Of Indonesia, Bunyips and realpolitik

I’ve been pondering on Indonesia and realpolitik. Professor Bunyip’s elegant pay-out on Alison Broinowski first set me off on that track. I even took the time to skim-read Broinowski’s doctoral thesis (of which her new book is a reworked version), which the Professor kindly linked. The Professor characterises Broinowski’s position in this delightful passage:

In her thesis, Broinowski begins with the anti-Orientalist contention that those who have embraced stereotypes and value judgements must abandon them. When she lays out her take on Occidentalism, however, the source of responsibility has gone walkabout (no Orientalist slur intended). Now, it is Australia’s responsibility to avoid giving offence, be it by advocating democracy, offering views on regional matters, or choosing its own alliances. Broinowski’s only consistent note is that, whether the West is viewing others or being viewed by them, its sin will always be the greater.

Or, for simplicity’s sake, let’s put Mrs. Broinowski’s side-step shuffle in a context that the feminist in her might appreciate: Called as an expert witness at two rape trials, she denounces the first attacker, a hirsute Australian, for acting on the vile and racist misconception that attractive Oriental girls exist to be sexually assaulted. Then, nipping next door, she testifies that a little Ozzie shiela raped in Bali must shoulder much of the blame, even lecturing her that slinky sarongs and brazen bikini tops “invited contempt” and made whatever brutalities her attackers inflicted “predictable.”

Only if the jury consisted of academics and ABC media watchdogs would the second accused be acquitted.

Although I tend to agree with the Professor, his rant (which Tim Blair admiringly echoes) seeks to create an impression that Broinowski’s stance on our near Asian neighbours is merely a typically leftist piece of anti-western self-loathing.

Certainly there are strong elements of that, as Broinowski’s summary of the attitudes of first generation Asian-Australian authors and film-makers suggests:

[T]he new fiction shows Australians as many might not see themselves. Large, lumpen, white, racist, hypocritical, ignorant, and unsubtle if not downright thick is how Australians (but not Americans) often appear to writers whose perspectives combine ‘prior knowledge’ and first-hand observation. Occasionally, individual Australians are observed to be kindly, even friendly; but their friendliness is often devalued as superficial, simple-minded, or selfishly motivated. The Asian observers don’t want to sink to their level.

Not being an aficionado of arthouse films, I can’t be sure whether that’s a fair summary of their content, though I strongly suspect that it says at least as much about Broinowski’s attitudes as those of the filmmakers.

However, leaving aside Broinowski’s cultural cringe, much of what she’s advocating is simply the stock standard Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade approach towards our near Asian neighbours. That’s hardly surprising, because Broinowski is a former DFAT bureaucrat and diplomat. I became familiar with the DFAT regional view when, as a politician, I went on a junket fact-finding mission to Indonesia in 1993. I was given an intensive briefing by some relatively senior DFAT officers, presumably so I wouldn’t say or do anything really stupid and cause a diplomatic incident. I was told later it was the standard ‘realpolitik’ briefing they give all politicians. Essentially, their line was that, although Indonesia might well be a corrupt, brutal military dictatorship, it at least had a strong, stable government. That was in Australia’s national interest. Permitting destabilisation could lead to much worse situations, with Indonesia blowing apart and being replaced by much less friendly, unstable “failed state” regimes, some of which might well be of a fundamentalist Islamic nature. That would be a real threat to Australia’s security. Better to keep Suharto and his thugs, and hope for a gradual transition to democracy over time.

This approach to Indonesia (and Malaysia and Philippines, for that matter) really hasn’t changed substantially under the Howard government. Certainly, there’s been a renewed emphasis on the importance of the American alliance, and a period of frost in the relationship with Indonesia caused by our East Timor involvement starting in 1999. However, that wasn’t a deliberate move to abandon the traditional DFAT realpolitik accommodation with Indonesia; the peacekeeping role was rather forced on Howard by the appalling butchery of the Indonesian military and its militia thugs in the full glare of the world’s media and UN election monitors. Now everything’s returned to business as usual. The DFAT realpolitik understanding has been largely restored, although no doubt there are still residual tensions. The extent to which the DFAT view has been re-embraced in a bipartisan fashion is underlined by this post by Adam at in de-nial about the mostly ineffectual “show” trials of Indonesian military and militia accused of atrocities in East Timor. The fact that, despite Indonesia’s almost complete failure to bring anyone to account for the appalling atrocities in East Timor, the response from both government and opposition politicians in Australia has been deathly silence, speaks volumes for the extent to which DFAT has re-imposed its will on politicians from both sides. Mind you, with Kevin Rudd being a DFAT mole in the ALP it probably wasn’t all that difficult. Similarly with the current brutal military crackdown on rebel forces in Aceh. Again neither side of politics has said a thing.

