Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Masquerade of Madness in the Land of Amity

By and large, my impression of the Indonesian people in general, and of the Balinese people in particular, as imparted after two years of residence here, is of a people friendly almost to a fault--although only a Westerner, jaded and cranky as we are, could find fault in such a happy circumstance, seeming as it does not altogether prudent or quite adult.

But here are a people--though again in my somewhat limited, short-term experience--ever willing toward kindness and tolerance, intensely polite, simply agreeable. Here is a people who love to smile, even in the face of less than perfect circumstances--the near “accident” on the Bypass, for instance, when one is passed on the right while himself actually, and legally, and cautiously trying to turn right. This of course would be in the West, at the very least, sufficient cause for a lashing of carefully chosen curses.

It happens, and by old habit, that the words are already on the uncivil tongue, rising to that member volcanically with the heat of instant anger. It’s a knee-jerk response, and it’s easy. Strangely, it seems almost natural.

But what is this? The offender has flashed a toothy smile! His eyes are actually sparkling!

“Sorry, sorry,” he calls out cheerfully as he proceeds on his way.

What can you do? Kindness, like music, soothes the savage beast.

It may be, and sadly so, that we in the West have lost something of the communal spirit, and that simple tolerance, for all the pseudo-enlightened lip service given to lofty notions of political correctness, has long since slipped our archetypal grip.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that common people the world over--me and you and them as well--are inclined on the most basic level to be friendly and kind. It is when you transition from the general to the particular that you begin to get into trouble--when you enter the land of the special cause, the religious extremist, the political slogan, the shrill alarm. Here is where you find the haters. These are the folks who get into print, who hold the megaphones, who carry the signs. Here is the person, as Mark Twain said, who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

And yet we listen. Or some of us do. And why? Is it only because of the volume? Is it because hatefulness in its own way, at some sad and degraded level of the human psyche, is simpler yet than simplicity itself?

We read in the Jakarta Post, for instance, that the vast nation of America is merely a puppet of the miniscule state of Israel. Is this not manifestly incredible? We read in another paper that Osama bin Laden “supposedly instigated and funded” terrorism. Supposedly? Really? We read of a 17 year old girl in Denpasar who has been found “partly responsible” for her rape at the hands of a tenant in the house because she forgot to lock her bedroom door. From Aceh comes the news that lesbians will henceforth be beheaded if caught in their transgression. “We are actually allowed by our religion to kill them,” said a district police chief. Good God.

Does this not bring for the better part of us an acute feeling of disbelief and disorientation--rather as if one had fallen off a skyscraper and landed on his head?

What? Where am I? What happened?

When something sounds wrong, sounds foolish, sounds unbelievable, it’s because it is.

These are the things that are truly aberrant--this masquerade of madness disguised as reason. This is where the unfeigned smile fails and compassion falls to the totems of fanatic prejudice and ignorance. In truth, one only needs meet a man to befriend a man. It is, as I said and still believe, the most natural thing in the world. And it is, despite those few shrill voices, the natural treasure of Indonesia.

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