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The Columnist’s Role*

*By Irfan Husain


WHAT is a columnist’s role in interpreting news and commenting on it? Is it to challenge and question current views and prejudices, or to support and reinforce them? Clearly, there cannot be a single coherent view on this, as each columnist has his own take on what his role is. I can only speak for myself.

Actually, I started thinking about this when I ran into an old friend recently, and he proclaimed that reading my column was “like reading a western journalist”.

Given his accusatory tone and the anti-Western views currently prevalent in liberal, educated circles in Pakistan, I could tell that he did not intend his remark as a compliment. But beyond that, I was not sure exactly what he meant. As I try and be objective and rational in my columns, did he mean that objectivity and rationality were attributes to be found only in the West? Or was he accusing me of reflecting western views and values?

In truth, I find myself being squeezed by two converging trends: the religious right has always been against reason and rational analysis, being guided as they are solely by their narrow interpretation of the faith. They thus stand squarely against the secular credo prevalent in the West. For quite different ideological reasons, the left has also opposed western values like a free economy and individual freedom. After the invasion of Iraq, these opposing camps are united in their fierce denunciation of the West. The major difference is that the latter group has no objection to a western lifestyle or culture.

A newspaper’s op-ed pages are intended to give readers a diversity of opinion. After all, the editor can and does express his paper’s views in his daily leaders. What he wants from his columnists is a range of analysis and views. But more often than not, op-ed articles have a predictable sameness about them that tends to reinforce the received wisdom of the day.

This is as true for TV talk shows as it is for the print media. Guests on these programmers tend to echo each other as they hold forth on the burning topics of the day. But this is not an exclusively Pakistani trait: during the run-up to both Gulf wars, the mainstream media in the United States lined up solidly behind the White House. However, in normal times, there is often a lively debate over everything from hurricanes to abortion.

The problem with echoing and reinforcing the consensus is that it tends to give rise to a skewed worldview at odds with reality. Take, for instance, the tendency to select only anti-war articles from the western press for reproduction in our newspapers. This gives readers the impression that the vast majority of opinion-makers abroad are against the war in Iraq. Obviously, a significant (though declining) number of westerners support the invasion of Iraq, but their views are filtered
out by editors who select material that most closely reflects their newspapers’ line.

Here, I suppose I should declare my own biases: I confess that I am militantly secular and democratic, with strong liberal views. And while I believe in social justice, I am against the state’s direct intervention in the market place. Its role should be to ensure a certain degree of responsibility in the private sector, and to provide a level playing field. Where I disagree strongly with classic liberalism is that I do believe that government investment in the social infrastructure is essential to providing equal opportunities.

Internationally, I am a pacifist, and truly believe that religion, land and national honor do not justify the taking of human life. And I am strongly against nuclear weapons in any country. Above all, I believe that we should use our brains to arrive at solutions to disputes, and not our brawn. I’m sure many readers will scoff at these idealistic views, but I think that if after thousands of years of evolution, we still can’t get along with each other, there is something terribly wrong
with homo sapiens.

Over the years, I must have received thousands of emails, both for and against my columns in this and other newspapers. Readers have admired my logic, and denounced me for “being on the payroll of western agencies”. I have been invited to readers’ homes, and threatened with physical harm. I figure that if I provoke such a wide spectrum of responses, I
must be doing something right. For surely, a columnist should be provocative and be willing to stick his neck out. Above all, he should be original and be able to look at things from a fresh angle.

I don’t know if I succeed in all this, but I do try. I have little admiration for those who have made a profession out of repeating basically the same thing week in and week out. At the risk of upsetting colleagues, I must confess a certain degree of horror at the prospect of reading yet another conspiracy theory, or one more rant against Zionism and western imperialism.

This is not to suggest that I am not guilty of occasionally repeating (or worse, contradicting) myself. But within the parameters of my personal prejudices, I do try and vary my use of this space. This brings me to my other view of a newspaper column’s purpose which surely cannot be an endless commentary on politics.

 From time to time, I get bored of current affairs, and dive into areas ranging from books I have been reading, to new discoveries in astrophysics. This somewhat cavalier approach does not always go down well with readers: I remember being woken up early on a Saturday by a friend who had telephoned to complain about my piece on anarchism that had appeared that day. “Couldn’t you think of anything else to write about?” he asked plaintively.

After he moved back to Pakistan after many years of teaching (and engaging in radical politics) in the United States, I asked my old friend and guru, the late Eqbal Ahmed what he missed most about America. “I miss the conversation,” he replied. “In Pakistan, everyone is always talking about personalities, politics and scams. Nobody talks about books they have read, or about plays and movies they have seen. Nobody discusses ideas...”

Sadly but inevitably, I suppose that ultimately, our writing reflects this dearth of ideas.
*Courtesy: The Dawn International, Dec 09, 2005
The caption of the article was edited for this site...The Editor


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