Insight: The Morality Blues
A. Lin Neumann
Every generation and every country struggles with defining popular morality, usually to no good end. That has been the lesson I take away from the Lady Gaga controversy in Jakarta this past week.
In Indonesia, a minority of hard-line Islamist thugs, speaking on behalf of “morality” and “culture,” created a climate of fear and uncertainty that led the singer to cancel her appearance. In the Philippines, self-appointed guardians of Christian virtue denounced Lady Gaga as a threat to Filipino values but in Manila at least the show went on.
How terribly silly this all was. This has been an embarrassing little mess for Indonesia, a country with a resilient and vibrant culture that on most days can embrace everything from hip-shaking dangdut performances to devout Islam with a live-and-let-live attitude that is the envy of much of the world.
It makes me wonder why the rest of the government did not take a cue from Djoko Suyanto, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs. In addressing the Lady Gaga foolishness, he was one of the few officials willing to state the obvious when he said: “There must not be any threats in a democratic country. If you don’t like [a performer] then don’t watch [the concert].”
What could be more obvious?
Of course, the world has been going through culture wars over worries that the young will be corrupted by impure thoughts or deeds at least since 399 BC, when the philosopher Socrates was executed for “corrupting the youth” of Athens.
In today’s popular culture, every form of new music seems to generate fears of the apocalypse that fade into embarrassment with the passage of a few short years. In 1956, when Elvis Presley was just beginning to transform the landscape of rock ’n’ roll, his gyrating hips had America in an uproar, with kids transfixed by his yearning sexuality and powerful voice and their elders worried that the world as they knew it would come to an end if Elvis was not stopped.
Taking up the cause was the National Jesuit Magazine in its June 23, 1956, issue with an article titled “Beware Elvis Presley.” The author cited newspaper accounts of performances that were described as a “striptease with clothes on [that was] … downright obscene.”
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, punk rock, Madonna, rap and now Lady Gaga have all gotten similar treatment. Pop music, of course, is just a diversion. The more worrying aspect of culture wars, of course, is that the defenders of “morality” are often defenders of their own self-interest. Elvis was indeed a threat to authority figures because he (and many others) represented a tide of rebelliousness that challenged the institutions of 1950s America. As uncomfortable as change might be for some, I would argue that such inevitable challenges to accepted authority offer all societies a path to innovation, creativity and progress.
Indonesia is no different. The opening up of this country to fresh ideas and freedoms since the New Order was dismantled in 1998 has eroded many established interests and been greatly fueled by free expression and the involvement of Indonesia’s young people. Indonesia now has creative industries, a growing middle class and a sense of vibrancy. Would the people of this country really want to stuff all that back in the bottle and follow the rhetoric of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and their patrons in uniform? I hardly think so.
To believe that the performance of a pop star in front of 52,000 fans in Jakarta would undermine anything is pure folly. But to cave into the larger publicity stunt represented by the FPI’s calculated hysteria and its political agenda does harm the nation.
When I came to Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, virtually every country in the region had an authoritarian government that controlled the media and threw opponents in jail. That is no longer the case and greater freedom in the region has been accompanied by unprecedented peace and prosperity.
So please. Lady Gaga a threat? The threat is within and the answer lies in having the moral courage to be free.
A. Lin Neumann, founding editor of the Jakarta Globe, is the host of BeritaSatu TV’s “Insight Indonesia” program.