The Politics of Paying Attention

Ethan Casey gave this talk at the launching banquet of the International Academy of Letters USA, Houston, December 3, 2017.

The great American writer Norman Mailer once claimed that “there is no clear dividing-line between experience and imagination.” I think Mailer was right about that, and he knew what he was talking about, because he was both a great novelist and a great journalist. In a similar spirit, I think there’s no clear dividing-line between culture and politics. We’re here tonight to celebrate and discuss culture, not politics, but it’s not really possible to separate them. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Another role model of mine, the American travel writer Paul Theroux, once wrote a short essay titled “Travel Writing: The Point of It,” in which he advocated writing that’s “prescient without making predictions” and argued that he had “always felt that the truth is prophetic, and that if you describe what you see and give it life with your imagination, then what you write ought to have lasting value, no matter what the mood of your prose.” Ever since first reading that passage, I’ve cherished it as a kind of mission statement. And it’s very relevant for me to point out to you that when I first read that passage, in 2003, I was in Lahore, preparing to write my book Alive and Well in Pakistan.

It’s all about paying attention. In Alive and Well in Pakistan I paid attention to Pakistan in a way that most Americans at the time were either unwilling to do, or lacked either the experience or the imagination to know that they should do. And, despite the regrettable fact that Pakistan is chronically newsworthy, most Americans still don’t pay attention to Pakistan in the way that I think they should. It’s all about the media, of course. As my good friend – and great friend of Pakistan – Todd Shea likes to put it, Americans hear two percent of the story about Pakistan 100 percent of the time.

But I don’t say these things to congratulate myself. I say them to emphasize how important it is to pay the right kind of attention not only to Pakistan, but to the world as a whole. As a result of the way I paid attention to Pakistan in my book, I’m able now to speak and write about Pakistan and Pakistanis in ways that are beyond the merely political or topical. As the reviewer in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph very kindly put it, my “real journey” in Alive and Well in Pakistan is “a search for common humanity.” But it’s not only about my book in particular. It’s about the quality of attention that we can give in writing and reading books, rather than watching television or sending and reading tweets.

So, my politics is the politics of paying attention, and the politics of common humanity. I think that the word for that kind of politics is art, or culture. And one thing I know is that the work of writers and other artists is, right now, more urgently important than ever. At a previous moment of crisis, in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison wrote, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” I read her not as stating the commonplace that art is unavoidably political, but as suggesting that art is profoundly political, at such a deep frequency that its politics might well be inaudible to many. Such deep politics is the real purpose and importance of art. Art and culture are the most meaningful and most useful kind of politics.

Art – whether writing like mine, or painting like the great Sadequain’s, or music like that of Rizwan Wali Muhammad, which we’ll have the pleasure of hearing tonight – art is the paying of real human attention to the world. And for me journalism, which is what I call the particular way of paying attention that I practice, is a personal discipline. It’s said by religious people that prayer is attention. If that’s true, then journalism is a form of prayer. Right now, all of us in this room should be praying for – that is, paying attention to – the people of Puerto Rico. For starters, Puerto Ricans are just as American as anyone here in Houston or in Florida. But, even more importantly, they’re just as human. In the underreported aftermath of Hurricane Maria, I find myself wishing that I could be in Puerto Rico and that I spoke Spanish. But the fact that I can’t and don’t does not excuse me from doing whatever I can. And the first and most important thing I can do is to pay attention.

So, art and culture are the best kind of politics. But if that’s true, as Toni Morrison seems to be suggesting and as I believe, then what do we do with the all too correct assertion by the great British novelist J.G. Ballard that American society “amuses itself with a comic-book culture aimed for the most part at bored and violent teenagers”? Ballard said that way back in 1994, by the way, and unfortunately it’s even more true now than it was then. Here is how an American journalist, Stephen Kinzer, described the effects that America’s comic-book culture had in that very same year, 1994, on our ability to notice the genocide in Rwanda. In his book A Thousand Hills, Kinzer writes:

A handful of brave foreign journalists remained in Rwanda as the slaughter proceeded, but editors back home buried many of their stories. They believed the same lie that had swayed the [United Nations] Security Council: that what was happening in Rwanda was a spasm of “ethnic conflict,” not a government-sponsored extermination campaign. That allowed them to relegate reports from Rwanda to the back pages and concentrate on covering stories with greater public appeal. In the United States, these included the murder case against former football star O.J. Simpson, the saga of figure skater Tonya Harding, and the suicide of rock musician Kurt Cobain.

Does that sound familiar? As Kinzer quotes a Rwandan priest saying afterwards, all too rightly: “In modern society, if a catastrophe isn’t shown on television news, it doesn’t exist.” So yes, it is the fault of the media. But we ourselves allow the media to do what it does, by consuming it. Each of us bears responsibility, as an individual, for how we spend the hard currency of our attention. It’s always a matter of how each of us is willing to direct his or her attention – or to allow our attention to be directed by others. If we direct our attention to, for example, Trump’s daily onslaught of tweets, what else might we be failing to notice? Trump is responsible for what he tweets, but you and I are responsible for whether we allow him to claim our attention. As Stephen Kinzer rightly says, the world’s ignorance of the genocide in Rwanda was “a matter of choice.”

The copies of Alive and Well in Pakistan that are for sale here this evening are the 10th-anniversary edition, printed in 2014, and one of the things I chose to include in it is the text of a TEDx talk I gave at the excellent Princeton Public Library in New Jersey in 2011. I gave that talk the title “What Does Pakistan Have to Do with Haiti?” One answer to that question is that both Pakistan and Haiti suffered serious natural disasters in the calendar year 2010 – Haiti the horrific earthquake, of course, and Pakistan the severe monsoon-season flooding that at one point covered 20 percent of the country’s land area. What was revealing was how – and even whether – Americans paid attention to the two disasters. I paid attention to both, to the extent of visiting both countries in the months afterward. Frankly, I think all the media attention given to the earthquake in Haiti was self-indulgent overkill, and damaging to Haiti. By contrast, as all of you probably remember, the American public barely noticed the floods in Pakistan.

There’s a lot to say about that contrast. We don’t have time to say much about it tonight, but I tried to say some of it in that talk, which is now included in my book. It’s all about paying attention. I started out as a political journalist, and it was writing Alive and Well in Pakistan that taught me to practice more meaningful and useful ways of paying attention. And the question I want to leave us with this evening is: To what, and to whom, should we be paying attention right now?