Although there’s a strong cultural cringe element in Broinowski’s book/thesis, most of the hypocritical double standards identified by Professor Bunyip actually flow from Australia’s renewed bipartisan ‘realpolitik’ accommodation with Indonesia. We’ve again concluded that our national interests require us to cosy up to a Javanese military kleptocracy, because the alternative might be an Islamo-fascist nation of 200 million people within spitting distance of Darwin, with Abu Bakr Bashir as President and Osama Bin Laden as Defense Secretary. The only point on which Broinowski (and the ALP) differ from the Howard government is on the extent to which we can successfully get away with cosying up to the Americans and Indonesians at the same time.

PS – To avoid a debate I’m not interested in having, I concede that “Javanese military kleptocracy” is perhaps now an overly harsh description of Indonesia. There has been some progress in the direction of genuine democratic reform, although not as much as one might have hoped, and little obvious attempt to clean up corruption. Nevertheless, Megawati is a long way from being another Suharto.

Update – A Bunyip bites back!

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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cs
cs
2022 years ago

Ken, first off, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be equally concerned about our misconsptions of Asia as we should be of Asian misconceptions of us. That does not strike me as a double-standard, simply double-sided. Second, and also skim-reading, Bunyip’s characterisation appears entirely misleading. Indeed, in her conclusion, Broinowski writes: “If this thesis were to endorse Asian exceptionalism [i.e the reverse of the Orientalist discourse] about the West while deploring Western generalisations about about Asia, it would adopt the very double standards and condescension that people in Asian countries so justifiably represent” (311). She then appears to procede to conclude on how the Occidentalism serves the agenda of opinion leaders in the country, uses Australia as a convenient scapegoat or ‘enemy’, does not necessarily serve the agendas of the peoples … sits in contradiction to many other mainstream Asian policy agendas, as well as Asian racism, involves deliberate manipulation, regional exclusion … and so on … suggesting that “Double standards and displacement of blame are persistent face-saving strategies” (314). In short, it appears to me to be a useful, realistic and nuanced study, which Bunyip has just trashed in a typical reflection of his own academic prejudice.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Chris,

As I read Bunyip’s point, it is that Broinowski has sequed to a cringe, at least to some extent, since Bali. Her recent comments about “inviting” attack are to be found in her thesis, but are given a sharper and more obviously odious edge in the light of Bali.

I agree that there’s much in her thesis that’s valuable. In particular, I think it’s important to try to understand all the factors that impact Australia’s continued non-acceptance/resentment in many parts of Asia (to differing extents at different times and places), and Broinowski makes a useful contribution to that. However, the cultural cringe is also present, and it’s impossible to read either her thesis or her more recent utterances without noticing it (unless one shares her cringe attitudes and regard them as self-evidently correct).

In her thesis, the remedies Broinowski suggests to bridge misunderstanding with Asia are very vague and general – more “sophisticated” diplomacy, and somehow harnessing Asian-Australian authorial voices to present a more positive, or at least nuanced, picture of Australia and Australians. No doubt also, projecting the fact that Australians have a more sophisticated understanding of Asian cultures, political pressures etc ourselves (certainly more sophisticated than the average Yank or Pom), would also feed into greater Asian respect for Australians.

It’s only in her recent public utterances that these general (and in my view perfectly reasonable) propositions get converted into an overt cringe.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

Ken, I am inclined to agree with Chris. I have read much emotive and contemptuous critisism of Brionowski from the likes of Bolt, Blair and Bunyip, yet I suspect none of these people have bothered to read the full text.

They have instead latched onto a few select phrases. Taken then out of their context (which is very nuanced) and accused Brioinowski of wanting to sell out Australia.

Her book is a valuable contribution because it paints with great detail how both Asian leaders cynicism and manipulation, and our own often clumsy politics have served to degrade our relationship with the region since WW2.

Her critisisms of Howard policy are legitimate because they provide a view on how the relationship will be further affected, It is not ‘cringe’ to make these observations, it it appropriate in the contect of her book.

