Sep 19, 2010

Cricketing antics and us

If our cricketers deserve widespread censure -- and they most definitely do -- then where do we place ourselves?

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Last week I lamented our corporate media's obsession with sensational news. In particular, I pointed to the manner in which reporting of the spot-fixing scandal which erupted in England a fortnight ago actually obfuscated more than it illuminated. The media should have been much more discerning about the train of events that led to the suspension of three of our better-known players. Indeed, I believe that there is a need to dwell deeply upon this episode, not so much because of what it tells us about those who represent us on the sportsfield but rather what it suggests about us. It is also worth bearing in mind that those who represent us in the field of politics are subject to even more censure -- and with far greater regularity -- than our cricketers. Why is it that we are so contemptuous of those in the public eye and far less keen to question our own conduct?

First, however, it is important to reiterate what I write about repeatedly on these pages: 'us' is not the monolith we often believe it to be. As such, the furore that has erupted over the involvement of our cricketers in spot-fixing has been restricted largely to the urban middle class (which includes the diaspora). Of course, this is in part due to the fact that so much of non-urban Pakistan is involved in a struggle for survival following the devastation of the monsoon floods. But it is also true that scandals such as this one become major issues mostly in urban centres and that the nature of 'public' discourse in the hinterlands is quite distinct. Another point to bear in mind is that cricket is actually less popular than other sports in some parts of the country: football in the south is a good example.

Be that as it may, what I really want to focus on is the folly of distinguishing ourselves from the cricketers we are currently berating -- or claiming are the victims of a conspiracy, as the case may be. Yes, it is true that professional sportspersons are extremely privileged and that they are often arrogant, self-absorbed and far too used to being treated like demi-gods. But as some observers have already noted, young boys such as Mohammad Amir simply have not been in the spotlight long enough to be considered a different species from the rest of us. If, as some are suggesting, Amir is simply a naive young man whose humble background at least partially explains his indiscretions, then the onus is on us to think about what influences such young men to make such decisions.

My sense is that many of us, particularly those who harbour hopes of upward social mobility, do not think all that differently from the Mohammad Amirs of the world at all. The general operative principle in large parts of Pakistan is that moral and ethical considerations should not enter the realm of social and political exchange. In other words, the public realm is an amoral one. So, for example, it is a well-known fact that getting a job in most government departments -- and ostensibly in some private organisations as well -- is only possible at the 'going rate'. Very few Pakistanis privy to this practice would pick a fight with those who organise this informal market for jobs on the basis that the practice is 'wrong'. It just is.

It is now obvious that cricketers are constantly exposed to the underground betting world and that most have been approached at one time or another to consider making a quick buck. I do not think that our cricketers are necessarily a different breed from others who represent their country. However, our boys (and girls) have grown up in a society in which the decision to take a bribe or not does not represent a moral or ethical quandary. It is something that people do. If taking a shortcut garners disproportionate benefit without fallout, then why not?

This is not a question of rule of law, lest the middle-class rule-of-law brigades starts chanting 'I told you so!' Law is just as nebulous a concept in India and the West Indies, for example, as it is in our country. Indeed, 'corruption' is as much the rule rather than the exception in many post-colonial societies. Indians and even Australians have been involved in fixing controversies in the past. However, they are now much more wary of the fallouts of such indiscretions, whereas our boys -- like the rest of us -- observe the norms around them and ask themselves: if everyone else is doing it, why not us?

The wretched of the earth necessarily ascribe to this rule because the formal mechanisms of justice, service delivery and employment generation provide them only heartache. Indeed the political, economic and cultural structures that exist in this country reinforce a logic of patronage that keeps the poor and voiceless dependent on the rich and powerful. The former survive by playing by the rules of the game, and only if and when they are empowered politically will they be able to challenge the existing logic on the basis of a self-conscious assertion of entitlements.

Then there is the principled upper-middle class, which perceives itself to be the wellspring of good liberal values. However, this class is even more culpable than the rest. When the suited and booted need to board an airplane at the last minute, they do not hesitate to call up their friends and relatives in the airline company and get passengers offloaded. Most of their business deals take place through personal contacts in complete contravention of what is considered proper -- and legal -- practice. They have multiple electricity and gas meters and they use their office employees for private purposes. The list could go on.

Again, I do not wish to suggest that Pakistanis are alone in the world with regard to such practices. It is no doubt important to avoid thinking about such matters in purely cultural terms. In fact, the logic of capital – impersonal, indiscriminate and exploitative to the core – informs social and political exchange all over the world. Yet capitalism has distinct characteristics in every separate social setting. It is, therefore, necessary first and foremost to question why our public sphere is becoming more and more regressive. Capitalist morality is part of the answer, but we need to think deeply about how capital actually weaves its spell in this land of the pure.

Most importantly, we need to ask how we can reconcile the reality of everyday life with our contrary claims that we are actual God-fearing advocates of social justice. Who is God-fearing and who is not is not for me to adjudicate. But I do know that praying five times a day, fasting through the month of Ramzan and giving zakat has become perfectly compatible with 'amoral' norms of social and political exchange which are the antithesis of social justice.

As we celebrate Eid, it is well worth asking that, if our cricketers deserve widespread censure -- and they most definitely do -- then where do we place ourselves? Every once in a while the urban middle class awakes to the reality of injustice in this society, as happened so spectacularly in the aftermath of the Sialkot beating. But the killing of those two brothers in broad daylight was just one of many such examples of blatant brutality that litters our social landscape. Why is there not uproar after every such incident? Why does our conscience come to the fore every once so often and then fall back into the recesses of our brain so quickly afterwards? Why do the standards to which we hold our representatives -- whether on the sportsfield or in politics -- not apply to our own person?

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