Indonesia's patchwork quilt

JAKARTA (JP): Not so long ago, liberals and relativists could point to Indonesia as a country that exemplified the very best of ""multiculturalism"", a neo-liberal concept that has gained widespread currency in the west.

As opposed to the old conservative -- some might say reactionary -- doctrine of E Pluribus Unum (out of the many, the one), the heterogeneous cultural makeup of formerly peaceful Indonesia gave liberals cause to rejoice in the apparent triumph of their particular ideology. Radically different cultures could peacefully co-exist side by side, said the liberals, and Indonesia had proven it.

Alas, the Indonesian motto of ""Unity in Diversity"" has much in common with E Pluribus Unum. Unity in diversity emphasizes assimilation into the common melting pot. More specifically, individual cultural identities are submerged or muted as the dominant common culture brings the people together in unity.

The melting pot scenario does not celebrate competing dogmas and the ascendancy of individual cultural identities under the same national roof. One way in which unity manifests itself is in the sharing of one common language.

Western liberals, especially those in government, academia and the mass media, have rejected the melting pot paradigm for the ""Patchwork Quilt"" paradigm.

In the Patchwork Quilt, assimilation into a common dominant culture is anathema, akin to cultural suicide. Advocates of the patchwork quilt say that individual sub-cultures should resist assimilation and aggressively agitate for power in pursuit of their own agenda.

The interests of the state, of compromise and the common good, are subordinated to the interests of individual sub-cultures in the patchwork quilt scenario. Accommodation of individuals and individual groups is sought at all times, no matter the cost to society at large. Competing ideologies replace compromise and cooperation.

Patchwork quilts tend to fray at the edges and ultimately disintegrate. Witness the hodgepodge of African states, hopelessly divided, economically dysfunctional, forever at war. The former Soviet Union, like Indonesia under Soeharto, was a brutally repressive regime that enforced unity through tactics of fear and terror.

When these leftist regimes collapsed (Soeharto's practices had far more in common with Stalinist Communism than American-style Democracy), the result was merely the hideously deformed offspring of leftist governance -- namely, widespread lawlessness, anarchy and national disintegration.

Paradoxically, in attempting to honor diversity by accentuating group differences rather than highlighting similarities, the unintended result isa heightening of tensions between groups. A polarized hierarchy suddenly emerges in which each group within the pecking order seeks primacy at the expense of the others.

Some are more equal than others. Therein lies the fallacy of the western notion of multiculturalism as a noble social experiment. Contrary to its motto, Indonesia was not in fact united by its diversity.

Lacking meaningful laws and Democratic institutions, the bulwark and glueof a civil society, Indonesia was only able to achieve unity in common fearof Soeharto and his murderous regime.

Tragically, the Indonesian melting pot was achieved by the wrong means and ultimately discarded in favor of the patchwork quilt. The unsurprising result has been the undoing of Indonesia and the rise of competing religious, racial, ethnic and cultural groups who all assume an oppositional stance, asserting their own cultural supremacy and insisting that all adhere to their world view. Perpetual conflict is the only logicalresult for such a society.

Western liberals, aghast at the failure in practice of their paradigmaticmodel (remember the old adage about Communism: ""Good in theory, but not in practice""), have begun clutching at relativistic straws, reverting to old arguments about economic imbalances and vague, ill-defined notions like ""the aspirations of the people.""

The economic imbalance theory holds no water and is not by itself a credible explanation for national disintegration. Witness Rome, whose collapse of civilization came amidst great riches, where even the poorest of society had a high standard of living vis a vis the time period.

Modern America -- saturated by several decades of liberal programs preferential to particular groups and which enforce parity of outcome rather than neutrality and equality of opportunity -- has for years been experiencing a measure of social upheaval during a period of unparalleled economic growth.

Moreover, crime and lawlessness in America were at an all-time low duringthe darkest days of the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. Why didn't the grievances of individuals and groups come to the fore at that time?

America, at that time, exemplified the melting pot. Individuals, while free to celebrate the unique qualities of individual cultures in festivals,cultural events and the like, did not seek to politicize their individual cultures and legislate their individual agendas.

Assimilation into a common melting pot, not by force but by choice, was what kept the American social fabric strong and united, if imperfect, even in the direst of circumstances.

Indonesia has many of the best qualities of the melting pot: A common language that unites, a vibrant young populace with progressive, original thinkers and the embryonic beginnings of democracy.

But the voices of reason who advocate a common Indonesian culture to be shared equally by all Indonesians have been drowned out by the shrill cacophony of individual groups with their litany of demands and individual grievances.

Indonesia has opted for the well-intentioned but fatally flawed patchworkquilt that celebrates and indeed seeks to politicize cultural differences among society.

Nobody advocates a return to paternalistic colonialism, which is rightly viewed as morally bankrupt. But Indonesia's wholesale adoption of neo-liberal western political models, which has resulted in the creation of over 100 new countries since World War II and further fragmented humankind,is exacerbating rather than alleviating the national disintegration of Indonesia.

The writer is a visiting American freelance writer and Indonesian observer.

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