Saturday, August 25, 2012

Indonesia Receives the First Annual Elmer Gantry Award

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 fa├žade 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.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

What are they afraid of?

It is always the first question that comes to mind when I read of reactionary religious mobs, shrill pronouncements, pushy protesters, violent vigilantes. What is it that they fear? If their religion is, as they say, the true way, the unassailable word of God, a sanctuary of eternal peace and assurance, why should what is therefore false become the cause of such a paranoid stir? Should not the misguided, ignorant or otherwise obtuse among us be rather the objects of pity than hostility? If truth be truth, what legitimate threat can lie in falsehood?

Or is God Himself unsure, unable, and therefore in need of human assistance? Is His a conditional truth, a weak-kneed stance which must teeter and wobble in the face of dissention? Is this what is truly believed, or rather feared, among the faithful?

Again and again we see the arm of man applied in the defence of an all mighty God -- whom, it seems, is after all more ostensible than all mighty. The Ahmadiyah must be banished or put to death, the Shiite must be jailed or expelled or at least kept silent, the church must be closed, the parishioners harassed, the Jew must be denied and his passport disallowed. In fact, according to the list of the six recognized religions of Indonesia, he does not even exist.

In Bogor an order of the supreme court of the nation is ignored and the Yasmin church there remains closed to this day, its doors locked by an obstinate mayor and an ever redundant FPI mob which shows up every Sunday just as religiously as they might do at the mosque (and might have better done, for that matter).

In Sumatra the longstanding Batak congregation is barred from the free use of land which they own, because their intention is to build a church, and the presence of a church would cause . . . well, who knows what horrors? “Not in my town!” one man declares. “If a mall instead, or a parking lot or a warehouse, okay.”

In Cikeusik, western Java, three Ahmadiyah sect members are killed, dozens beaten by locally sanctioned thugs and fanatics. These Ahmadiyah’s, you understand, have departed from true Islam in the belief that traditional Islam itself has departed from Mohammad’s original teachings.

Therefore they must be killed? Why? What are the killers afraid of? How is it that the surety of their own belief is so fragile in the face of another?

Is it not ironic that a faith that so suffered from the Christian Crusades of old now embraces the same brutal and malicious agenda? No greater damage than this was ever done to Christ; and no greater damage can be done to Mohammad, wherein love becomes hate and truth its victim.

And during the holy month of Ramadan the hate increases. Not content with fasting for their own sake as a means of worshipping Allah, some believers (and I use the term loosely) take to the streets to attack businesses and other private parties which have failed to observe the fast. Restaurants are trashed, bars destroyed, employees beaten. Some can fast from food, apparently, but not from bloodshed. What is the psychology behind it, if not fear? Do they imagine that violence will make their holiness apparent, or that people, once beaten, once injured, once ruined, will see the shining truth of their tormentors’ religious cause?

“Love thine enemy,” said Jesus, in whom the Moslems believe as a prophet. And Mohammad himself said this: "If one amongst the pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of God; and then escort him to where he can be secure.”

He who has ears, let him hear.

I believe that a sickness of the spirit is clearly manifest in the capers of the extremist periphery and that most good people of any and all faiths are well aware of the evil contained therein. But mere awareness is not good enough. It needs action, education, proactive measures at the level of religious, government and law enforcement sectors.

And yet what we get, so far, from the highest echelons is hypocrisy. Consider the recent statement, for example, from Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in reference specifically to violence done to Moslem Rohingya sect members in Myanmar. “Indonesia,” he said, “has consistently rejected discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or any other reason,” and would “emphasize its opposition to any kind of human rights violations.”

Oh really? You could have fooled the rest of us. What country are you living in, Marty? For while Indonesia, indeed, speaks out in favour of politically and religiously acceptable Moslem sect members such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, the intolerance proceeds apace at home where marginal people of different beliefs and cultures continue to be tirelessly bullied, discounted, molested and disinvested under the very noses of those who supposedly so fervently oppose such violations. High level disingenuousness such as this is simply another aspect of the problem itself.

