Friday, February 07, 2014

A Quarter of a Million Flowers Bloom

I've been given the onerous task of composing this month's Afterthought and of offering up a Westerner's "perspective" on the state of the country as Independence Day rolls around for the sixty-eighth time. Why onerous? Because, like all attempts to pigeonhole people by their skin colour or geographical origin, I find the very concept to be flawed. I am a Westerner, granted, and have lived in this country for some years now, however my perceptions and conclusions have often differed from those espoused by other "bules" that I have met on my travels, and thus any concept of a Western perspective should be taken with a pinch of salt.

And surely the same thing applies to the notion of a unifying Indonesian perspective, as flags ascend poles and lip service is paid to freedom across the archipelago this month. Patriotism can be seen in this context as a flag being drawn over the real issues that matter to people here: inequality, social justice, women's rights, poverty, sectarian turmoil and a kleptocratic political elite who promulgate an agenda of so-called transnational “globalisation”, which essentially amounts to the world's powerful governments pushing trade deals and other accords down the throats of the people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the globe without having obligations to the people of those nations. Far easier to salute the flag than to address that little lot.

Proud to be Indonesian or American or Chinese on a priori grounds? Well being born in a certain country isn't a skill, it's a genetic accident. As the legendary George Carlin explains, "You wouldn't be proud of having a predisposition for colon cancer." Far better that people take pride in things that they've actually done and of how they comport themselves in a moral way.

Such knee-jerk nationalism is propagated all over the world though. Even in America, for example, the so-called “Land of the Free”, the term anti-American is often bandied about willy-nilly. This is a very odd category indeed to be pressing into service in a supposedly democratic country which embraces the concept of free speech, and is basically a phrase that is totalitarian in nature. I mean, the Soviet Union had a concept of anti-Sovietism, while the fascist Brazilian generals in the 1970s had a notion of anti-Brazilianism, through which they terrorised the population into marching in lockstep. But try going to Sweden and talking of anti-Swedenism. People will laugh at you.

The primary goal of such my-country-right-or-wrong rhetoric is to divert people away from pressing their demands in the political arena and from gaining a deeper understanding of how political power can change and how it affects their lives. And indeed it does change. Indonesia's first president, Soekarno, alongside colleagues such as Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, were the men primarily responsible for declaring Indonesia’s independence in the first place, and they offered a political blend of Islamic-tinged socialism that differs wildly from the Indonesia of today.

Espouse the ideas of these founding fathers at any point since the CIA-backed rise to power of Suharto through to the present though and you're more likely to feel the jackboots of the organisations examined in Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-tipped "The Act of Killing" on your throat. So what does it then mean to be a patriotic Indonesian? Social justice? Democracy? These values are indeed enshrined in the country's "five moral principles" of Pancasila, principles that people still learn by rote in the country’s schools to this day. Simply waving flags once a year will not help to strengthen values such as these though, values which are, in fact, truly universal.