Monthly Archives: October 2009

SECTARIAN SABOTAGE ON WWW: Virtual Chaos

Two relatively recent sectarian battles in cyberspace have caught my attention, one because I was affected more or less directly, another because it continues to hit the news. They both involve institutions of faith, and they both involve anarchistic rebellion.

In the first instance, the one in which I was affected, the fight was over a multi-sectarian Buddhist forum which had literally tens of thousands of members. On some days there would be thousands online, spread out between different Zen schools, Modern or Classical Theravada, the various tantric Tibetan schools, Indo Madhyamika, Philosophy, Coffee Lounge etc. You get the point. It was diverse. There were specific forums, chat rooms, beginners forums – it was a huge structure which supposedly gave shelter to Buddhists of any ilk who needed to learn or share, or simply talk about their situation. It was a great way for the far flung to stay in touch.

One would have thought that this huge site, which had wonderful libraries, resources, knowledgeable people, and a peaceful core philosophy handed down by the Buddha would have been a place where we could have all discussed issues in a relatively calm style. Interestingly, it was exactly in the inter-sectarian exchanges that the core philosophy often seemed to go out the window. Logically thinking, one would expect the inter-sectarian exchanges between fellow Buddhists to be a place where common ground would be established. Not so.

It often puzzled me when I saw this, and I do still harbor pet theories of about converts from Abramic religions, but after a while a more convincing and consistent pattern began to show up. Due to it’s anonymous nature (mostly pseudonyms were used) some took great liberties to either flaunt whatever little knowledge they possessed or, worse yet, become quite virulent in their posts. It was a very mixed bag – beginners talking to scholars, renegades challenging established authorities. As it was moderated with strict basic guidelines, some of the more “off the wall” posts would duly “disappear”. Often the moderators, as figures of authority, would come under attack despite the fact they acted in line with guidelines which members ostensibly accepted upon joining.

Positions became more entrenched, and soon the escalation was such that, weirdly reminiscent of the school playground, whenever the specter of
the moderators (or the mods themselves) appeared tensions rose. Entire groups splintered off to form their own forums. And then the seemingly inevitable happened. Somebody carried out a major hack, basically pulling down the entire forum The admins have been struggling for weeks since to try and get the forum back up (somewhat thoughtfully, the hackers have left the various resources on the site accessible).

Though for sure there is plenty of room here for detailed analysis, the broad strokes on this canvas are interesting enough. Unlike the case of open social media like facebook where the range of topics are extremely broad or very personal, and where for the most part identities are fairly open and thus putting a bit of a curb on abuse, in this instance anonymity was the basic order of the day. In theory, this was mostly to protect and to free. In reality it often became a sniper’s hide. An assumption of good faith (pardon the pun) was the foundation of a system designed to allow maximum depth of expression, yet the freedom was not accompanied by a commensurate sense of responsibility or accountability.

Looking at social media in general, on facebook or twitter for example one can pick and choose friends or followers – whereas on the E-sangha forum one’s posts and threads were always public despite the anonymity. You might have noticed the past tense – perhaps I am too pessimistic.

The upshot of the hack is that many have lost contact with what was for them a valuable social resource. Possibly a sense of outrage at the perceived posturing of the moderators motivated the hack, while in the mods’ camp I am sure they feel they acted according to clearly stated guidelines. In any case, there was wanton and unnecessary destruction of a shared facility.

Behind all this something pathetic lurks – and irks me. It is inevitable that if one pursues a way of life in ever deeper ways, one seeks deeper conviction. Instinctively, most people then need to experience some sort of proof. Inherent to that is the danger that, if lacking in guidance, we then conjure up all kinds of theories to fill in the yawning void that we find ourselves looking down into when we are at the top of the arc of our leap of faith. On the other hand we might feel the rush of what we assume to be spiritual/mental enlightenment, which is perhaps just an emotional outpouring that actually obscures our common sense. Whatever the case, the proof of whether it is enlightenment or delusion does lie in the pudding, not in a false sense of superiority. It’s a fine line between exclusivity and alienation.

