under or toppling over, because despite innumerable predictions of collapse, there is little sign of the country doing so.
It may well be that the national flotation collar is comprised of millions of atoms of carefully managed apathy, coupled with a learned passivity. All the huffing and puffing and windy flummery on Twitter and Facebook, and the endless talk shows on the media, creates an illusion of ferment. The sense that great events are in train (… they are, but hear me out) and that the offices of the state are beavering away, if not exactly for the sake of our common good, then not to our common detriment either.
The reality is that our political creatures great and small, irritating or just having mild nuisance value, are frantically paddling to maintain the status quo and equally frantically working on preserving the illusion that what they are really about is change. Real change. Lots of it. Great buckets of the stuff all over the place. Not so.
The real challenge is to manage that vast pool of apathy in such a way as to hold its interests with promises of jam tomorrow but never jam today — and then bank on the collectively apathetic to buy into the deception. Clearly, they do, otherwise every office of the state would have been a smoking ruin years ago.
Those poor deluded creatures who voted for change in the previous elections were doing nothing of the sort, but were unable to see through the blizzard of empty rhetoric, unable to mount a campaign of deductive reasoning that would have led them to the conclusion that they were being fooled yet gain. Those that did see the foolery were dismissed, ridiculed even, and the people went to the polling booths with little invisible floaty bags, water wings, tied firmly in place.
The Great Apathy has now had a generation to embed itself and we are into a rolling cycle of apathy that will sustain the country on the brink for years to come. On the surface, there is going to be much that looks different — fibre optic internet connections are just 50 metres from my front door, we have a paved (nearly) road and a working sewer line — but a millimeter below the surface, there is stasis, inertia, an investment in mediocrity that is all pervasive, and a profound desire by millions of apathy atoms for things to stay exactly as they are.
A formidably impressive trick is being pulled off before our very eyes; a feat of prestidigitation unparalleled in the annals of Orwellian states. The state is floating on the premise that it can maintain and sustain apathy in such a way as to allow a semblance of functionality in economic and even social development terms, without things ever tipping over into revolt.
If ever a people had good cause to rise up against their successive governments and consign them in short order to the dustbin, it is the people of Pakistan. But they have not, and nor will they in the future. The state is now bobbing, barely afloat but not drowning nor toppling sideways, and it can stay that way for the foreseeable future because whatever spark of dissent there might have been was snuffed out long ago and replaced by the apathy gene. Millions upon millions work at sustaining that status quo, that improbable balance that means that the state will never sink, but neither will it ever swim competitively either. The plaintive cries in the background are us, the scribblers and mutterers, all busy writing the first draft of history, over and over again.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2014.