Pakistan and the American Learning Curve Part 2

06/23/2011 03:44 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

To my surprise, my column last week elicited more reader comments than anything I've written in a while. I have mixed feelings about this. I'm glad to have stirred up debate, of course. But the measure of success should be not the quantity of debate, but the quality.

To write on controversial subjects in a way that I consider helpful takes a capacity for keeping one's cool and a willingness to refrain from scoring cheap points. A balance between candor and equanimity needs to be maintained, both within any given piece of writing and over time. Putting one's name on interpretations or recommendations concerning public events entails a shouldering of at least some portion of the responsibility for the way things turn out.

And this is the main problem I have with reader comments in general. In the olden days, the precursor to online comments was called the letters to the editor page. Space for letters was very strictly limited by both policy and physical constraints, and to get a letter published you had, at minimum, to provide your name. That system was elitist, and it often deliberately left unsaid many things that really needed to be said. But the paradox of the much more democratic Internet is that, while everyone is entitled to an opinion, not all opinions are created equal.

Last week I summarized a TEDx talk I gave to an American audience on June 1 in which I had said some hard things about American attitudes towards Pakistan, then I reflected that "the job of educating and influencing the American public is a long uphill battle, and changing U.S. foreign policy is like turning around an aircraft carrier: it has to be done carefully and very patiently." One of my favorite reader comments said: "I am not sure TED is the best forum to communicate the concern. It may be better if the information was communicated simultaneously on TED, Oprah, The O'Reilly Factor, 20/20, NBC/CBS/FOX news and The Daily Show." All I can say to that is that, if Oprah ever calls me, I'll make sure to clear my schedule. In the meantime, I'm doing what I can.

Particularly telling was that my column, which argued against reductionism, prompted exactly that from diametrically opposite directions, thereby proving my point. The United States, wrote Agha Asad Raza, "has the biggest arms industry, [and] its leaders and people lie all the time. It destroyed a whole country (Iraq) based on lies. There is nothing that these people offer the world other than death and destruction." Another ("BRR") wrote: "While Mr. Casey has tried to say there [are] more to individual cultures than meets the eye (or the media), that is true for almost anything in life. But a deeper study of contemporary Pakistan (IMHO) reveals nothing different than a cursory glance - intolerance, self-righteousness, bigotry" (my emphasis in both instances).

It can be amusing to juxtapose such statements, and I have no illusions about persuading anyone who refuses to be persuaded. But we need to call out such absolutist pronouncements from all sides, in order to discourage them. I can refute both statements above from my own personal experience. I am an American, I love my country - and no, that's not the same as agreeing with its foreign policy - and I know that the people of my society are capable of compassion and humane behavior. We are no less human than anyone else, and we have a lot more to offer the world than death and destruction.

As for the claim that a "deeper study" reveals the same as a "cursory glance," that's no more true of Pakistan than of any other subject of study. In the sixteen years I've been traveling, reporting, studying, and at times living in Pakistan, the traits I've seen and experienced in Pakistanis include hospitality, self-criticism (often to a fault), tolerance, and resourcefulness. "BRR" is confusing assertion with proof, and if you're going to make as sweeping a condemnation of an entire society as he or she is making, you'd better back it up. The Pakistan I know and write about is much more interesting and complicated than that, proof of which is that over sixteen years I've written two books and many articles and columns, and I still can't claim to understand it fully.

Another reader urged me to "cut the Americans some slack" because they are, oddly, "way better than most Haitians or Pakistanis or Indians or even Russians for that matter." First of all, no they're not. People are, overall, just as good and bad as each other everywhere. And although I do ask Pakistanis to cut Americans some slack because we need it (even if we don't deserve it), as an American myself I feel both entitled and obligated to hold my own society to a high standard. The steep ascent up the American learning curve might induce vertigo, but we must keep climbing because American actions and attitudes are, literally, a matter of life and death for many millions of non-Americans.

My real favorite comment last week came from reader Azhar Hussain, because it points us in a productive direction from a starting point of personal responsibility: "I tell my American friends [that] when I am in Pakistan I am America's Ambassador to Pakistan, and when I am in America (where I live), I am Pakistan's Ambassador to America." Hear, hear.

Reprinted with permission from Dawn.