Elmer Gantry, the 1927 novel by American author Sinclair Lewis, tells the story of a good natured hypocrite with a gift for charisma. Wherever he goes and at whatever he does, Elmer ultimately fails because his projects and his affections, his goals and his methods are essentially dishonest. Yet, of each failure, Elmer manages to make a brief success nonetheless in that he achieves the approval of the particular constituency of the moment -- if as a salesman, of the buyer; as a suitor, of the pursued; as a preacher, of the flock. He is charlatan and champion, leader and liar. In fact, Elmer himself believes with all his might in every scheme by which he is apprehended, and applies an eloquence to each new ideal that is perfectly suited not only to his own ear but to the ear of those who would believe just as fervently. Having risen to the role of a Christian Revival preacher, Elmer becomes a man of the highest moral fibre on the surface, even as the façade disintegrates by the moment under the influence of the true leaven of his nature -- which is, after all, only our shared human condition.
Having typified the protagonist of the novel as such, I would suggest that a numinous quality attends the type such that we may apply it archetypically to larger bodies and concerns, such as State ideologies, governments and the leaders of governments.
In short, I propose that we make an award after the name of Elmer Gantry -- a sort of blooper award, a worst in show award -- and apply it, in this initial bequeathing, to the government and religious leaders of Indonesia. The quality of hypocrisy demonstrated at the highest levels surely deserves international recognition.
The examples are many, just as an actor’s roles are many, and so we must pare down the entire body of laudable performances to just a few of the most recent shining examples -- ones that stand out among the crowd in a particularly obvious and repugnant manner.
I’m thinking of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s recent expulsion from Israel, to which he had travelled for a meeting of representatives from nations of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He and certain other NAM members were disallowed entry to that country and sent back home to their respective lands.
Outraged (and perhaps not a little embarrassed), the Minister hastily prepared a statement in which he bitterly complained of Israel’s “flagrant violation of the principles of international law,” vowing, in a rather impotent way, that Indonesia would not “succumb” to Israel’s “bully-boy” tactics.
But hold on a minute, Marty -- aren’t you forgetting something, and rather glaringly so? In fact, Indonesia does not recognize the State of Israel -- joining herein the august company of such countries as Chad, Cuba, Iran, Syria and North Korea. Moreover, citizens of Israel, carrying Israeli passports, are not allowed entry into Indonesia. And so why, again, are they supposed to allow you in to their country (you know, the one that doesn’t exist, according to Indonesian policy?) As the Israeli foreign minister put it, “We have cleared entry for representatives of countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel and we have not cleared those which do not.”
Pretty simple, isn’t it? It is merely your own policy turned back again. You yourself have said that only a state that is in “flagrant violation of the principles of international law” would disallow the entry of peoples from other countries. Remember? Therefore the country of Indonesia is guilty. and guilty first, of the violation of the principles of international law.”
Well of course you remember, and thus has the Elmer Gantry award been bestowed. Herein lies the purest form of hypocrisy: to declare an objection to the very thing that you yourself allow. It is nakedly ridiculous, almost universally hilarious, and so congratulations are due. Good work.
Really, it just kind of hurts to be ignored, doesn’t it? It just kind of hurts to be exposed and made little. Isn’t that what Natalegawa’s outrage is honestly about? It is in fact the only response available, save repentance, to the real bully-boy who has just been cut down a notch -- a hallmark ingredient of the same hypocrisy that led him down a blind alley in the first place.
Well, as I have said, many others in government have made their own contributions to Indonesia’s award winning performance. We hear over and over of Indonesia’s commitment to human rights, its insistence on tolerance and protection for all religious and minority groups, its rejection of discriminatory practices. This is the official line and it sounds pretty good on the silver tongues of politicians and Imams.
What to make then of the blind eye that is turned on the plight of minority sect members such as the Ahmadiyah Muslims? What to make of the harassment, abuse, expulsion and even murder that hounds their peace as protected citizens of the nation? What to make of the local government sanctioned closure of Christian churches in Bogor -- first of the Yasmin church and now of the St. Johannes Catholic church in the same locale -- where neighbourhood members, by the way, have expressed by written petition no objection to the church’s presence? What to make of the government’s sudden concern over the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in the face of its disregard for its own suffering constituents?
Well, you make an award. What else can you do? Awards and recognitions, like the Nobel Prize, may at the very least bring attention to the matter, and may in turn cause some small fissure in the walls of the ivory tower of hypocrisy. And who knows, maybe next year the Elmer Gantry award will go to another country. We who live here, and care, certainly hope so.