Which brings us to the second case, about which I will be briefer, where the battle has become truly public and epic. In this case, at war are two nutty extremes of the social spectrum: the unapologetic anarchist, anonymous troll-like hackers of the internet vs the uber-organized, celebrity studded wealthy Church of Scientology. If you would like to know more, go for it here.

Here the issue is not a movement imploding on itself (at least not yet), but one where the perceived arrogance and secrecy of what seems a fairly wacky and self absorbed bunch has invited an attack from the “anti-organized” in society. Again it is mainly motivated by a sense of outrage at (perceived) arrogance and claims of superiority. What is interesting is the organic, against-their-grain trend for the trolls to somehow to form a loose coalition smacking of organization. Having watched the infamous Tom Cruise video clip, I do have to admit some sympathy for the under-empowered, anonymous trolls. It’s almost like a resistance movement. However, no matter my personal sentiment, Scientology too has a right to exist as long as it doesn’t harm or break the law. We are not talking about Nazi occupied France.

A bloodless arena, the world wide web can nonetheless be a vicious place. The Scientologists have brought all their considerable influence down on the trolls. It has become something of a saga, mainly because of the inability
of the Scientologists to simply shrug it off. As one writer put it – don’t feed the trolls.

What can we learn from these two epic cyber clashes? Surprisingly, nothing much new. Though most of it is happening in the virtual world of digital data,
it is the same old same old. From a somewhat simplistic standpoint, the basic elements are classic. Pride and arrogance, abuse of power and lack of tolerance, attachment and hatred, authoritarianism and lack of responsibility. These are all personal. The systemic aspect of any institution will always struggle with the personal, and vice-versa.

In the case of of the loosely federated “Anonymous” or “Chanology”, despite themselves anarchists banded together to get more impact. It is difficult for us humans to suddenly stop being social. In reality everything we experience, have, and enjoy comes about through the agency of others. On the other hand the manipulation of collective power in the name of some superior ideal is most illustrative of the inability to accept responsibility at the deepest level – compassion and awareness.

Institutions provide powerful tools for us to progress, but they need to be founded in absolute personal clarity. In the end the onus is on each of us as individuals to get with it and accept that the more powerful the tools we have, the more humble and tolerant we need to be.

Why Imagemakers of the Future?

Whether the literary figures who crowded the streets of Ubud during the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival like it or not, visual language is becoming a more popular mode of communication of ideation, ideas, and even ideals, than ever before. Photography, ever more sophisticated and accessible, is becoming ever more central to that language. The photograph has become an indelible part of our communal consciousness, the icons, the shared image -the conveyor of news, memories, and artistic expression.

Because of this the exhibition of 11 emerging Indonesian photographers in the middle of the UWRF buzz took on an extra significance.

Learning the visual language of photography, being fluent in it, takes time and receptivity. And the 11 photographers featured are no exception to this process.
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But what is exceptional is that they are all working sincerely at experimenting with it, at developing their fluency, at communicating their vision, passion, and experiences. Sure, there are plenty of influences of other older photographers evident in their work, perhaps even from the ‘senior’ Indonesian photographers who co-curated the show.

But those senior photographers in their turn were influenced by their predecessors and contemporaries. Meanwhile the language of photography becomes more sophisticated, more complex, more varied. Photography is becoming more and more of universal language as its practitioners gain more an more access to simply doing it.

In Indonesia, like in many other places, photography in all its varieties has developed in leaps and bounds in the last decade. It’s an astounding phenomenon. The digital age has just about broken down the last barriers to affordability and accessibility, yet there are also serious practitioners of such arcane photographic arts as ‘lomography’ and pin-hole photography.

I disagree strongly with one foreign blogger who felt that the show is all too imitative, going so far as to claim some of the work reflects an aimless rebellion and even a lack of courage. Actually it’s all very ‘explorative’. Exploring bodies of pre-existing work, exploring their own realms of experience. They look to the extents of the language they are learning to find ways to express what they have seen and been captured by, and they do so with plenty of courage.

