Iconic film celebrity Richard Gere has spoken about the need for human society to snap away from the vicious grip of hatred that is coming to dominate our social and political discourse. In fact, the disease, spreading fast and spreading wide, is not confined to mere ‘discourse’. It threatens to become not just a way of life but the dominating and distinguishing feature of human society which once prided itself on the wealth of love and understanding which set us apart — or so it was believed — from the wild world of beasts.
Even more alarming than Richard Gere’s observation is the background and context against which it comes. Gere is talking here about the politics of hate threatening the health of society in the world’s most advanced country – the US of A. That a person of his stature and his acknowledged concern for human values should be driven to warn his country against the spread of hatred as cancer should be a cause for major alarm for all of us.
The Hollywood actor believes that hatred is eating away at the very roots of human civilization which is actually built on love, understanding and mutual respect. He is deeply worried that the virus has come to affect even the way we relate to each other or even our regular social and political discourse . He believes that the time to check the malady from spreading and vitiating this world for our children is now. Tomorrow could be too late. Says Gere, “We are all in it together. We need to be more careful about how we talk to each other. We are all human beings and we have to live together on this little planet.”
These are the simplest of words to express the simplest of truths. But therein lies its starkness. The problem is so harshly into our faces now that it doesn’t require any linguistic refinements to articulate it. Hence, the simplicity of expression matching the starkness of the danger. Neither is the problem limited to any one country. We saw how hatred has been glorified as patriotism in India. There are dangerous signs of the country being made coterminous with the religion of the majority. The proceedings in the parliament did not awaken hope about respect for healthy democratic dissent. Even worse, our idiom is fast sliding from parliamentary decorum to the pride of crime-ghettos. The wheels are spinning out of control at a speed that is frighteningly rapid. It needs not only to be checked but also to be reversed — and soon.
Talking about Gere, we all know what really worries the famed actor — forced to step away from the dignified restraints of his profession and to risk unpopularity in a world dominated by the language of social divisiveness, hatred, contempt and cold indifference to the sensitivities of one another. Although the world at large seems to have experienced a perceptible dip in human warmth over the past decade or so — thanks perhaps to the macabre surrender of humanity to technology — the more immediate provocation behind Gere’s warning lies in his own country. America has stunned itself -and the world — by steering itself into a corner which is so un-American and which only the arrogance of a few can feel comfortable with. But no one should be surprised by the sudden-ness of it all.
America had it coming all along. Donald Trump turned his contest at the preliminaries into a hate fest, and a testing ground for his new found war-cry: America for Americans. On the face of it, there was or is nothing wrong with that war cry — except that there never ever was a threat of America being for non-Americans. Whom should and would America be for if not the Americans? But why did it even have to be stated? Lives there a human soul foolhardy enough to question that belief — or even the belief that as things stand today, it is not just “America for Americans”, it is in fact “The World for Americans.” No single nation — not even the Great British Empire at its peak, ever enjoyed the kind of monolithic hegemony in international affairs as mighty America enjoys today, especially after the end of the Cold War between two super-powers: the US and the USSR. Today, the USSR is not spoken even in the past tense. And China for all its military prowess knows the limits of its super-power pretentions. Thus “America for Americans” is a position guaranteed by the world order as it prevails today.
What is amazing here is that of all the people, it should be the Americans who entertain — or feign — insecurity on this count. Who has the will and the capability to take on America at this juncture or even to dream wildly that America could be for anyone except the Americans . If the Constitution of that country were not enough to guarantee that fundamental reality, the nuclear capability of countless war heads, missiles and other nightmarish tools of domination through destruction are standing by to remove any doubt on that score from anyone’s mind. And no one dare doubt the will power of the US administration to pull the trigger at the merest provocation.
And obviously, you cannot expect Donald Trump not to know it — especially now that he wields unquestioned control over all the buttons just one which would be enough to raze an entire civilization to the ground. So what prompts him to cry “Tiger, Tiger” in a jungle where America alone is the King?
Quite simple. And dangerous. The issue here is not Donald Trump but the mindset which he has come to understand to a nicety — and understand it he does with an accuracy not known to any of his critics. Most of these critics had ridiculed the prospects of his elevation to the most powerful job in the world. Election surveyors, psephologists, journalists, economists, political pundits, political and social scientists and social-engineering experts — all went for a six the moment America began its vote count. How laughably — and tragically — off mark these worthies proved to be! Trump had sported a mischievously knowing smile all through his campaign — sure that he had his finger on the pulse of the average Americans. That initial smile turned into the last laugh as results for the presidential poll began to roll out.
What an irony! Trump had succeeded in pulling off a miracle which others could not even have dreamt about. The miracle was to make the most powerful nation feel the most threatened. Such was the mesmerizing impact of the Trump chant that the most powerful American began to believe himself to be the weakest and came to feel the most insecure about his own strengths. With no one outside America left to challenge the American might, Trump invented a new danger: America itself. He turned American fears inwards and left them crying for help! He told Americans that their greatest virtue is their biggest weakness: the famed American open-ness and large-heartedness. He told them they are under a siege from within and even though the combined might of the outside world could not threaten the US, the “enemy” had planned an American implosion — working, living, mixing up with them in everyday streets. And America felt threatened — and still feels threatened, even as the outside world fears American! Trump knew that no one would dare offer help to the most powerful victim for no one would believe that he is a victim. Therefore, having forced America to see itself as a damsel in distress, Trump himself walked in as the new Robinhood who had come to save a beleaguered American dame! What a spectacle! And what intrepid dreamer would be needed to imagine a scenario like this and then to bring it to reality.
