The Jakarta Post
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” These lines from Charles Dickens were meant to reflect on the Victorian era that he critiqued, but it could also be a fitting reminder of our time.
Even though we live in a time when most of the information on any subject is available online, sections of the population prefer to indulge in their ignorance by subscribing to the idea that the earth is flat or that vaccines are biological weapons meant to wipe out a certain race.
Earlier this year, we witnessed how this anti-intellectualism reared its ugly head when West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil was forced to defend his design for a mosque as it was alleged that it represented the symbol of the Illuminati. As a result, Muslims could not conduct prayers at the place of worship. These types of conspiracy theories used to be discussed in the dark corners of the web or on Xeroxed flyers distributed during school lunch, but it has now reached some of the most prominent places in politics.
United States President Donald Trump might as well be the anti-intellectual-in-chief for his tendency to peddle conspiracy theories and his penchant for cozying up with firebrand figures who believe that 9/11 is an inside job or that the government uses chemicals to turn frogs gay.
This should not surprise us at all. Such blatant displays of ignorance could only come from a lack of curiosity or intellectual laziness. It should be a no-brainer that reading not only makes people less susceptible to ridiculous ideas — it can also make you a better person. For this reason we need to celebrate every literary festival that we can find, including the Jakarta International Literary Festival which opens today. This will be a welcome addition to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and the Makassar International Writers Festivals, which earlier made waves.
If all these festivals are celebrating fiction then it is all the more fitting for our time.
Fiction is one of the best ways for readers to experience the lives of those from other cultures, times and places. If reading fiction does not give you the tools to be more empathetic to the plights of others, then we don’t know what will.
Fiction has also long been a conduit for literary greats to talk about big ideas. Some of George Orwell’s best works were informed by his left-wing views, while Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged could be the manifesto of American individualism that now brings the superpower nation to an impasse. Don’t underestimate the power of fiction.