Let us be brave then, let us be honest; and most of all, let us be active.

He who has eyes to see, let him see.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Mysterious Ways of the Bali Roadway

I’m trying to be polite. I’m trying to be sensitive. I’m trying to observe local culture, traditions and ways with a dispassionately astute, non-jaundiced eye -- but for criminy’s sake, what in the world can some of these people be thinking!
I’m sitting on my Honda one recent morning, ready to exit the Circle K parking lot, right turn signal on, waiting for the traffic to thin on Tamblingan, when a Balinese fellow pulls up behind me, and then parallel to the right side of my bike -- and he wants to turn left! I’m already there, signal on, ready to turn right, and he, instead of pulling up on my left side and continuing on without impediment-- a no brainer, or so it would seem to anyone in possession of that organ -- positions himself such that he must cross in front of my bike or I in front of his. In short, he has needlessly set up a scenario for a collision. What can he be thinking? Why has he done this? Has a malevolent spirit taken control of his senses? Is it a game of chicken? A jousting-like challenge? Or is the man just simply an idiot? And if the latter be the true case, we have a problem, for what this man has done is not rare, but common, as common throughout the population as black hair and brown eyes.

I know we should be used to it by now, but we’re not. Day after day it defies our ability to acclimate, to adjust, to synchronize, to enter the flow. Again and again actions such as those of the aforementioned motorbike pilot leave us with mouth agape. A brand new stupor sends the western mind into a brand new hopeless search for reason, justification, logic, intelligence in what would otherwise seem rampant stupidity.

But it cannot be stupidity, for these are not stupid people. Most of them speak two languages -- the universal Indonesian and their own native tongue -- Bahasa Bali, Sunda, Jawa, Menado, Melayu, Batak and so on, o’er the far flung peoples of the archipelago -- two languages at least, and many of them more, bits and pieces of English and Dutch and French and even Australian. I am convinced that no person can be stupid and multilingual at the same time. Here as well is an inventive people, forged in the fires of hardship and poverty, a quick-witted people, a ready people, a people able to interact with foreign cultures, peculiarities and tongues with amazing ease and alacrity.

And so why has this man, seeing that I am about to turn right, chosen to do the wrong-est thing possible and gone around my right in order to turn left? Why, why, why?

It is perfectly emblematic -- not isolated, but the norm. Why indeed does another motorbike driver try to force his bike between mine and the SUV on one side and the impassable gully on the other? What chance has this manoeuvre of doing other than failing, or perhaps causing injury or death? And yet he will try nonetheless, for it somehow seems to him somehow possible. He has done it this day, and he will do it again and again in various versions, for it is apparent that in Bali the impossible seems always just barely possible, and therefore worth a shot.

Why does the driver of the car, in the midst of the choked chaos on the bypass, reckon that the best way to turn right at the traffic light is to start in the far left lane and then cut across three lanes of traffic within the space of about two car lengths?

Why does the truck driver, roaring headlong at full speed, honk his horn when coming upon slowing traffic rather than decrease his own speed? What is the message here? “I’m in a great hurry, I’m bigger than you, I’m coming through, and I’ve given fair warning?”

Or perhaps he simply has no brakes, or just the thinnest vestige of brakes, and so means to warn the unwary drivers ahead (a method apparently widely favoured over a repair of the braking system).

Oh, and here is one of my favourites -- you know the drill -- you’re about a car length behind the vehicle in front of you, which is about a car length behind the vehicle in from of his, and so on as far as the eye can see, and yet the driver in back of you is revving his engine and flashing his lights. What, again, is the message? I want to go fast and so everyone needs to get out of my way? I own this road? Heads up, folks, I’m about to run you over?

Things such as these have driven sane men mad. In fact I know a few of them. Things such as these have driven other men to the point of dangerous imitation, a sort of roadway Heart of Darkness scenario. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Other men, milder men, merely puzzle and wonder, snug their seatbelts and hold on tighter.

