Are Our Expectations Realistic?

Example of a Mandlebrot factal

As a boy I was naturally curious about everything around me. I was also fascinated with my parents who both read as if the words were their life’s blood. They seemed to know everything. Growing up in my house, I discovered a love of books at an early age. But I found that with the high point of reading a book or learning something knew also came with a low point of realizing that there was more to read, more to learn before I could ever have the answer. I fantasized about being a brilliant man, but for each book I read, that goal seemed to move farther away instead of closer.

If I read a book of poetry, I would become obsessed with deciphering the allusions and finding the influences of the poet. This led to more poets with more allusions that led to more poets. It was an infinite regression of poetry! By the time I was a teenager, I began to despair. I was never going to be able to read enough to learn it all.

It wasn’t until my late 20s that I realized that this was normal. That, true, I will never know it all. But that’s okay. I came to realize that the beauty is not in the knowing, but in the learning. Perhaps I tell you something about fractal geometry. But it’s not that a section of maths that I love as much as it is the process of learning about it. Learning is not an goal, it’s a path.

Two items reminded me of this yesterday. Both were fairly unremarkable in their own right, simply people expressing frustration with the very frustrating situation of society plagued by problems and government that is slow to provide solutions. But the more I thought about these items, the more I started thinking about whether or not our expectations of the government are fair? Are we being realistic about what the government can do, and how quickly it can do it?

The first item I noticed was a comment on a post by Agha Haider Raza that stated,

However, it would be interesting to read any viable recommendations you could make so as to hold the President accountable, or even the PM for their lack of activity “for the people.”

The second was the statement of PML-Q MNA Marvi Memon that government has failed to deliver.

She said people elected their representatives to have their problems solved, and since the legislators had failed to come up to the expectations of the electorate, protests and sit-ins had become order of the day. Decisions taken by parliament, she said, were not being implemented by the executive, as a result of which unrest was going up. She warned that the country could face Egypt-like situation in case the government failed to address people’s problems.

These statements have something in common in that they both communicate a frustration with the government being too slow in solving the problems of society. But I began to wonder if not just this government, but any government would meet our expectations.

One of the fundamental elements of democracy is that it is slow moving. Before some change can take place, different groups have to come to an agreement on the move. And these groups may not see things in the same light. The military has its wants, the business class has its wants, the poor have their own set of needs, and the politicians themselves have certain things that they want. Disagreements between these and other groups are natural, and finding solutions that meet everyone’s needs can be difficult.

Dictatorships are much faster moving, but that speed comes at the cost of the rights of citizens. A fast-moving dictatorship cannot tolerate a free press, popular dissent such as street protests, or even disagreement with his policies. You simply get what he gives you and if you don’t like it then he will be happy to hang you in a stadium as a warning to others who might think of crossing him.

Another issue is that I think that we have been conditioned to expect failure from the government. Why should this be any surprise? I am a young man, and already I have lived through a series of governments (some elected, some imposed) that have let us down at each turn. When we elected this government a few years ago, I found myself filled with optimism. Even though I knew better, I still thought that now that we had elected a democratic government, things would quickly fall into place. There have definitely been some improvements since Musharraf, but I can’t help but feel sometimes like I expected more.

But I also know that progress is slow. It does not come overnight. Winston Churchill said that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time’. He could have very well been talking about Pakistan. We have tried military rule under Gen. Yahya Khan that fractured our young nation. We have tried Islamization under Gen. Zia that bred the militant terrorists who bomb our shrines and our markets. Yes there are many problems that we must overcome, and yes it is frustrating how slow change seems to come. But until someone can think of a better form of government, democracy is the best way forward.

When you meet someone who is older and well read, it can become an easy wish to have that same wisdom that they do. But it takes time, patience, and hard work to achieve it. Just because you are granted membership to a library, still you cannot read all the books in one day. There are no short cuts to wisdom, and there are no short cuts to social progress also. We need to set our expectations on short-term goals that are realistically achievable in the pursuit of long-term goals that will take time. Like a Mandlebrot fractal, those small short-term successes will build on themselves and over time we will find ourselves further down the path of democracy.

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