I do agree though that her conclusions are weak. There is no offering of remedies apart from this: “All Australia can do, if it seeks membership, is to deal with its image problem, behave as an equal, and build up a record of performance….” (233)

Clearly a much more strategically savvy strategy than this is required, but I think it is forgivable that she does not provide this, as she has written a document that allows all of us to much better understand the complex dynamic we face. (A dynamic ignored by Bolt, Blair and Bunyip)

Rex

cs
cs
2022 years ago

In light of Bunyip’s characterisation of Edward Said, it is also relevant that the Guardian has recently featured Said revisiting his Orientalism thesis. Worth a read IMO, and not only because it is a perspective that does not at all support the Bunyip one-sided representation as in, for example:

The terrible conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics such as “America,” “the west” or “Islam” and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed. We still have at our disposal the rational interpretive skills that are the legacy of humanistic education, not as a sentimental piety enjoining us to return to traditional values or the classics but as the active practice of worldly secular rational discourse. The secular world is the world of history as made by human beings. Critical thought does not submit to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilisations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together. But for that kind of wider perception we need time, patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.[my emphasis]

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rex and Chris,

I agree with most of the points both of you make. I certainly shouldn’t be read as endorsing uncritically the somewhat simplistic Bunyip/Bolt world view. However, there IS a cultural cringe in Broinowski’s thought, and it’s that which simply causes most people’s hackles to rise and then for them to turn off and reject her as just another “luvvy” (as Bunyip terms lefties).

The remarks about “inviting attack” (as she phrases it in her thesis) or “inviting contempt” (as she’s put it more recently) are the most obvious and egregious examples. It’s true that they’ve been taken out of context, and are marginally less offensive when viewed back in that context. But they remain somewhat offensive IMO even in context. We don’t “invite” either attack or contempt, and if Broinowski aspires to convey her more subtle, nuanced and worthwhile messages to the mainstream Australian population, she’d be well advised to cut that sort of nonsense out of her rhetoric. It might give the lefties a warm inner glow, but it antagonises everyone else.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Ken,

Broinowski’s critics, including you, should look up “invite” using the Dictionary function in your MS Word.

“Invite” has several meanings. They are

“to encourage or provoke something that might not have happened otherwise”

or

“to ask somebody to come or go somewhere or to do something”

or

“to ask for something or to say that something should be welcomed”

You don’t have to read Broinowski’s entire thesis to know that she meant “invite” in the first sense, not the second or third. There is nothing about obnoxious or egregious about her use of “invite”.

The only thing she is guilty of is naivety, in using a word that has multiple meanings and so leaving herself open to attack by disingenuous critics like Bunyip, Bolt and Blair.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Dave,

You can try to put whatever spin on it you like. Unfortunately, most people can read plain English. I doubt that anyone other than a committed left ideologue could read the original
interview story with Broinowski in The Age without being sickened by the cringe element. Whether you like it or not, it has obliterated the otherwise worthwhile messages that could have been conveyed to Australians. Moreover, it isn’t just evil rightists like Bunyip and Bolt leaping on a careless but innocent word and twisting it out of all recognition. No-one could read the Age interview story and still seriously maintain that argument.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

Ken

I agree that The Age interview story makes Broinowski look very bad, but it doesn’t change my argument about she meant by “invite”.

When she says “the Bali victims didn’t deserve their fate, but …” well that sounds too much like “I’m not a racist but …”, for comfort. But surely you don’t think she thinks, even subconsciously, that they really did deserve their fate? She also comes across, in the story, as not liking her country very much, which might or might be true, but is not a good look.

I suspect she ran off at the mouth in the company of what looked like a sympathetic journalist, and when she saw he words in black and white, her reaction was, “My God. what have I done?”

In any case, I believe she should be judged by the content of her written work, not some ill-considered interview.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

In a mildly amusing, mildly wrong and continually unfair to the admirable Edward Said post, the Right Wing Death Bunyip has apologised to Ken for his troubles and summarised the debate thusly:

Before Bali, Broinowski wrote a quite interesting thesis on unfair Asian images of Australia. After Bali, she reheated the taxpayer-subsidised research and served it hot with a safe, standard garnish of Western guilt.

Is this progress on the original position, albeit limited, or have I got tangled in my long pants?

wen
wen
2022 years ago

oh poor Chris – a little unfair to you too! A critique of the content is one thing – but I’m not sure that it’s quite fair to be critical of ‘comment’ expression – it’s not a formal ‘post’ after all.

