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Mohammed: get the picture? or “Show me the Prophet!”

A picture is worth…

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia


Islam is a religion of peace; the sword is for circumcisions only

Although the world is chock full of news of genuine significance, the front pages of Jakarta newspapers are preoccupied with a real crisis. It seems that an elementary school in Solo, Central Java has a book in its library called “Interesting Stories of the Prophet’s Childhood”. That’s not the crisis; the crisis is that if you look very hard you could find an illustration that is intended to depict Muhammed’s mother holding the Prophet as a baby. The crude drawing has the baby deliberately blurred and it is impossible to make out anything other than the rather poorly drawn general outline of a swaddled newborn in the arms of a woman who is dressed much like the Virgin Mary is usually depicted, except that her veil is brown rather than the traditional blue.

 The horror, the horror! Islamic fundamentalists are up in arms over this blasphemy and bloodshed is demanded by the truly devout. This, after all, constitutes a depiction of the Prophet, something prohibited under Islamic tradition. Heads will surely roll. Department of education functionaries, the school principal, librarian, and everyone else remotely connected to this obscenity is running for cover, passing the buck, shifting the blame, and otherwise behaving as though something is seriously wrong. Let us not forget that this is a country in which elementary schools’ entire budgets have been embezzled, resulting in roof collapses which killed dozens of students, and those responsible were merely censured. They were not even required to return the money they stole, and even kept their positions.

 A little history is perhaps in order here. The reason that depictions of the Prophet are haram in most traditions comes from the Christian schism known as iconoclasm. During the days of the Byzantine Empire, the Christian church nearly tore itself apart as one segment felt that the veneration of icons was a contravention of the 3rd Commandment delivered by Moses, the injunction to have no graven images or likenesses, while the other segment worshipped relics (bones of saints, pieces of the cross, scraps of fabric alleged to have been touched by Jesus, etc.) and icons. Icons took many forms, but whether they were paintings, sculptures, mosaics, bass reliefs, or hammered metal, the iconoclasts (lit. “image breakers”) did their level best to destroy them. The power and authority of the iconoclasts versus the image worshippers swung back and forth for centuries with the pendulum finally favouring the worshippers of graven images (fortunately, or much of our Renaissance artwork wouldn’t exist).

 While this internecine battle raged, a new warrior religion (contrary, I’m sorry to say, to the claims that Islam is a religion of peace) was growing at an astonishing pace and conquering much of the Middle East; the leaders wanted to preclude this kind of doctrinal debate and determined that, in an effort to prevent the deification of Mohammed as the result of people creating and worshipping his image, they would prohibit the depiction of the Prophet. The idea was to avoid venerating him as anything greater than the last prophet before the arrival of the Messiah. Above all, Mohammed was not to be worshipped; hence the prohibition.

 Islam today has turned this on its head. They have made a god of Mohammed; a god of such sanctity that people are killed for drawing his likeness, much in the same way that the ancient Hebrews saw it as sacrilegious to speak the name of their god. This is the exact reversal of the reason for the original prohibition. Those who are offended by the likeness in the schoolbook are, according to true Islamic doctrine, far guiltier than those whom they accuse of creating graven images. They have contravened the 2nd of Moses’ commandments. They have placed a god before the Mosaic god. But they have gone further; they are guilty of creating a god. Only a god, which Mohammed most definitely was not, need be revered to the point of such a furor over his depiction in a schoolbook. Only a god is so utterly apart from and above humanity that his image is unfit for human eyes. If Mohammed was anything, he was human.

 It is becoming apparent that the Islamic fundamentalists here in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Islamic world have become outrage junkies. It is time to add common sense, moderation, and tolerance to the anger that characterises the hard-liners’ worldview…Mohammed, the man, would approve.



