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Jakarta globe

by Jennie S. Bev

Prior to Socrates (469-399 BC), there were the Monists and the Sophists. While the Monists subscribed to superstitious primitive beliefs, the Sophists were much more sophisticated. They taught and philosophized. Above all, they were well-versed in the arts of rhetoric and debate.

These sophists might still be alive and kicking today, far closer than we realize.

The arts of rhetoric and debate were called “sophistry” and those who mastered them would become advanced manipulators. In the hands of truth-seeking philosophers like Socrates, it was an effective tool. In the hands of politicians, it had the potential to make them charlatans.

Today, sophists might no longer exist officially but they are likely to remain within the realm of politics, particularly during an election period. The United States and Indonesia are no exception. George Eliot once said, “An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.”

While Eliot was referring to particular side-tracked politicians, it is often inevitably true.

It might be true that Barack Obama, who sounded sincere, has been showing genuine interest in saving the world through his conscientious deeds, which started with the order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within one year and meaningful talks with Middle East leaders. Yet there are also antitheses of Obama, those whose political platforms might ring with universal world peace but whose real intention is anything but.

In the 2009 election period, Indonesia has begun to see all kinds of political gladiators. As in high school, the most popular individuals enjoy high approval due to superficial, subliminal and not-so-intellectual reasons, and are likely to win the crowd and the votes. Among them are wild wolves and tame yellow Labradors, both of whom speak and behave quite similarly.

Sophistry is in full swing and constituents might not be able to determine which of the candidates are legitimate.

Ronald Reagan said humorously that “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” With a lot of respect for the people behind the “oldest profession” facade, selling is what both have in common.

Sophists were known for their notorious manipulative nature. In Indonesia’s political arena, many political gladiators have been positioning themselves to win people’s hearts by marketing personal piety through different symbols, flamboyant rhetorics and extravagant promises, mostly without any clear, quantifiable or measurable indicators. In the United States, winning hearts comes by winning minds first, which is the other way around in Indonesia.

It might be too early to use Obama as the poster child of the New Deal’s comeback. He did, however, raise the bar for all politicians. He has set an example that rhetoric and debate are not the only useful apparatuses in convincing voters and opponents, but so was the search for “the truth” and “the just.” He showed that the substance of an argument rings much louder than egotistical tongue-twisting assurance.

In the latest 2008 presidential election campaign in the United States, street-level euphoria, such as titanic banners and posters by traffic lights, were not found. Most campaigns were conducted indoors and in the media. Rage was kept to a minimum and whenever it occurred, intellectual fencing matches followed. This is believed to have reduced sophistry to a controllable level.

The 2009 presidential election campaign in Indonesia might not be a perfect democratic event, but at least it looks like one, sprinkled with sophists’ typical look-like-one-but-not-one logic of being a charlatan. Friendly and reliable-looking candidates are expected to receive more votes, regardless of their true character and capacity to make positive changes in society.

Among the less educated and somewhat naive voters, simple gestures of culturally induced politeness might even be key. Aesthetics and superficial customs are likely to replace ethics and morality. Japanese American novelist Kyoko Mori once referred to this phenomenon as “polite lies.”

As long as Indonesia’s politicians have not realized the importance of substance in their agenda, such as dignity and self-sufficiency instead of hoping for foreign assistance for most problems, “the truth” and “the justice” seeker will remain dormant. And they will keep sophistry looming among an unpretentious crowd.

Perhaps it is time to resurrect Socrates.[]

The Jakarta Globe, February 1, 2009

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