Ah the myriad mysteries of the island of Bali. Who can sort them out?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Inky Dinky Disasters

I tend to be fond of most critters, especially of the mammalian persuasion -- from the lowly gerbil to the lofty dog to the human being and his more intelligent relative the orang-utan. I like fish as well, particularly for eating. But when it comes to critters of the insect world, my affection grows cold.

I can think of no pleasant experiences that I have had with bugs. It‘s not that I expect them to play ball or roll over or have cute, cuddly bug babies. That would be unreasonable. I would expect however, at this late stage in the evolutionary process, that they might manage to be at least somewhat useful, or to contribute in some way to the overall ambiance of existence, like songbirds, for instance, or turtles or frogs -- each harmless in his disposition yet contributing to the world in some sensory or aesthetic way. But what can the bug be said to contribute? How many songs devoted to the bug have you heard, how many great works of art has he inspired, how many statues or monuments erected in his honour?

I find also that bugs are rarely where they are supposed to be. A blue jay may be found in the sky or in a tree, a bear in a cave, a fish in a stream, a snake in the grass, but the bug insists on disregarding natural boundaries and ends up in my shoe, on my dinner plate, under the toilet seat, or worst of all in my bed. What more basic intrusion can there be than this? It is safe to say that one does not, and never will find the bird or the fish or the bear in his bed -- so how comes it that these crawly, creepy, unseemly insects end up there? It is not proper in any other portion of the animal kingdom, and it is not, as far as I’m concerned, a proper place for the spider or the beetle or the centipede either.

Bad enough then that the bug is in my bed, but he must further exacerbate the invasion by biting me whilst unaware in the depth of peaceful slumber. Not satisfied with biting his fellows in their own beds -- of dirt or stone or grass or sand -- the bug crawls from his earthy lair, unto my porch, through my door, through entryway and dining room and thence to the bedroom, this most hallowed of indoor spaces, to make himself cosy between the sheets of my bed, and wait there to spring his evil assault.

I wake in the morning, believing at first that I had enjoyed a good sleep, only do discover a curious itching sensation on the calf of my leg, which on visual inspection turns out to be a red welt with a little white highlight at the centre.

Seen also is a spider or some similar creature in full flight toward the end of the mattress as fast as his multiple little legs can take him. A swift, well aimed reprisal does the nefarious creature in, but the damage is done and he has left his mark, which by midday is the size of a silver dollar, and by evening mountainous with swelling, and throbbing with pain, such that it seems my very heart must have moved downward to reside in my leg.

Ultimately this results in a trip to the Emergency Room. Every effort is taken to avoid this course, hating and fearing doctors as I do. Soap is applied, ointment is applied, green oil, brown oil and bee serum are applied -- the latter of which, according to my wife, can heal even cataracts, if one is crazy enough to put the stuff in his eye -- and yet all treatments, all balms are to no avail. To the emergency room at Kasih Ibu I go, cursing all the way the scurvy little midget that can cause such a colossal nuisance.

I present myself and my wound to the receptionist and explain in the best possible Indonesian I can manage what has brought me here. Some confusion ensues from the outset, for it turns out that I have told them that I’ve bitten a spider rather than been bitten by one. They wonder perhaps, if this be the case, why the spider itself has not presented, but by and by the phraseology is put right and I am told to sit down and wait.

I don’t mind the waiting at all. It’s usual and it’s normal and it doesn’t cause any additional pain. What I do mind, yet cannot avoid, is the painful examination that follows, the poking and picking and scraping at the wound, the whistling of the technician, the sleepy disinterest of the physician, and the fact that I must return to this place every two days for the next two weeks and undergo the procedure again and again like some repetitious torture in a restless dream. Better for all this to have wrestled with the bear, struggled with the lion, grappled with the gator, than to be laid so low by such a miniscule foe as this pointless, dim-witted, superfluous bug.