Toward a new educational paradigm

Education in the 21st Century

Patrick Guntensperger

Parksville BC, Canada/Jakarta Indonesia



We can no longer see education as the acquisition of information nor can we continue to see teaching as the dissemination of information; that paradigm is obsolete. Until now, learning involved acquiring knowledge; studying to learn facts and incorporating them into an understanding of the world. But as what we so tritely refer to as the Information Age progresses, we need to recognise that it is impossible to learn any subject thoroughly within any sort of educational institutional context. In fact, Information is so abundant and so accessible that it is beyond the scope of the educational process to convey any useful specialised information at all beyond the fundamentals of ‘readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmitic. That and the fundamentals of information acquisition are all we should be attempting to teach, if we look at teaching as the transmission of information. Teaching, however, is absolutely not obsolete, nor is learning. It’s just that we need to rethink what we mean when we talk about education.

Taking in information
An obsolete way of acquiring information

One of the universities at which I have lectured was largely an information technology and business school; it was obvious that the students enrolled primarily so that they could be at the cutting edge of the information age and could be functional within a society in which progress occurs at a rate that was unthinkable in the lifetime of their parents. Anyone who knows how an institution of higher learning works also knows that teaching courses in IT is simply not compatible with the old paradigm of university learning.

If a faculty member has an idea for a new course or an improvement on an old one, he or she writes it up along with a proposal for a syllabus and the materials required for the course. Between semesters the department head will look at the proposal and decide whether it has any value. If it gets green lighted, it will go to a committee that will tweak, rethink, revise, rewrite, and otherwise modify the course. By the end of the semester break it might be approved in a very different form. Then it will languish for a semester while lecturers are recruited, materials acquired, textbooks purchased and academic calendars describing the course and its value printed and distributed. By the time the first lecture is convened, the course, if it is an IT one, or one that deals with any subject in which there is ongoing progress, is prepared to present obsolete information and utilise obsolete technology in the computer labs. The students, if they are IT geeks to begin with, or are in any way committed to the subject, are way ahead of the curve before the course gets started. Everybody knows that if you have a problem with your computer, and you want it solved right away…you find a twelve-year-old.

learning on yesterday's technology
By the time the hardware’s installed, it’s obsolete

This occurs now and it will continue to occur at an exponentially increasing pace; that is the nature of today’s world. The fact is that the teaching profession is behind the learning consumer at every step of the way and always will be, as long as we maintain the current paradigm.

It’s time that we at any institution of higher learning recognise and accept the fact that we don’t teach; we facilitate learning. And it is with this in mind that I want to advocate an expanded focus on learning how to think. I have lectured and taught variations on that theme for most of my adult life and I believe that it is the study of critical thinking, logic, and reason that is the key to any progress that any but the dullest student will make. We can’t give them the information as it is developed; the pace is simply too fast. But we can teach them how to discriminate among the true, the likely, the unlikely and the bullshit. And that may be the highest calling of a teacher. Otherwise we are merely journeymen with a trade passing on traditional techniques to apprentices.

And while passing on a trade is an admirable endeavour, teaching people how to think has far reaching consequences that simple imitation of behaviour couldn’t begin to approach.

Learning to distinguish between reasonable ideas and crackpot ones, between ideas that prevail because they are traditional and those that prevail because they work, separating faith from knowledge, employing the tools of intellectual discrimination….these are the skills that need to be passed on. The specific trade or professional skills that one may attempt to teach will be outdated before they make it onto the syllabus.

Teaching students to enquire beyond simply paraphrasing Wikipedia (or more often cutting and pasting) to look into the sources of the information they can find is far, far more important than giving them that information in the first place.

Teaching students how logical fallacies work and encouraging them to look for them in day-to-day life will have an effect that will last a lifetime and will encourage the habitual employment of reason over superstition, habit, and moribund thinking. An adult who understands the basic principles of informal logic and is able to recognise a Straw Man, a Red Herring, Begging the Question, an Ad Hominem, and other simple fallacies is more likely to be able to have a chance at real success than a diligent student who has memorised the date of the Battle of Hastings. Need to know the date of the battle of Hastings? (1066) Look it up! Takes about 3 seconds. Moreover, looking it up might lead to further inquiry…if the subject is of interest or value.

