The Price of Political Progess

December 31, 2007

Is it possible that Benizar Bhutto’s admirers and detractors are both correct?

Those who have not spent residential time outside of the U.S., may be unaware that peaceful, lasting change only occurs in older cultures, such as Pakistan’s, by means of extreme baby-steps. All else typically results in horrendous violence and eventual regression. Further, in most such cultures it is impossible to work from within existing systems without accepting a certain level of corruption; and working outside of those systems can mean almost certain death (either politically or literally).

For a true Mr. Smith going to Washington–or Ms. Bhutto going to Islamabad–politics is as much a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation as one could expect to find.

Even in the U.S., we see this.

Ron Paul, running as a Libertarian (outside of the system) received little attention, but his current campaign, as a Republican (within the system) is having a significant impact on the American political debate. Ron Paul, when campaigning on his non-corrupt voting record, is often accused of being ineffective; at the same time, in the few areas where he has worked within the system (for instance, on securing earmarks for his districts), his detractors accuse him of corruption.

Compared to Pakistan, the level of corruption found in Washington is only slightly greater than that found in the checkbook of a church organist.

No American can comprehend the danger and difficulty of a political career in Islamabad, especially for a woman. Nor can we appreciate what may be necessary in order to survive. When the vast majority of those around you are accepting of a belief that it is god’s will that you to be owned, or stoned, because of your gender, one cannot afford to be squeamish about defending yourself against threats.

Not having your enemies killed is a luxury one can only afford in a society where your enemies are not allowed to kill you. This is a luxury that Bhutto clearly did not enjoy.

The Bhutto family has certainly paid the price for their efforts to modernize Pakistan. Yes, they have probably done some nasty things along the way, possibly some very horrible things, but it is the way in which they are headed that is important. In this regard, Benazir Bhutto may have been as close to a Thomas Jefferson as one could expect to find in such a backwards, repressive, and violent culture.

There is no purity in the world of successful politics, most certainly not in a place like Pakistan. The only “purists” are the fundamentalist religious fanatics who have had historical control in Pakistan, and we can only be grateful for the degree to which they are corrupt. As America heads into an election season with the possibility of religious leaders on its own presidential tickets, Americans would be wise to remember Pakistan.

Is there a place for those who support more radical modernization than Benazir Bhutto? Certainly there is. They make politicians such as Bhutto seem moderate, and therefore more acceptable. However, in societies where moderation and toleration are considered dangerous sins against god, those who take such stands, outside of the system and beyond cultural tolerance, are rarely effective–or even long-lived.

Even in the U.S., there is no possibility of being elected, or of effecting change, if you are marginalized because your platform is too far beyond the mainstream of cultural acceptance. The powerful momentum of cultural institutions, even of those that have lost their evolutionary purpose, is a part of the human condition. It is indeed a tragedy that most of us are not capable of making a logical choice to evolve beyond the anachronistic behavior of our past. None-the-less, we do have to deal with such cultural physics.

Perhaps there is a better way than Benazir Bhutto’s, or even Ron Paul’s, however learning what there is to be learned of that better way can only be accomplished from the playing field. Criticizing from the safety of the sidelines accomplishes less.

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