A young girl, born and raised in a conservative Betawi family talks her way into birthing ward in an unfamiliar city on her first trip overseas to record one of the most harrowing moments of human life. A young Balinese photographer, ever alert, instinctively takes a parting shot of a forlorn, young Australian prisoner facing a possible death sentence in a strange land. A brash kid, barely a quarter century old, convinces an iconic Indonesian diva to drape herself in toilet paper for a portrait. Another explores, in an ever so-slightly-satirical mode, the metaphoric journey of a doll named Mimi on a typical south-east Asian junket. A Balinese prince leaves comfort behind on a 9 month odyssey exploring the dusty trails of Central Asia and the sub-continent to bring back images vibrant.

All of them have pushed their own youthful boundaries, all eleven are passionately committed to their work, and they are all working photographers. Looking at their work and seeing the quality and vision that is already there, I know that if they continue they will be the future image makers whose work will be indelibly etched into our communal consciousness.

Imagemakers of the Future is on at the Alila Ubud until the 30th of November 2009.
open from 9:00 am to 9:00pm

OBAMA – THE ADDED BURDEN

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has managed to pull in a number of interesting people over the years, some with overwhelmingly political backgrounds. This year is no exception, with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Fatima Bhutto in the line-up.

As journalist-turned-arbitrator Michael Vatikiotis commented, the UWRF has become something of a writer’s talk show. There is a tendency for the audience/participants to expect the enlightened sound bite from the panel, and there is of course the reciprocal tendency to be absolutely charming and witty in return. But those are more the sideshows.

With a bit of luck one gets to sit in on discussions that truly open one’s mind to other points of view presented eloquently. Not that one has to agree, but it is always of value to have a different perspective or even a challenge to one’s complacently held ideas.

Today’s discussion on Obama and the ‘honeymoon’ from the perspective of novelist Jamal Mahjoub, journalist Antony Loewenstein, and journalist/writer Fatima Bhutto was something of an example. The latter, who lost her father and aunt to political violence, had a very skeptical view of Obama’s achievement of all that was promised during his meteoric campaign. As a Pakistani, her assessment of Obama is perhaps understandable in the light of the increased “droning“ predators of death hanging over so much of her country – and the incessant trips by US envoy Holbrooke telling Pakistan what to do.

She was joined by Loewenstein, whose dissenting Jewish take on the state of Israel’s aggressive sabotage of the peace process has been hardened by much direct observation of what actually goes on in Palestine. Talking about the two states within Palestine concept, he saw no possibility of the US sponsored concept to ever materialize. This largely because he saw how aggresively and flagrantly the Israelis continue to violate the West Bank, . It seems Obama is, for him, a kind of icing on a very bitter cake.

Mahjoub on the other hand was a little more aligned to the Obama friendly crowd. Obama is an important symbol of change, he argued, and Obama’s rhetoric is important. I think everyone agrees it’s a damn sight better than Bush’s.

Personally I feel that expecting Obama to right all of the dysfunctional US foreign policy legacy in 9 months is naive at the very best. But far worse than that is the tendency to overlook the fact that civic movement and dissent should address itself to the rot and insidious players who are the obstacles to Obama’s vision and hopes that he expresses in his rhetoric. Both those for and against this embattled man in Washington are creating impossible benchmarks for him. Give the man a few more months!

Super liberal members of his own party seem to have cornered him into tackling the toughest political stumbling block of all US presidents, the health care debacle, far too early in his term. His detractors are watching with glee, whilst at the same time quietly preparing more obstacles to prevent him exorcising the dark and arcane phantoms of power that haunt the US capital’s political corridors.

His attempt at reaching out across the aisle are reflected in his foreign policy diplomacy. Here too his ambitious efforts at diplomacy is dangerously exposed to defeat as the big hustlers in real politik (not least the US military machine) hunker down for a long battle for influence over US foreign policy. He is being pushed perilously close to fatal commitment in Afghanistan. Israel is playing hardball on the West Bank despite stern reminders. And Iran is a nasty itch that could turn into a dangerously infected tropical ulcer.

So when (ok, if) Obama fails to attain these impossible benchmarks, and his critics gather for the kill, what will have happened? Once again the true villains of the system will have eluded attention. And this is really my main objection to Bhutto’s and Lowenstein’s skepticism – by being cynical about Obama we are missing the point.