Who was Casanova? That’s not likely to be taught along with the history of the Age of Reason. And yet a reading of his memoires gives a much more visceral and lively understanding of the period during which Rousseau, Voltaire, and Jefferson made their more famous contributions to cultural progress. But encouraging the search for knowledge is more likely to lead to Casanova’s writings than the dissemination of the dates of the events of the 1700s. Those dates will come up anyway. An interest in any subject is of vastly greater value than a collection of rote dates and occurrences.

We are past the point where we can teach knowledge. It can’t be done in any reasonable way. We are at a much better place; we now should be teaching how to learn. That’s the best skill that can be passed on.

Getting a start on their futures
What they now know is less than a freshman starting tomorrow


Oh, Jakarta…how I’ve missed you!

Once more into the breach

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia


I have only been gone from this country since January; that’s only about four months, and it’s like going back through the looking glass to settle in once more.

There is of course the weather. Stepping off the plane after the gruelling flights from Vancouver Island to Vancouver, then from Vancouver to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong Kong to here – a total of about 36 hours in transit – the heat and humidity (or warmth and sultriness, depending on whether you’ve had enough Xanax for the journey) hit you immediately. Coming from an island off Canada’s west coast in May, the difference is considerable; there it would get down to just a few degrees above the frost point at night and climb to a balmy 20-23C if it was sunny; less if it was rainy, as it usually was, as the daffodils, tulips, and apple blossoms made their appearances. Here the temperature is a collar-wilting 30-34C with a humidity of over 90% at sunrise; by noon it can be a scorching 40 or more.

In contrast to the quiet little retirement-resort community of Parksville, Jakarta is a mega-city, the population of which is anybody’s guess but 12 million seems about right. (During the daytime it can go up to 18 million – people are serious commuters.) The cacophonous bustle is only matched in other Far Eastern mega-cities; enormous western cities like London or even New York can’t lay claim to the uniquely eastern chaos that characterises places like Jakarta and Bangkok. Even after a decade and more of living in this milieu I was taken aback as I struggled to get my bags and conveyance to the temporary apartment that will be my home until we can get JJ’s status sorted out and acquire him an exit visa.

Well, that’s not entirely true… the struggle to get through the airport, at least. The contrasts actually became apparent before the tropical heat slammed into me. I had wisely arranged to have a VIP service waiting to meet me at the airport. Now before the accusations of elitism start flying, a VIP service just means that you know someone who knows someone who holds a medium to high rank in Indonesia’s Customs and Immigration department. These guys usually freelance for “friends” (people willing to pay about $50). They wait in uniform at the arrival gate for your flight with a flunky or two and greet you with salutes, take your carry-on luggage, passport, and baggage claim checks, and escort you past all the tedious legal safeguards intended to control access to a sovereign country. At the baggage carousel, you chat casually with the top guy while one flunky waits for your stuff to appear, and while this is going on the other flunky comes running with your new visa, a stamped passport and plastic ID card (they’ve apparently snapped your picture as you got off the plane) that says you are registered with (protected by) the national police. The flunkies pile your gear onto a trolley and imperiously walk you past customs with your suitcases full of perfume, Cuban cigars, and bottles of hard to find booze bought by the dozen at duty free stores in Canada and China. Welcome to Indonesia.

That’s when you notice the heat.

And then it’s business as usual in Indonesia. Traffic like a punishment for every sin you’ve ever committed, masses of people everywhere, women so beautiful they bring tears to your eyes (even when you’re with a wife whom you love and haven’t seen in months), hawkers, vendors, beggars, lepers, police soliciting “cigarette money” from all of the above, and constant noise. Home again.

But some things have changed since I last stayed in Jakarta several years ago. The last long stretch I spent in Indonesia was mostly in Manado, in the eastern part of the archipelago, the capital city of the provincial island group called the Sulawesis. I had only visited Jakarta for a day or two at a time and stayed either with friends or at international hotels and was thus insulated from some of the realities of day-to-day life in the Big Durian.

