Indonesian newspapers are a ready-made treasure trove for the weekly columnist. He will never want for news of the most recent government foible, the latest gaffe, the hottest new religious squabble, the riotous or the ridiculous, murder and mayhem. It may be, as author Stephen Crane said, that the newspaper in general “is a symbol; it is feckless life’s chronicle, a collection of loud tales concentrating eternal stupidities.” This is nowhere in the world more apparent than in Indonesia, for I am convinced that the Indonesian newspaper stands apart from the crowd, head and shoulders above the commonplace drone.
Just pick up a daily paper and see for yourself. Do you not, upon reading, feel something akin to a bygone child-like passion for the colourful amusement of the comic book? Everything is so simple, so stripped to the essential, laid out in black and white, as stark, uncompromising and unflattering as old Kodak photos.
There’s something of a purity here that we do not see in the wide western world. Here the fat is sloughed from the ungainly creature, the bones laid bare, and we see at the most basic level how it moves, what it wants, how it creeps and runs, how it gathers and feeds. We are fascinated, alternately amused and horrified, outraged and unsettled, because deep down we know that what we are seeing is our own escapades, unclothed, unadorned, extraordinarily exposed, devoid now of pretence and sophistication so-called -- all those layers of political correctness and passionless political and social conditioning that have left us with the dim-witted impression that we really are above all these hatreds, brutalities, banalities, vanities, shams and mockeries that combine to make up the lesser part of the human condition.
It is not, you see, the reporting of the news that makes it so raw. It is the news itself, because it is real, it happened, ridiculous as it may seem -- and therein lies the fascination. There is no way to wrap it in the finery of jargon or to obscure it with intellect or smooth it with verbosity. George Orwell visualized, in his novel 1984, a language that he called “newspeak” -- a deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state. This in fact is what we find in America -- feather-stuffed pillows and confectionary dainties fluffed and served to a sleeping populace.
It’s different in the real world -- in Indonesia, that is. Here we read of the extremist Muslim thugs who launched the holy fasting month of Ramadan with a rampage through shop and restaurant districts, wrecking the establishments of those morally recalcitrant others who had felt no need in themselves to observe a tradition or a rule not their own. We read of an inability on the part of civil authorities to stop the well anticipated disturbance, and wonder at the consistent failure of these states of official readiness.
Having fed, then, the appetite of the flesh, like a bear about to go into hibernation, the mob fades back to the cave-like shadows of mental and physical idleness for fasting, only to re-emerge at the conclusion of prayer and introspection in another place -- Sampang, East Java -- to exact an even more harsh and deadly penalty on their heretical Shiite neighbours, burning, ruining, ravaging and dispossessing in the good name of Allah. It’s like Christmas and New Years rolled into one, a celebration throughout, with fireworks at the beginning and the end.
Government spokesmen variously condemn or rationalize. It is reprehensible says one. It is the fault of the police says another. It is a family feud says a third. And the President says the fault was in a lack of intelligence. Ah how true! Each minister makes his attempt at damage control, and yet each ends up sounding as ridiculous as the incident itself, for the events are too cruel, too naked, too inexcusable to be tempered by the impenetrable rhetoric that might work in America or Europe.
How wonderful is this? How like the old western movie lynch mob, the throng of angry villagers marching up the storm lashed road to the gate of Frankenstein’s castle! How oddly refreshing, how disturbingly meaningful compared to the outlawing in America of Christian displays at Christmas time, the name of God from the school curriculum, the erection of a cross at the school shooting site -- the smug, proud, papery rampage of the secular mob and the impotent whimper of the dispossessed.