Putting aside all vicarious chauvinistic sentiments (after all Obama lived in my childhood district of Jakarta), I feel it is very special that Obama won a free election as a man of colour in a country where less than half a century ago a black man, Martin Luther King, was very publicly assassinated simply because he had a dream of having equal rights as a white man. That in itself is an extraordinary achievement, and of enormous significance. On top of that, as Mahjoub pointed out, he did it without getting himself into debt with Big Business – basically the people financed his victory. He has become a true leader, and at the same time an easy target. In reality, the whole world voted for him.

An eerie sense of the twilight zone came over me when an hour after this public discussion, my mobile vibrated with the messages of Obama’s Nobel prize. I was incredulous at first, and then apprehensive. To have been nominated in February meant that he was only two weeks into office. Quite obviously the Nobel Prize committee has it’s own political agenda. But now, yet again, Obama has been handed a very sharp double edged sword.

While theoretically it might give him more clout, it seems that this is exactly the kind of speculation that an academic committee locked up in an ivory tower would come up with. Outside, the wolves in the realpolitik landscape wait and prowl. Will they focus on the dead, rotten meat in the system? Or are they too fond of living, presidential flesh? Will the people in the US take the “people’s revolution” a step further and actually unite against all the pernicious Washington lobbyists et al? Should the Nobel prize committees have psychological evaluation/their heads examined regularly?

Meanwhile, back in Ubud, it’s party time for the writers.

DISTANCE AND TIME: THE FADING OF EMPATHY

G-30-S

I always thought that the 30th of September would be a date that would continue to evoke a sense of tragedy in the hearts of all Indonesians. Whatever one accepts as the true version, or even if one can’t fathom any form of truth about what happened 44 years ago, the sheer volume of blood spilled is spine chilling enough and the number of lives shattered or ruined is staggering enough to give one pause, no matter how remote in time it now is.

It so happens this night was the birthday of an old friend who passed away earlier this year. It was also this same night that a major earthquake destroyed the lives of many people in West Sumatra.

And earlier last night, when it still was the 30th, I was shocked, I am not sure why, by the reaction of a young guest from Jakarta staying with us. When I somberly mentioned , admittedly late in the day, that it was the 30th of September, my guest made a silly joke about it, too banal to relate here.

For me G30S, as it is known to us Indonesians, has a very personal aspect – our next door neighbor when I was a boy was one of the generals taken and murdered that night. Our families were friendly. His sons were my friends. Countless others throughout the archipelago lost dear ones, had their lives shockingly disrupted and twisted by the events of that night and the dark days that followed.

But now I must acknowledge that for those who weren’t born yet or whose lives weren’t directly touched, the impact of this event has been dampened not only by time but also by an almost cynical sense of resignation that they may never find out the real truth about what happened that night and in the following months. So I am not sure whether I am shocked that perhaps for this girl’s generation it has lost some of its significance because they have either given up hope of ever uncovering the truth, or because it simply really isn’t that relevant to them.

And I am surprised at my reaction too. After all it is the way life is. For someone who wasn’t even born yet, for the most part the only relevance it has is because they have been told (whichever version). For instance I don’t make light of the Holocaust, but it certainly doesn’t affect me as deeply as those who survived it.

But in this case because these were ‘my people’ and in my lifetime, I felt particularly taken aback by the incident. Part of me lamented what I perceived as a lack of empathy (which of course is my own perception, she might very well just have made a nervous exclamation!).

Though I certainly don’t joke about the Holocaust, I can be “objective”. At times I have even reminded some of my Jewish friends that many other people have suffered genocide, as I feel those killed by the Khmer Rouge, Hutus/Tutsis, Serbs/Bosnians, etc should be remembered as well and profoundly. But I can’t be sure whether I say that out of so called objectivity or whether it’s from the depths of my heart.

What this shows me about myself and my fellow men is that we don’t learn well from experience. We feel the pain when it happens to us, but often little empathy for other who experience suffering. Yet empathy is one of the most important of human emotions, without it we will not survive as a race.

In reality what has happened to the Jews, the Armenians, the Cambodians, the Tibetans, the Indonesian communist suspects of ‘65 who were hunted down like dogs, and too many others – all this has happened to us, these are all our people.