Saturday, May 21, 2016

Indonesia’s recent crackdown on anything bearing communist symbols seems to have revived the rhetoric of the surreptitious threat of Marxist ideology

Now the creative designs of T-shirts emblazoned with the hammer-and-sickle logo that parodying the initials of the Indonesian Communist Party ( PKI ) as Pecinta Kopi Indonesia ( Indonesian coffee lovers ), performances of the Javanese folk song “Genjer Genjer” and erudite books on communism by authoritative academics have all been strictly proscribed as nefarious activities that are opposed to the state ideology.

Yet, this communist resurgence bogey no longer holds water in a world where people, facilitated by easy access to information and technology, have become super-creative in responding to what they see happening around them. 

With information obtained in a split second, people today have become multi-literate and multi-modal, artistically blending linguistic elements with other semiotic resources and modalities such as symbols, imagery, sound and graffito to carry out successful verbal and non-verbal communication. 

They are eco-social beings, their behavior always shaping and being shaped by the resources surrounding them. 

It is likely that the hammer-and sickle T-shirt design did not have any political or ideological motives, but was only an artful piece of satire. There is nothing insidious behind the communist symbol and the sardonic use of the PKI acronym. It is excessive and short-sighted to fear that communist ideology could permeate into people’s minds simply via the hammer-and sickle symbol. Most people who see the symbol, are probably not really moved one way or another. 

We shouldn’t forget that we live in an era of late modernity typified by the fluctuation of identities. Mediated by advanced technology, people develop unstable and fragmented identities, easily shifting them and embracing and reconstructing new ones they perceive as “cool” and “trendy”. Wearing clothes with communist attributes is just one manifestation of this identity reconstruction. 

Meanwhile, the confiscation of books on communism and the banning of their publication is an intellectual insult. These acts are not just motivated by the bogey of the rise of communism, but represent an anti-intellectual tendency long cultivated by the Soeharto New Order regime. 

Here there is a kind of epistemological intolerance of writers who favor the teachings of Marxism or Leninism over other schools of thoughts, or even of those writers who critique these teachings. Academic scholarship is not meant to be repressive or to curtail well-intentioned efforts to embrace any theoretical paradigm one wishes to adopt. 

Neither is it meant to proselytize to people so that they convert to certain theoretical paradigms. Instead, academia ideally should be egalitarian, welcome any intellectual inquiry and respect any intellectual tradition that a person favors, professes or affiliates with.

An intellectual tradition considered unwelcome, such as Marxism, should by no means be blindly repudiated by banning its teachings and threatening punishment for its adherents who try to revisit its relevance. Even contemporary scholars in such diverse disciplines as economics, politics, philosophy and pedagogy have extensively borrowed ( whether explicitly and implicitly ) Marxist theoretical insights to counter the hegemonic and oppressive power of Western domination. 

While it is true that every intellectual tradition has its shortcomings and may no longer be useful in contemporary contexts, we cannot just eliminate them from scholarly discussions. 

Thus, rather than banning a doctrine for no obvious reason, especially one led by an intellectual figure as formidable as Karl Marx, we might be better off exhorting people to develop a genuine critical skepticism. By doing this, we can avoid limiting intellectual freedom and propagating anti-intellectualism. 


*** The Jakarta Post/Budhi Button) The writer is an associate professor at the Atma Jaya University, Jakarta.


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