This time we’re living in a furnished apartment in a section of Kelapa Gading that is home to virtually no westerners; mine is the only non-Indonesian face in the neighbourhood and I haven’t seen an occidental since I unpacked my scotch and gin in our tiny apartment. One thing that was pretty hard not to notice on the street was the increase in anti-western racism. One place flatly refused to sell me any take-out, saying they were out of food, although they provided my father in law with exactly what I had asked for when he tried less than a minute later. The barber shop in my building was more straightforward: they flat out told me they wouldn’t cut my hair because I was white. When I thanked them (they don’t get sarcasm) and turned to walk out I could hear the quiet jeering and the repeated use of the word “bule” (literally albino but a pejorative epithet for any westerner).

Indonesia has always been a racist country. Indonesians, particularly Javanese, and Jakartans even more particularly, have a preternatural ability to distinguish among shades of skin colour and to assign you a place in their incredibly rigid social hierarchy accordingly, and they can do that instantly and instinctively. Yolanda, having been born in Ambon, in the Malukus, in the eastern part of the country has dark skin, as does JJ. She has always been served last in Jakartan scrums at retail counters, the fact that her skin colour is at the far end of the spectrum from the ideal Chinese ivory tone affects every instance of social interaction she has or has ever had in this country.

Too dark for their own country

When she had just graduated from high school, she was told by the airline to which she had applied for training as a flight attendant (Garuda, incidentally, the national carrier) that she shouldn’t be ridiculous…she was too hitam (black). Ditto for the cruise line to which she applied. The systemic and endemic bigotry is one of the main reasons we are so anxious to get JJ to Canada.

At the other end of the scale, because of my whiter skin I am treated in this country as a walking ATM; I am regularly forced to pay two to ten times as much as an Indonesian would for the same goods or services, I am routinely treated sycophantically while I am fleeced and fucked over. But discounting for a moment the terrorist bombs in Jakarta and Bali that deliberately targeted and killed white western guests in Indonesia, (and killed a friend of mine, maimed several others,  but merely scorched my eyebrows) this completely overt racist discrimination is new to me. It always existed as a subtext, but there was always the sense that, as long as I kept smiling and didn’t object too strenuously to being screwed and laughed at, we could get along.


MMMM good!

In the meantime, the commercial establishments that depend on foreign traffic to stay solvent continue to suck up to the despised bule and ape what they think are western ways. The pictures on this page show my little family eating at a restaurant near the embassy district; it caters to westerners and so its menu reflects the owner’s knowledge and understanding of things western. Please note the items on the menu page. I won’t comment.

The hotdog that almost conquered the world

JJ gazes in awe at Hitler's dog

Great to be back, though. In between bouts of dealing with the realities of bureaucracy and simple things like food shopping and dining out, I sit by our swimming pool and watch JJ. In the late afternoon I make a thermos of martinis and go back down to the pool, sip, write, read and wait until we can finally get out of here.



Determinism and free will

I offer this piece because I have been feeling a little guilty about making fun of religion, as I have done in a number of recent posts. While I don’t for a moment deny that I find the religious right to be comical and deeply ignorant, this piece is intended to treat what I consider to be an absurd position with respect. To that end, I offer a serious argument. I hope it won’thappen again.

