An article by senior journalist John McBeth, published by the Asia Times last month, created ripples throughout the country and drew fire from supporters of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. The article, which depicts Jokowi's style of government and policies in checkered terms, has produced reactions in different degrees of extremity, each telling of the state of our own national psyche and nationalism.
Admittedly, McBeth's article is far from being lyrical about the president's "achievements" but to call it inimical to Jokowi's interests is also off the mark. Thus, the overstated reactions to it can only be explained by the possibility that we have lost or perhaps failed to develop the ability to understand things in less absolute terms.
Indonesian public reaction and opinion have for some time, as our social media can attest, been either black or white. To Jokowi's political opponents, any hint of criticism against the president is immediately lapped up and presented as "evidence" of his incompetence.
This is exactly what happened to McBeth's article, which was widely shared on social media by those opposed to Jokowi, or those with sympathies for his rivals. To them, McBeth became a transient hero for criticizing the president, until the journalist writes anything otherwise.
The article itself remained largely unknown to Jokowi's supporters until it went viral on the internet and that it had become a weapon for the "opposition" rendered it deserving of counter attack. Regrettably, instead of countering McBeth's assertions with cold, hard facts, Jokowi's avid fans resorted to ad hominem claims aimed at smearing the author's reputation.
Most notable of the ad hominem brigade was a Twitter user under the name Joxzin Jogja, who labeled McBeth as "a foreign-journalist-cum-admirer of Prabowo [Subianto], a lackey of Freeport and a hater of the [Islamist] 212 bunch." In this overly simple line of reasoning, the fact that McBeth dared utter any criticism against Jokowi made him a Prabowo supporter, especially because Prabowo supporters gleefully shared his article.
Joxzin further sought to clinch his argument by presenting a 2014 op-ed on Prabowo that McBeth wrote for the Singapore Straits Times. Seen through black-and-white myopia, when subtleties are completely lost, the article may seem sympathetic towards Prabowo, but only as far as Prabowo as a human being.
Here, McBeth only tries to present the man he knew as a counterbalance to the prevalent view Prabowo's opponents had been trying to spread that the man was some sort of terrifying ogre, bereft of humanity. It is not all song of praise either, as he also points out Prabowo and his family’s less-than-pleasant traits.
Joxzin undoubtedly knows how to play his target audience: The label "asing," (foreign, or foreigner), is sure to provoke the xenophobic undercurrents of Indonesian nationalism. Most Indonesians would immediately know that someone called John McBeth is most likely a non-Indonesian so the repeated label of asing is in no way a coincidence.
If McBeth's foreignness is insufficient to convince the public of his dubious character, his alleged allergy to the Indonesian Military (TNI) is another damning factor. Militarism and the worship and respect towards the military are, after all, something most Indonesians grew up with. His supposed disdain of former TNI chief Gatot Nurmantyo is another claim Joxzin made, just because the journalist wrote about the general who often made indiscreet remarks that embarrassed his own government.
The low blow in Joxzin's character-assassination attempt against McBeth was his "exposé" of past employment details of the latter's wife. It is highly doubtful that his wife had anything to do with McBeth’s article in The Asia Times.
Extending the attack to a family member only points to the primordial way the mind of the accuser works, by projecting onto McBeth and his wife the stereotypical corrupt Indonesian official and his or her spouse who benefits from his or her partner's crime. More ludicrously still, it echoes the way our society brands people en masse: A husband’s view must necessarily be shared by all his family members and that husband and wife are always collusive in all things.
Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb once wrote: "An ad hominem attack against an intellectual, not against an idea, is highly flattering. It indicates that the person does not have anything intelligent to say about your message."
A more reasoned reaction to McBeth's "bombshell" came from Indonesia's literary giant and co-founder of Tempo magazine, Goenawan Mohamad. Arguing that some of the criticisms of Jokowi's policies in McBeth's article were first exposed by Tempo, Goenawan dismissively wrote that there was nothing new in McBeth's "stale" article.
Yet, the xenophobic strains in Indonesia's nationalism are so strong that even someone like Goenawan Mohamad could not resist the chance of foreign bashing when it presented itself.
Censuring what he called the tendency of Indonesians to view foreign news reporters as more credible than their local counterparts, he then went on to insult McBeth by imagining that the senior journalist must have read Tempo's English version, as if a "foreigner" covering Indonesia for decades could not possibly read in Indonesian. Adding injury to insult, Goenawan, in an act of pejorative stereotyping, insinuated that McBeth had written the article while drinking beer at home.
Implicit in Goenawan Mohamad's reasoning is the (hypernationalist) notion that no foreigner can possibly understand and know Indonesia intimately. Such blatant arrogance is ironic, given that students of Indonesian history and political science often end up doing their postgraduate studies overseas and come home knowing more about their country's history that they would otherwise have if they had stayed at home.
It seems, even after seven decades of independence, Indonesia is yet to grow out of its nascent toxic phase of identifying nationalism with xenophobia. In a 2015 essay, Australian Indonesianist Edward Aspinall wrote that "to say that contemporary Indonesian nationalism is influenced by its history is a significant understatement. In many ways, it seems trapped by it, with much current nationalist discourse sounding anachronistic, as if ripped straight from an earlier era and transplanted unmodified into the present."
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at email@example.com and on Twitter @Johannes_nos.