And yet for all the success he has achieved, is not the real issue here. The danger which Richard Gere talks about comes not from Trump but from the mindset which he has tragically come to symbolise — and from the vast popularity which this mindset now enjoys. It would be wrong to blame the Americans alone for this, even though as the most advanced country in the world, they were expected to set standards different from those which this mindset has come to be associated with. And this debate is not limited to American Versus non-American. It spreads far and wide in every direction. Its target keeps shifting from one group to another. First, it was the blacks.
Then, women. Then, the Muslims. Then, the Asians. And now almost everybody whom today’s Americans do not see as Americans of yesterday. And there is no way to draw the line.
And yet, the enemy is elsewhere and it is far more widespread and far more dangerous than can be explained only through references to Trump and the average American today. Hatred is a carnivore whose hunger grows keener the more he eats. This carnivore has has tasted human flesh. And those among us who celebrated the fact that its victims appeared to be Muslims alone will soon find that to a carnivore, the colour of flesh or the nature of creed are only excuses. It is not about Donald Trump. it is about human society becoming more and more intolerant as we become more and more “civilised”. He should not be blamed for cashing in on weaknesses which actually reside in us.
Forget America. Come to Pakistan. The society there is split vertically between the “Pak for Pakis” on the one hand and those who believe this articulation is wrong and that in fact, this articulation itself is the enemy. First, it was Pak for Muslims. Then, it was Pak for West Pakistanis. Then, Pak for Punjabis and now it is Pak for no one except where I belong.
Pakistan at least has this justifiable reason that it is a theocracy minus theology: it does not know its culture from Arabic to Persian to Punjabi or Pakhtoon or Baloch. Come closer home. What is happening in India today is no different from the events in the US of Donald Trump. Here also, from “India for Indians” to “India for Hindus” to “Indians are Hindus”, the pendulum has been swinging dangerously in a direction which can only lead Indians to self-destruction. The way things are going, we are already at war with ourselves . India is fighting over its definitions, over what really constitutes India. Indians are proud of India and ashamed of one another.
We saw the same syndrome in Punjab recently, especially in the period before and during the elections. In a land whose people were once proud of their traditions of love and valour, suddenly now the language of hatred— even self-hatred — has become the mother tongue. The virus is spreading and unless checked in time, it is set to destroy us.
All kinds of ghosts were either invented or exaggerated to frightening proportions — such as forced Punjabis to declare themselves as drug addicts. It was pathetic to see the pains to which several Punjabis went in order to prove that 70% of them were drug addicts. Not even the worst enemies of Punjab could have painted Punjab the way many of Punjab’s own sons and daughters did, with colours drawn either from gutter or from blood and gore. Never before — not even during the darkest days of militancy – have I seen Punjabis turning suicidal instinct into a political manifesto or into a commercial item the way it was done during the recent elections in Punjab. If anyone questioned this exaggeration, he was accused of being “in denial”.
That Punjab faced drug menace was beyond question. The drug issue had indeed become a cause for concern and it needed immediate and urgent governmental and social response. The government, of which I was a part, declared a war on drugs — fighting on several fronts. Most of the known drugs dons were put behind bars. To facilitate return to normal life, de-addiction and rehabilitation centers were opened throughout the state.
Non-governmental organizations also came forward to join the fight. And yet, the moment someone said Punjab is not a gone case and that the problem was manageable and was being managed, he was accused of being either a government stooge or someone “in denial” of the problem.
This brings me to the other menace modern societies all over the world face: cynicism. Some of it is motivated — politically or otherwise.
But quite a bit of it is, sadly, a normal response to personal failure to cope with a changing world. What is common in the two scenarios is the cold indifference to human values and an utter intolerance of points of view different from one’s own. In Punjab, this intolerance had earlier led to a dangerous implosion. I sense a real danger of people being sucked into the fad of cynicism which is the exact opposite of the state’s traditional vigour and gusto. I still believe America is not under threat from non-Americans, and neither is Punjab anywhere near as bad as some its own children have painted it.
More dangerously, it is becoming almost a fashion statement. Anyone not carrying it is either dubbed ignorant or declared to be in a denial. We have been seeing it in America. We are seeing it in our own country. Punjab is no exception. But Punjab should be an exception and a trail blazer. It is the land of hope, of love and of courage to stand up to any challenge. It is for Punjab’s famed youth and its great poets and thinkers to follow the path that their sportsmen still do — with ten out of 16 of the World Cup Winning hockey team this year coming from the state, and a sleepy village near a sleepier town Kurali producing the skipper. And Punjab’s varsities have been emerging as the overall national champions year after year for the past 29 years. This is the way to go! and this is the way Punjab has always gone and is still going, dooms-dayers notwithstanding. It is for opinion makers and, if possible politicians, to work consciously towards reviving this culture of hope and resurgence. Surrender to cynicism can only breed hatred and that in turn can only destroy us.