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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

We all live in an interesting time today. All kinds of forces have been affecting long and short-term policies, as well as macro, meso, and micro ones. There are thousands of causes to fight for, starting from the bottom of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy –food, fuel, environment and health– to enlightenment, self actualization and heightening quality of life. More than ever before, we live in a confusing time.

Indonesia is no exception. It can be sensed from regional and national media coverage what the collective national biases are toward the West and "the others" in term of country origins, religions, ideals and ideologies. Any coverage by the foreign press and non-Indonesian entities resonate differently among readers.

On the other hand, enigmas have become everyday things and unprecedented catastrophes and manmade disastrous situations have caused reading, listening and watching news a depressing activity. Information overload and niche news outlets have been burgeoning like crazy ever since the Internet became a staple for quenching our thirst for knowledge. Screening and selecting what is good for the mind is no longer an easy task.

And for this, the world needs the so-called "modern-day mythmakers" who provide explanations about why things are behaving the way they are and where the future is taking us. Like ancient mythmakers, they provide comfort and hope. They give clarity to muddy incidents and realities. They are like glasses for the shortsighted.

Household "pundit" names such as Thomas L. Friedman, Francis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria, Samuel Huntington, Dinesh D'Souza and Robert Kaplan are just a few of those who have shaped the world's opinions on certain issues. Other names are likely to have had a similar impact but on a smaller scale. Bill Maurer, author of Recharting the Caribbean, affirmed, "The punditocracy are our modern-day mythmakers."

The term "pundit" itself comes from Sanskrit word "pandit," meaning the learned one, one who is erudite in various subjects. Today it refers to anybody who speaks up regularly in the media, writes books and provides analyses of various subjects with authority. They have a large readership and at some point might influence policy makers.

Former U.S. president Bill W. Clinton, for instance, is known to have consulted with Thomas L. Friedman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times column and wrote the best-selling book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat.

In Indonesia, Kwik Kian Gie, a former columnist, had served as a member of the Cabinet during Megawati's presidency.

Eventually, pundits help direct the course of human history.

These opinionated figures speak to a general audience, rather than to specialists and scholars, using daring concepts and making obvious generalizations. Their opinions are mostly speculative but make a lot of sense in common people. Some of them are known as scholars, while others are journalists and practitioners. All have mastered the art of speaking right to the minds and hearts of the public, which is mostly done through writing eloquently regardless of their inherent and subtle biases.

In Indonesia, academics have been dominating this elite playground and this trend is not likely to subside any time soon. A handful of senior journalists and authors have joined this rank.

Anthropologists led by editors Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, however, have provided solid arguments in Why America's Top Pundits are Wrong that these self-appointed modern-day mythmakers often take their own prejudices way too far. However, the whole universe works on the basis of returning to equilibrium after a series of causes and effects, and they provide an avenue for channeling common sense into the world's collective consciousness.

Theodore Dalrymple in In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas defended the importance of instilling the correct dosage of prejudice in seeing through the glass darkly. He said, "Freedom to express falsehood is essential to the discovery of truth." The existence of prejudice can bring forth falsehood, palpably or not, or directly or not.

After all, criticism is what makes the world go round and being opinionated in the media also serves the purpose of being a member of the fourth estate. Terry Eagleton in The Function of Criticism once wrote, "The role of mass culture is to seize upon discourses that are connected to social experience and rework them into a discourse that disperses the subjects it addresses just as it homogenizes the diverse collective articulations.”

In the United States, during this presidential campaign, we have read, heard and watched many pundits giving their opinions with conviction. Arguments after arguments, analyses after analyses have been keeping the media filled with biases of a rainbow of colors. We can expect to see the same ambience during Indonesia's 2009 election campaign, which is a good time for analysts and emerging "modern-day mythmakers" to showcase their talents in steering and shaping opinions.

Indonesia is a patron society, meaning most people listen to those who are perceived as more knowledgeable and convincing. Here, punditocracy is alive and kicking, and "modern-day mythmakers" are listened to seriously. Just use your best judgment, since not all of them are worth our time.[]

The Jakarta Post, August 4, 2008

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