Pakistan, Palestine, and the USA

09/26/2011 03:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2011

I woke up this morning to the news that Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, had directly accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of supporting the insurgents who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last week. The New York Times called it "the most serious charge that the United States has leveled against Pakistan in the decade that America has been at war in Afghanistan."

The geopolitics of such matters are analyzed ad nauseum by Very Intelligent People in think tanks from Washington to Islamabad. The careerist participants in that debate are largely talking past each other, because each of them starts from the tendentious premise that the state that represents his or her society is the one that's in the right. I don't intend to contribute to that tedious and largely pointless conversation. I intend to do an end run around it, by reminding myself and anyone who might read this of our shared humanity.

Part of the problem is that both Pakistan and America are hyper-political cultures that, for historical and ideological reasons, both suffer from a damaging tendency to conflate the society with the state. Hence the unexamined terms "the United States" and "Pakistan" -- the impoverished vocabulary of conventional journalism -- in the quote above from the New York Times. What is "the United States"? What is "Pakistan"? To what version of these notional entities do I, as an American, or you, as a Pakistani, owe allegiance? Am I, as an American, or you, as a Pakistani, required or entitled to make excuses for things "the United States" or "Pakistan" do that we know to be wrong? Are we required always to support and excuse "us" against "them," as though societies were necessarily rivals, like football teams?

This sort of thing has gotten much worse, and the stakes much higher, in recent years, but in truth it's nothing new. Way back in 1767, Samuel Johnson observed that

In a time of war the nation is always of one mind, eager to hear something good of themselves, and ill of the enemy. At this time the task of news-writers is easy; they have nothing to do but to tell that the battle is expected, and afterwards that a battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing. Scarcely any thing awakens attention like a tale of cruelty. The writer of news never fails in the intermission of action to tell how the enemies murdered children and ravished virgins; and if the scene of action be somewhat distant, scalps half the inhabitants of a province.

In other words, don't believe what you read in the papers. I began as a political journalist -- a writer of news -- like any other, but quickly became dissatisfied with the constraints and conventions of that kind of writing. It's the opposite of poetry, in the sense that it systematically squeezes meaning out of language by resorting habitually to cant and to glib phrases like "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" (Haiti), "Himalayan kingdom" (Nepal), "Muslim separatist insurgency" (Kashmir). George Orwell would have -- did have -- a lot to say about phrases like those, whose purpose is not to enhance understanding but to disable thinking and human sympathy by pushing emotive buttons.

My personal declaration of independence from the treadmill of such intellectually and morally impoverished language was my 2004 book Alive and Well in Pakistan, whose title as well as form -- first-person nonfiction narrative, following role models like Graham Greene and Paul Theroux -- are acts of intentional resistance. Resistance is anything but futile; it is hard but necessary work that we must do in order to maintain our humanity.

But resistance to the states that presume to represent our societies, and to the propaganda organs that presume to define the terms of our conversation, is only the first step. The long-term task is to maintain our use of language at a level that enhances understanding, in both the intellectual and the empathetic sense. The kindest review of Alive and Well in Pakistan was by Alex Spillius in the Daily Telegraph, who wrote that "The author's real journey is a search for common humanity." What "the media" would define for us as "the other" is not other at all; we're all human beings, all in it together. We may not properly understand or agree with each other, but that only means that we need to work all the harder to find common ground, and then to hold it against the forces of division and enmity.

But just as it won't do simply to blame the putative other side, blaming "the media" is an evasion and a cop-out. The ultimate responsibility lies in each and all of us. If you don't like or believe what you're told or what you see on television, do the work of reading and of joining the conversation. We can joke ruefully about how people don't read books anymore, how we're all too distracted to take the time to understand or care, but the solution is to make the time. There's no more urgent task.

Is this post, then, a plug for my own books? Sure it is. I wouldn't have written them if I didn't believe that they do some of what needs to be done. And my occasional writings, my "blog" and my columns in Dawn, are a running addendum to my books. But my writings are only a starting point, and only one of many. If you're an American and you want to understand Pakistan, read the novels of Bapsi Sidhwa or Mohsin Hamid. To understand what the most vulnerable immigrants to the United States endure, read the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat's brilliant memoir Brother, I'm Dying.

Meanwhile, in New York, Palestine has formally requested membership in the United Nations, and starting today you're going to be asked to acquiesce in what "the United States" thinks about that. As a very partial antidote, maybe a starting point to thinking about it differently, I ask you to read my article "Israel and the Distortion of American Politics," which I wrote last May after the deadly attack on the flotilla that was trying to deliver relief supplies to the Gaza Strip.

Don't excuse yourself. And, to begin with, refuse to accept at face value whatever you read in the New York Times or hear on TV about what "the United States" - the state - accuses "Pakistan" - the state - of doing or abetting. The stakes are too high, and we're all responsible for the damage that results from misunderstanding and mutual suspicion.