Shame is the force that has guided most traditional Asian societies, from the northern tip of Japan to the southern beaches of the subcontinent. Shame is what keeps a child from shunning community obligations, or an adult from taking more than he or she deserves. Shame may, in our psychologically sophisticated era, be seen as toxic, but it has nevertheless brought order and stability to areas such as Pakistan's Indus Valley over the centuries.
And yet Pakistan has steadily been losing any sense of shame. And it is no coincidence that it now finds order and stability slipping from its grasp.
In a nation of 180 million people, only two million Pakistanis pay taxes, according to recent reports. This may at first glance seem a tragic consequence of poverty, but bear in mind that roughly 30 percent of Pakistanis live in poverty, not 99 percent. For comparison's sake, neighboring India has a healthier base of 40 million taxpayers within a citizenry of 1.1 billion.
Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that "taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." Yet Pakistan's elite have found that too high a price, as have scores of millions of other citizens who have become immune to shame's pinch.
Pakistan's military feels a need to wage a costly cold war with India -- a cold war that its citizens support with their mouths but not their pocketbooks. Thus deprived of funding, the military and government must go begging -- sans shame -- to Washington for assistance. This American assistance is intended by Washington mainly for a war on terror and by used Pakistan's military mainly for anti-Indian efforts.
Most Pakistanis now decry America's attempts to buy out their sovereignty -- even as they resist taking responsibility for their nation's economic death spiral.
Two years ago, I sat in U.S. State Department offices and watched a Pakistani tycoon beg American officials for $2 million that he believed could fund an anti-poverty program. This would spur an organic Pakistani recovery, he said, adding that Pakistanis are among the world's most philanthropic citizens who just need a slight nudge.
This man's family was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which led the State Department officials to wonder why he refused to be much of a philanthropist himself, even with such cosmic stakes involved. His proposed project was named Pakistan Hai Hamara, or "Pakistan Is Ours!" -- yet, in a rich irony, he wanted America to own that program. It was, well, a shameless display.
Pakistan lost a once-in-a-generation chance to surge past its nemesis India in Western eyes in 1998, but its liberal and conservative wings alike succumbed to cheap jingoism.
When India rattled global nerves by testing nuclear devices that year, U.S. President Bill Clinton assured then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that Pakistan could achieve moral and strategic superiority if it could resist the temptation to respond by testing its own nuclear weapons.
Yet Sharif said he had no choice: The impression that Pakistanis would succumb to India's bullying is worse than death. At the least practical and worst possible time, Pakistanis reawakened their sense of shame.
Even the progressive Benazir Bhutto demanded that Sharif resign if he could not bring himself to retaliate. Pandering (shamelessly) to Pakistani jingoism, America's darling Bhutto even called for a preemptive attack on Indian facilities.
Pakistan tested its nukes successfully, celebrations erupted on the Pakistani street, and Washington hammered both India and Pakistan through sanctions.
Yet consider that Clinton hadn't asked Pakistan to hand over its nuclear materials. He simply asked for a show of restraint. What lasting benefit did Pakistan receive from the cathartic bluster?
India ultimately was able to position itself as a reliable ally to the West, as a functioning democracy, and as a meaningful trading partner.
True, Washington and Delhi have made Pakistani's lives complicated -- but Pakistan's shame has been to nurture resentment at the expense of responsibility. The rich, the upper-middle class, and opportunistic "journalists" all cultivate this resentment among Pakistan's less-educated classes, which is why Pakistani is now the world's largest exporter of conspiracy theories: bin Laden was not really killed, bin Laden was an American agent anyway, Israel is calling the shots in cahoots with the Hindus, and so on.
Shame is not all bad. Indeed, Pakistan's last, best hope is for its citizens to feel the full sting of shame and, in that classical tradition, adjust their actions in a manner that others can respect.
It begins by taking renouncing the minor joys of victimhood and accepting full responsibility for one's own lot. Paying taxes is a sensible place to start.