On the PTI government’s disrespect for the poor

  • They aren’t poor simply because they haven’t tried being rich

Poverty is nobody’s fault but the establishment’s.

On the 11th of January, the government of Pakistan’s official handle tweeted a piece neoliberal wisdom that induced apprehension in at least three ways.

The tweet featured an image with the quote, “If you born poor its not your mistake but if you die poor its your mistake.”

The first thing we notice is that the quote is grammatically incorrect. This is not an alarming problem, and the sky certainly won’t be falling over this Urdu-speaking nation. Its inability to proofread its official tweets and know its from it’s, doesn’t reflect well on the government. The second problem is that the tweet misattributes the quote to Bill Gates. A simple Google search informs us that Gates said no such thing. This is the primary reason the tweet was deleted by the handle.

The third and the most under-discussed reason, one that truly elevates the tweet from a mere gaffe to a scandal, is the government’s shocking ignorance of how poverty works. This perspective is the hallmark of the neoliberal ideology, which appears rooted in the fair world hypothesis. The mind that generated this quote, is one who believes that you are simply what you deserve to be. If you’re an intelligent, hard-working individual, the capitalist system will indubitably reward you with wealth, and you’ll naturally ascend through the imperial hierarchy. ‘Just look at PTI!’, the Insaafians may say.

Of course, this also implies that if you’re poor, it is because you never tried hard enough to amount to anything more in life. It’s your fault. It is not the system that failed you; it is you who ‘chose’ not to live up to the system’s expectation.

We don’t expect our government officials to speak perfect English, or not make the occasional error of tweeting misattributed ‘inspirational’ quotes

The quote is irrational even at the most superficial examination, when one thinks of all famous personalities in the world who died poor. One of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous works – L’Allée des Alyscamps – was purchased by a private collector in 2015 for $66 million. The artist himself, however, died of suicide in 1890. He was nearly penniless, having sold only one of the 860 paintings he created during his own lifetime. Edgar Allen Poe sold his globally acclaimed poem – ‘The Raven’ – for a mere $9 to a publisher. How many successful Pakistani writers and artists can one name simply off the top of one’s head, who died poor despite struggling constantly in life?

A deeply problematic aspect of capitalism is equating success with wealth, as if they always rise and fall in proportion to one another. Paris Hilton, for instance, is not a successful anything and has failed at nearly every endeavor she’s attempted, from acting to singing to being a DJ. She is spectacularly wealthy though, if ‘Hilton’ is any indication.

The poor aren’t poor simply because they haven’t tried being rich. They aren’t poor simply because they aren’t intelligent enough. Have you tried running a household of four on a taxi driver’s salary? That takes intelligence. It is outright abusive to blame the poor for being the architects of their own misery, when the reins of our politico economic system are firmly in the hands of the establishment, comprising of the government and private corporations.

I don’t intend on preaching the finer tenets of Marxism to PTI. I simply expect a government entrusted with the task of alleviating poverty in this country, to have some basic understanding of poverty as an economic phenomenon. I’d prefer our government to have some respect for the desperate people it claims to be helping. If the plan of action is to blame the victim; to shame him for underachieving; to beat her with a verbal whip into working harder; then why do we even need these politicians? Would the state not be better off in the hands of my school’s PT teacher; surely he’ll keep the marginalised poor on their feet with regular motivational speeches.

A critic may lambast me for reading far too much into the government’s now-deleted tweet. But this tweet is simply the latest in PTI’s history of haughtiness and cynicism towards the Pakistani people. Where democrats chose to empower and appease the people, PTI scolds and lambasts anyone who challenges PTI’s “turn” to rule. The people lack “sharam” and “haya” for allowing themselves to be ruled by other parties, said Khan’s election campaign ads. The people who greeted Nawaz Sharif are “donkeys”, he said. Liberals are “scum”, he said. A good dictatorship is better than a bad democracy, he said.

When this government says that poor people die because of their own mistakes, I see plenty of reason for us to be outraged but no reason for us to be surprised. This is what happens when we find ourselves being ruled by the party of a sports celebrity and wealthy English socialite with an awami awakening right in time to launch a political party. We have as much reason to expect Mr Khan to empathise with the poor and their struggles, as we have for Donald Trump to develop sudden sympathies for the working class immigrants.

We don’t expect our government officials to speak perfect English, or not make the occasional error of tweeting misattributed ‘inspirational’ quotes. But we do expect them to be more respectful towards the poor, many of whom have invested so much hope in this young government. We expect help, not blame.

Because if you’re born poor, it’s not your mistake. But if you die poor, it’s the mistake of the authorities that are entrusted with the task of making sure you thrive.