Redundant Overton window

Zia Mohyeddin and Amjad Islam Amjad died this month. So did General Pervez Musharraf. But except for some peripheral controversies, tributes and discussions, the country had little time to spare for the demise of these three iconic figures of its history. It is as if we are in haste to forget. To do what, you ask? To return to the inanities of politics and cultural mediocrities.

The case of General Musharraf deserves some attention. After ruling the country for nearly a decade and decades-long service, the man died in self-imposed exile. He was undoubtedly a polarising figure. But when a man dies, his politics perishes with him. His passing should have given his critics some closure. But when a few senators tried to offer fatiha for him on the floor of the house, a Jamaat-i-Islami senator opposed it. This from a religious politician whose politics revolves around the Islamic identity. Yes, the same faith whose founder had led the funeral prayer of Abdullah bin Ubbay, a known munafiq (hypocrite) of Madina, amid Hazrat Umar’s protestations. Forget what it says about Musharraf. Just think what it says about the religious understanding of the Jamaat’s leaders. There is straying from the flock. And then there is this.

Zia saheb’s departure reminded me of his final work that appeared on television — an ad about a housing project in Gujar Khan. He pronounced it Gojjar Khan. You were blessed with an artist who could so comfortably switch between flawless English and absolutely divine Urdu. From Broadway to Hollywood, from Lollywood to variety shows on television, the man left his mark everywhere. And yet, since he chose to spend his final years in the country of his origin, which in turn is obsessed with property development and converting arable land into mud brick wastelands, it makes sense that the last gig offered to him would be to promote such a project. Imagine a genie offers to fulfil your three wishes, and all you can wish for is a cheeseburger, a shower and a grave — slow clap.

Amjad Islam Amjad saheb has left behind an undying legacy. Undying in any nation that cares two hoots about culture. Our beloved country does not. Between explaining to the younger lot what a great TV drama Waris was and replaying it on television, I seriously thought if anyone even considered rebooting the TV serial with new actors and the latest production values. But why would they? They are busy making plays on scripts written by a card-carrying misogynistic man and a woman who believes minorities can be converted to Islam by listening to devotional recitations offered in the background of a phone call. You get what you ask for. Certainly, Amjad Islam Amjad and his legacy are not among those things.

About reboots. Just think how many great titles can be rebooted. Khuda ki Basti, Ankahi, Jungle, Chhoti si Duniya, Andhera Ujala, Jangloos, Chand Girhan, Alif Noon and Suraj ke Saath Saath. We have seen how successful a remake of Maula Jatt has proven to be. But there must be a reason why these projects are not being attempted. Playwright Asghar Nadeem Syed could help but speak out that writers are being asked to write specific kinds of scripts. What kind? You can easily guess that.

In the past two decades, culture has slipped out of our priority list. A healthy and pluralist culture fosters creativity which in turn engenders innovation and productivity. Ultimately, it is about creating harmony in society and ensuring tolerance for new ideas and experiments grows. A society at war with itself cannot progress a lot. But here, influential segments of the state and society do not seem ready to give up their desire to manufacture consent, homogenise the society to the breaking point, flatten and centralise a diverse nation. What can possibly go wrong? Then we complain that radicalism is proving too formidable to fight. Why wouldn’t it? It is clearly a priority of a segment.

Before we proceed further and focus on the bigger picture, let us address the title of this piece. The Overton Window, named after Joseph Overton, a policy analyst who came up with the idea, is a model to understand the range of socially and culturally acceptable ideas, their evolution over time and how they inform the dominant politics of the time. The model insists that policy decisions are guided not by personal preferences but by the desire to remain within this range. So, before you complain that politics is too toxic, you should realise that it is merely speaking to what is culturally acceptable and often preferable in society. Right back at ya! What decides this range in society? Normally evolution of society itself. But in societies like ours, where the state has uncountable levers of social influence and has been using them throughout history, you can safely hold it responsible. So, from rising misogyny to radicalism and intolerance you can see why everything traces back to the state and its preferences. Still not convinced? Do you think that the state is more ‘evolved’ than that? Just open up the course books of the single national curriculum, and you will get your answer. Mind you. No one denies the presence of progressive elements within the state apparatus. Only that they are not the ones calling shots.

Because we want to keep our Overton window redundant and divorced from reality and the changing world, our productivity and economic capacity keep shrinking. As a result, our economic performance has made us a laughing stock of the region. We can use any conspiracy to justify or explain away our plight, but the fact is the hands that destroyed the country’s economy over the decades of existence are all Pakistani.

When I tweeted about the above ad featuring Zia sb, it felt like many people did not even want to see the point. In a country where the merit system does not exist, artists are always treated shabbily, and individuality and uniqueness are frowned upon, you are bound to settle for the most mediocre economic activity like buying and selling land. When this goes on, our neighbours are exploring space and manufacturing cutting-edge technology. You get what you ask for. And make no mistakes. This is what you have been asking for all along.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2023.


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