Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Betrayal of political observers

By Ali Said Damanik

JAKARTA (JP): Today's politics looks very much like a football match with political observers sitting high on elevated benches on the sidelines commenting on every move that the players make. Sometimes, these commentators fail to contain their excitement, abandon their seats and jump into the match.

Reform has indeed provided a greater space for the public to speak out and political observers are among those who are making the best use of this opportunity.

According to the American scholar of Pakistani descent, Edward W. Said, political observers are, by definition, intellectuals -- a group of people with the ability to represent, express and articulate messages, views, stances and philosophy.

The intellectual's main duty is to awaken other people's critical thinking by showing them, as the late Catholic priest Y.B. Mangunwijaya, or Romo Mangun, put it, "the sparks of truth".

A sharpness of the mind and ability to represent their ideas to the public are the two main characteristics of these intellectuals.

It is very often the case that these intellectuals find themselves to be in opposition to many people, including the power holders. But this is where the intellectuals are being tested. Their responsibility as guardians of the public conscience and common sense -- as Noam Chomsky put it -- means they have to reveal the government's lies and analyze the actions, motives and intents. Even if they have to pay a high price for their honesty.

Chomsky was among intellectuals who "walked the talk" and continued to be critical of many of the United States' policies in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Middle East in particular.

Despite being of Jewish descent, Chomsky also questioned the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and reproached the West's and the U.S.'s support for the continued annexation.

He criticized the cold war that he believed was only a vehicle for the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to grab as many benefits as possible from the project that had haunted millions of human beings. He was no less critical over the East Timor question.

Chomsky's verbal attacks against his government were so scathing that President Richard Nixon placed him on the list of "enemies of the state". The man soon found himself the target of a systematic campaign to gag him -- including by publishers and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He persisted, however. Chomsky, who became a professor at the institute at 32, insisted that human rights and justice are universal and that every form of aggression everywhere is a threat to the survival of those values.

Edward Said pointed out the challenges facing Chomsky were the price that an intellectual had to pay for his belief and independence.

Said and Chomsky both criticized what they called "secular priesthood" -- intellectuals whose work is providing legitimacy for state policies. They are "intellectual laborers" (intelektual tukang) who receive commissions to justify the power holders' actions in exchange for material gains.

Historian Julien Benda had a name for those people: La trahison des clercs or intellectuals who betray their conscience and moral responsibility, who are willing to compromise the truth for some personal gains.

Indonesia, however, is more used to another brand of intellectuals: those who remain silent in the face of the cruel power holder. This is probably better than having intellectuals who compromise the truth for their own interests, however.

In the past, Indonesia had its share of noted intellectuals who refused to be part of the power circle so steadfastly that they turned into a power center of their own. Among the few and the finest intellectuals during the Old Order were Agus Salim, Sutan Sjahrir, Soedjatmoko and Soemitro Djojohadikusumo.

During the New Order, intellectuals came in flocks to be part of the bureaucracy and the power circle, chanting the excuse of "struggling from inside the system". Those who refused to join the herd and remain critical ran all risks under the repressive regime.

Only a few persisted with their stance, while the larger group "rediscovered" their courage to be critical only after there were signs of the New Order collapsing.

The Reform Order has turned many things upside down. Intellectuals who were once silent while enjoying the cushion of power are now suddenly critical and antigovernment. The reform movement has indeed given them a prestigious place reserved for members of a group that has the ability to present political aspirations to the public. Many of them are now called, or call themselves, reformists.

Now, when the power has returned to its old habit and we have an old state in a new society, the learned people have become split. One group fights tooth and nail to defend the power of the state using any argument and stamp of truth they can ferret out. No less ferocious is the other group whose intellectual members summon every ounce of strength to "terminate" the power.

Who is to say which of them is right? All swear on their conscience and common sense -- two sources of strength that are traditionally owned by intellectuals. Another justification would probably support Said's remarks that intellectuals should never remain in their ivory tower, that they are not neutral or value- free and that they should take sides.

The logical question to follow is, of course: which side to take? Said, Chomsky and Benda agreed that intellectuals must choose the side of the weak and downtrodden even if that means they have to face the power holder.

In Indonesia's case today, however, it is the common people who become victims of the battle between the elite in which the intellectuals are taking part.

The writer is a student and assistant lecturer at the University of Indonesia's School of Sociology and Political Science.