Widodo, a man of contradictions; a book review (Inside Indonesia Sep 9, 2020)

The complex research that Bland is demanding has existed for decades, and it is not too difficult to find…

Faced with the challenge of saying something new, Bland decided to frame his account of Jokowi within a ‘contradiction’ paradigm. Jokowi is described as a ‘man of contradictions’ who governs a country of contradictions. But this framework, if it is one, doesn’t get us much closer to understanding Jokowi. Other reviewers have already pointed out the banality of Bland’s argument, but it is worth emphasising that diagnosing contradictions is banal for any politician (and country). Politicians are structurally caught between the private and the public; the ideal and the doable; personal deficiencies and political imagery; friendships and partnerships for convenience; the day-to-day tasks and the desired long-term legacy; and so forth. Barack Obama was both the icon of hope for minorities and progressives and the president who killed innocent families in Afghanistan with US drones. Bill Clinton was both a modernising figure and a despicable womaniser who cared little about how his actions destroyed the personal lives of the women he preyed on. And Jokowi is a president who tries to capture both pluralist and Islamist voters and displays both democratic and authoritarian features. (Yudhoyono, it must be said, had similar attributes).

The empirical superficiality and conceptual flatness of Bland’s paper would not matter if he didn’t insist so aggressively on its status as a biography. With this self-proclaimed goal, the bar was set so high that only a proper biographical research project would have allowed him to pass it. Occasionally, Bland lets on that he is aware of the exaggeration of his claims. Beneath the media blitz that sold the paper as the first English-language biography of Jokowi, Bland quietly called it – at the end of his introduction – an ‘unconventional biography’ that ‘could not possibly tell his whole life story in such a short work’ (p. 8). The author could have drawn the conclusion from this that ‘such a short work’ is insufficient to pass for a biography. That he, and his publisher, did not draw this conclusion can only be explained by an unwavering determination to use the descriptor ‘biography’ as an eye-catching marketing ploy.

In the last section of Man of Contradictions, Bland expands on his belief that ‘we keep getting Indonesia wrong’. There is no clear definition of the ‘we’, but his claim to have uniquely grasped Indonesia’s and Jokowi’s ‘contradictions’ suggests that he does not include himself in the category of those who get the country habitually wrong. As the culprits, he vaguely lists officials, investors, analysts, journalists and academics, with their nationality and/or location left unspecified. The reason for the consistent misinterpretation of Indonesia, Bland argues, is that ‘we’ engage in a ‘relentless search for easy, often monocausal explanations for the fiendishly complex world around us’ (p. 139). Bland finds that academics and policy analysts in particular ‘try to squeeze and shape a country, politician, or event into a single, overarching theoretical framework.’ As a result, they overlook all the ‘contradictions’ and complexities that Bland apparently feels he uncovered in his own work.

This deficient approach, he asserts, has affected the scholarship on Indonesia. He bemoans the lack of a ‘fuller debate about Indonesian history and its connection to contemporary politics, economics, and society’ (p. 145). He also expresses his hope that his paper will prompt ‘others to dig deeper into the people and the forces shaping this nation, climbing out of the silos in which so many researchers get stuck’. Bland offers no examples of ‘stuck’ scholars who have failed to connect contemporary Indonesia to its historical origins and trials. Similarly, he does not explain why amidst an unprecedented wealth of multi-disciplinary and highly heterogeneous research on Indonesia, he feels the need to advise the community of Indonesia experts – which includes academics who have studied ‘the people and forces shaping this nation’ for their entire lives – to ‘dig deeper’. When writing this, Bland sounds like a 19th century explorer who just returned from an exotic and understudied country that only he can explain to an unknowing and admiring audience at home.

This is an extract. Please click here to read the full article.

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Marcus Mietzner ([email protected]) is associate professor at the Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

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