It’s a bit like being photographed in your pyjamas! (well, mine anyway)

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Oh, I don’t mind, if I’ve got your meaning wen … what, with my propensity for irony bypass and not wearing pyjamas and all. Actually, I find Prof Bunyip one of the more interesting RWDB … at least making some stylistic effort, which really means he strictly doesn’t qualify as an authentic RWDB, which is bound to disappoint him … and I take any comparison with Tim Dunlop as very high praise indeed … which reminds me, the Ozblogistan part of the Blogosphere sure has one giant hole in it with Tim temporarily off-line. Let’s hope that Surfdom soon resumes its role in brightening the darkness.

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

Mrs Broinowski’s view seems to start from the assumption that Asians, being an oppressed people, are incapable of racism in the way that white men worldwide are famous for. What follows is an attempt to find lots of other reasons for “Why they hate us”.

It surprises a lot of people to learn that Asia, like Australia, is full of both intellectually superior academics AND redneck racist blue collar morons.

I mean, when was the last time Ms Broinowski spent a night shooting pool in an inner city arcade, or attended a dance club? It may surprise her to learn what a lot of asians really think about us.

The asian diplomats and intellectuals she pals around with are no more representative of Asian society than Alison herself is of the average Australian.

Anthony
Anthony
2022 years ago

Doesn’t look like you’ve read it Yobbo.

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

Anthony: You are right, I haven’t read the thesis, only the interviews and various other news stories associated with it (and the book).

If anyone has a html or word document of the thesis let me know. Adobe Acrobat refuses to play nicely with my system.

Or, just post a few passages where she asserts that asian racism is an equally likely explanation, and I’ll reconsider.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Yobbo, it doesn’t even look like you read my original comment on this thread, which refers to a range of Broinowski’s conclusions, including re the question you raise.

Anthony
Anthony
2022 years ago

Most of it’s not “why they hate us”. It’s “we think they like us, but they don’t”. Neither ‘they’ nor ‘we’ come out smelling like roses.
Unfortunately I can’t copy bits out of the pdf, and I’m too lazy to type them out. But if you manage to have a look, on page 26 she attacks the ‘cultural relativism’ which means that only Western culture can accused of racism, despite evidence of worse racism in Asia. And I reckon her discussion of Occidentalism is quite interesting, and she’s quite good at pointing out the double standards used by Asian leaders and writers.
OTOH, the things that I’ve seen by or about her after the Bali bombing have been much less reasonable.
But the fact is that we *do* get a lot of bad press in Asia.
In Indonesia in 1996 many people told me that because of our Prime Minister Pauline Hanson it was dangerous for Asians to walk Australian streets, as gangs of thugs would beat them up. (Meanwhile I believed that Indonesia was a military dictatorship in which extra-judicial killing was quite common).
But whether we can do anything about it (or even if we should care that much) is another matter.

Jack Strocchi
2022 years ago

I have just this moment been browsing at the Billabong and have noted
the Professor’s anguish at the spot that our Learned Ken finds himself in, surrounded by a baying bunch of Broinowski apologists.
I have come to lend a hand to an oppressed fellow-blogger.
Ld K, you are polite to a fault. In the spirit of disinterested academic inquiry you found particles of merit in Broinowski’s thesis, and you deserve to be blessed for your labours. Instead you are damned for taking the trouble.
If one found the time I am sure that you could dig a diamond out of the mouth of the corpses of all the ideologists of our late century.
But why bother?
Broinowski is not, by a long shot, asymptotically approaching the Truth. Far from it, she is haring off in the direction of Error as fast as her tax-payer funded pins can carry her.
Her aim is the same as many of her fellow, well-heeled and out-spoken, Cultural Leftists: to look down her nose at average Australians, suck up to foreign mensahibs and peddle for partisan political privilege.
If Ocker yobbos “invite the contempt of the region[s]” Islamic terrorists, why didn’t such terrorism peak in the glorious era of zapata moustaches, body shirts, panel vans, stubbies etc?
If anything, these days Australians have bent over backwards to become chardannay-sipping, latte-ordering, inner-city terrace rennovating effete aesthetes.
Thus it is with sadistic relish that I contemplate casting a fairly high voting preference for the Anti-Christ come next election.

Anthony
Anthony
2022 years ago

Jack, you are neither being helpful or clever. It’s great that you know what her ‘aim’ is, but, just this once, I thought we were trying to have a look at what she actually said in her thesis and determine if it has some merit. And it looks like most people think it probably does, if you bother to read it. But if you just want to go on about ‘mensahibs’ and “chardannay-sipping, latte-ordering, inner-city terrace rennovating effete aesthetes”, then who is betraying a predictable bias here?