Archive for October, 2009

A generation meets the world for the first time?

My generation has faced its share of challenges. The past 30 years or so have seen the emaciation of the American soul in the name of material accumulation. Public education has gotten steadily worse for the many and better for those lucky few with the opportunity, or the ability to demonstrate the incredible capacity, to access it. Same with health care. Public discourse has somehow evolved into one of fear – we are told we are vulnerable at all times and should always be aware of the danger. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, the Swine Flu threatens to be an epic pandemic, but the flu vaccine developed may be unsafe – and we should all be worried because the government is in danger of running out of it.

The “bad things” about America aside, though, my generation grew up in a world defined by an all powerful United States. Despite troubles at home, most have not lost sleep about the effect that the actions of other countries might have on them. Many of my generation found themselves at universities around the country, sitting in political science and sociology courses, reading about a new “post national” world, the rise of global institutions and international law, reaffirming their beliefs that those who “have” should reach out and help to better the lives of those who don’t. These ideas were very palatable, even inspiring many a career in international development and in non profit organizations, because they were, in the end, for them, intellectual and academic exercises. Feeding starving children was a science, a knowable discipline that was studied and practiced in places like Africa. Economic development is something that needed to happen in countries emerging from long civil wars or failed socialist regimes. They reached out to the world, proclaiming their “internationalism,” often playing down their American citizenship in a desire to relate to people around the world. There was always the understanding that their country was still the most powerful.

Today, this generation becomes conscious of the real prospect of an America that has to play by rules not necessarily set completely by itself. What kinds of knee-jerk reactions are going to rear their head when our place of privilege is threatened? Will this “international” generation become increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic as they face the reality that they have to share and compromise? Or, I hope, they will become less xenophobic. The need to work with others around the globe will be the opportunity we have claimed we wanted to create a more just and peaceful world.

“40 years of silence:” for Indonesians, the past is not just the past

In the heart of Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, Monas, the Monument Nasional, rises like a huge obelisk into the smoggy air. If the aspiring structure speaks to a metaphorical national pride, the museum built under the base of the monument tells a narrative of nationalism that leaves no room for interpretation. A series of three dimensional miniature scenes depicts the story of a strong, diverse people with a long history who withstood years of exploitation to rise up to expel the unjust foreign invaders. While much of this story is undoubtably true, it is the way the presentation uses this narrative of the nation to justify the Suharto regime that presided over the construction of the museum’s contents.

Indonesia’s leaders have dutifully recognized the importance of a strong national narrative – how  else could a nation with the world’s forth largest population spread across thousands of islands and speaking a myriad languages hold together? However, it is the silences in this story that are today, for many, heard most loudly.

“40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy,” a new documentary by film maker Robert Lemelson, is helping to break that silence. The film delves into the human costs of the 1965 mass killings under the so-called “communist eradication,” which were seen by many as a tactic for Suharto and his government to consolidate their power after taking over the country. The fact that Tempo, a well respected national publication in Indonesia, is writing about the film shows the desire of many to come to grips with history.
More than 10 years after the fall of the Suharto regime, many I speak with in Indonesia feel like they are finally regaining a voice. Recognizing this story, making a part of a public discourse, helps activists and civil society gain the confidence necessary to once again engage in national politics. Condemning the violent suppression of dissent helps create the space for citizens to organize and mobilize for change.

Earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia

All the good thoughts in the world to the people of Padang, Sumatra.