Laine Berman | CRCS | Voices from America
The United States and Indonesia are both plural societies that struggle to understand how to live together in diversity and with the meaning of pluralism itself. From its beginnings seventeen years ago, CRCS has had strong ties with American academia. Pioneers in inter-religious studies from the U.S., including John Raines, Mahmud Ayoub and Paul Knitter, were present at our founding and have been followed by a number of visiting lecturers who have stayed for a few weeks, months, or years, and by generations of English teachers. In addition, more than thirty CRCS alumni/ae have continued their studies for MA and PhD degrees in American universities. As we followed the news of the U.S. election within the context of the anti-pluralist turns across Asia and Europe, we wanted to know what our American friends are thinking and so we invited them to contribute their reflections to this page. This article, written by Laine Berman, is the second of the Voices from America series. To read the Indonesian translation of this article, click here. To read the first of the series, click here.
Like everyone else, I was not just baffled, but downright horrified at the shocking win of Donald J Trump to the office of president of the United States. Even though I live here in Yogyakarta, which is as far away from the United States as a person can get, my ‘home’ and cultural ties remain intact, even if my daily language and habits are now thoroughly Indonesian. After all, I did grow up in New York, Trump’s domain. As native New Yorkers, we regularly heard about his antics, from his bankruptcies, his marriages, and his thoroughly vulgar attitude toward women, to his flagrant business dealings with no regard for local culture, the environment, his contractors, or ‘ordinary’ people. We grew up with an image of him as a spoiled, rich, utterly selfish, self-aggrandizing buffoon. How can such an absurd screwball become president of the United States when we all knew Hillary had it in the bag? In line with everything I learned to expect about him, he lied, cheated and conned his way up there.
On purely selfish levels, I am unwilling to climb yet again onto the emotional roller coaster ride I’ve been thrown upon over the years as an expat American in Indonesia. I first traveled the globe during the Carter and Reagan years when the lack of internet made ignorance of world politics and, to me at least, often erroneous American policy, truly blissful. Starting with Bush Senior’s (Republican) vilification of Iraq and the ludicrous media lies bent on creating support for American involvement in yet another baseless war, my shame at being an American out in the world began. The Clinton (Democrat) years provided a brief reprieve before the truly horrific Bush Junior (Republican) came to power with his shameful and utterly deceitful search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – a campaign that not only destabilized the entire region and gave birth to Islamic State but also began the shift toward Islamic terrorism as the United States’, and hence, the world’s number 1 enemy. Some of us knew it was not the faceless Muslim that was the enemy but the economically grounded policy that accused an entire region and religion of inhuman behavior – but only if they were not American business partners. While at least in Indonesia, it became trendy again to be American under Obama (Democrat), his expansion of drone attacks in the Middle East certainly did not put an end to the double-header Bush madness.
And now, Trump (Republican).
As a long-term resident of Yogya, I used to love waking early to catch sunrise in my garden, listening to the birds chirping and watching night creatures slither off to bed in some dark corner of my vegetable patch. Now, I awake at sunrise and immediately grab my phone to check facebook and the world media to discover what new insanity has befallen the world; what new and dangerously grotesque policy has been issued that for some reason many Americans and Republicans fully support. Meanwhile I and millions of others around the planet see it as potentially destroying this world for future generations. And this is only the first month of a four-year term!
The America I grew up in taught me to embrace difference, not fear it. Yet, how much of my own childhood memories and education are clouded by myths and fantasy? The ugly truth is that what Trump stands for and what he has said throughout the campaign – and enacted in his presidency – is purely American. None of his chauvinism or racist fear-mongering is new in a United States that was forged in slavery, Jim Crow, McCarthyism, chauvinism, and a repugnant need to control women’s bodies. There is no shortage of academic and media explanations for Trump’s rise. But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that all he has done is to tap into a cultural reality that was already present—and which is now, thanks to him, far less shy about showing its ugly face. How else can we explain the need to create this post-or alternative- truth world and eliminate the real truths? Just this morning, I saw that yet another state legislature is trying to ban Howard Zinn’s 1980 history book that shatters this myth of the idyllic Mayberry America. Zinn’s groundbreaking classic, “A People’s History of the United States,” re-examines U.S. history by highlighting the origins of and the ugly truth behind our perfect America myths. Rather than the birth of benevolent Democracy (myth – the US is not a true democracy), Zinn describes US history through the lenses of race and class, placing emphasis on America’s ugly underbelly of slavery, Native American genocide, and horribly mistaken policies. This book is a “danger to American children”, according to the bill’s sponsors, because it does not emphasize “American exceptionalism and the glory of the free market economy”.
Meanwhile, Trump continues his “Make America Great Again” onslaught on decency and common sense fomenting racist attacks and hatred by playing into those myths of exceptionalism, a benevolent free market, the glory days when the United States truly was prosperous with opportunities for all (except the poor, minorities, women). That ‘truth’ started to fade a generation ago, leaving our poor, victimized, straight, white male Americans open to assault by foreigners, gays, women, and others who are ‘rightly’ inferior to them.
Yes, the United States may have created a new world order after the great wars but it is not the great standard of excellence it claims to be. With a lunatic-in-chief in office, I can only hope Indonesians begin to recognize this fact and focus more on their own internal hopes and dreams rather than reaching for the mirage that is the United States. The only point I wish Indonesians would emulate from our current American debacle is the legality and delight of humor in the media. If nothing else, Trump as president has given birth to some hilarious memes and pointed criticisms via humor that is also part of a great Indonesian tradition of using comedy to make political points. This is the only American ideal I would love to see embraced here – the freedom to speak, to express a difference of opinion, and to criticize openly that which needs to be criticized – without fear of retaliation.
Laine Berman, PhD, has been based in Jogjakarta since 1981 when she first returned to teach English at UGM and IKIP Jogja. Since then she has worked as a lecturer, researcher, writer, and project evaluator in addition to her extensive community activism.