But not TOO deep
To call or not to call. That is the question. Perhaps to bluff….
Patrick Guntensperger
Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
An argument in favour of religion that has some strength is the observation that, if a purely scientific view of the world is adopted as a starting point, the conclusion of any reasoning process will arrive at a purely deterministic existence. That is to say, that a religious worldview has as one of its fundamental principles an assumption of the freedom of human will, whereas a scientific, mechanical worldview is likely to lead to the conclusion that free will is an illusion. This argument has strength, not because it is more rational, more valid, or contains stronger evidence, or more reliable premises, but because virtually nobody wants to accept that his will isn’tfree.
If the choice wasbetween a belief in the absurdities of revealed religion on the one hand and acceptance of empirically verifiable and logically arrived at scientific propositions on the other, but to accept the latter would entail the abandonment of one’s belief in free will, many would opt for the absurd. Free will is the most rabidly protected notion that mankind has ever developed; and yet a closer look at it should make it clear that it doesn’t really matter at all.
To see what I mean, let’s look first at what ‘determinism’ and ‘free will’ actually mean.
Determinism is thedoctrine that proposes that the world is a mechanistic structure; that it is a nearly infinitely complex machine that is running subject to a set of physicallaws from which deviation is not possible. At its simplest, it can be seen as aseries of dominoes set up so that each one falls and sets off the next. The dominoes have no choice but to fall, and the sequence of events is inevitable once the series has been set in motion. On a somewhat more complex level, it is like a computer program that is running; it must finish the sequence, and the binary bits within the program have no say in the outcome.
In a deterministic worldfree will is an illusion. We may think we are making choices, but in fact we are doing what we have been programmed to do; each decision we make is determined by the same laws that cause one domino to fall onto the next, leaving us with the belief that we have freely, even capriciously, chosen any given course of action. Your decision to have the barbequed as opposed to the extra spicy chicken wings is as predetermined as the course of a billiard ball that has been struck by the cue ball. That you chose independently of influence is simply an illusion, and part of the great scheme of things.
In a mechanistic worldview, the mind is merely a function of the brain. The brain, being matter, physical stuff obeying physical laws, operates according to those laws. If our brain is just wires in a box, the choices we make are a function of the information put before it, and each decision is predetermined by those laws. Being a particularly complex set of wires, the fact that each decision is predetermined is not obvious, nevertheless, in principle, if all the variables could be known, the choices – ostensibly free – could be predicted with absolute accuracy. They are determined in advance. If we were to go back in time, repeat the sequence of events with no memory of the first occurrence and all the circumstances unchanged, the choice would be identical, no matter how capricious it feels each time.
Free will, in contrast, is the notion that human beings have the capability of making decisions and selecting from options with an infinite degree of autonomy. It is the common sense view of the world, the one to which we all subscribe, whether we like it or not. I can decide whether to obey a law, go to college, have my steak rare, watch TV, or read a book. If I look at a menu, the choice between the escargot and the oysters on the half shell is clear, and I choose between these first courses with utter freedom. Certainly there are constraints and influences upon my choice; the price, the wine, the season, my past experience…all these come into play. Nevertheless, when I ultimately decide, it is my decision; I know that…I can feel it.
Religious apologists often argue that a purely scientific worldview, in contrast with a religious one, denies free will. Since, sophistry aside, we all know that we have free will, doesn’t this mitigate against the scientific view and favour the religious one?
In a word, no.
Let’s first dispense with the notion that free will is even consistent with traditional religion, let alone necessary to it. Western Christianity (and all Abrahamic religions have a version of this) would have us believe that their god is all knowing; he knows what will happen in the future and is aware of each beat of each wing of each sparrow. Moreover, their god created the world, and when he created it, he knew what he was doing; he made things the way they are in full knowledge of all the ramifications, and he chose to make it that way, including the ramifications. He determined, in advance, the infinite sequence of events that make up the world and its history.
According to this doctrine, it might feel like you have chosen the ham and eggs over the bacon and eggs, but in actual fact, that choice was made for you with the creation of the world, and that choice came as no surprise to god. So too with your decision to break a law. And ditto with your decision to contravene a commandment. God knew you were going to do exactly that; in fact he created the world with that as part of the plan. If there was any choice in the matter, it was his. It seems unreasonable for him to be pissed off about it at this late date.

On the other side of things is what we call the deterministic view.

Our intuition tells us that when we make a choice, we are the active agent and that although external circumstances might influence us one way or another, the decision is ours. It goes against every instinct we can muster when we try to imagine that our choice in any situation is predetermined.
But wait. What was that about instinct? We do, after all accept some determinism in the world.When we really think about it, most of us are willing to concede that free will isn’t absolute. We know we don’t even have complete control over our own bodies; try to stop sweating in a sauna or producing tears when dicing onions. Okay,these are autonomic responses, they aren’t matters of will; we don’t choose to sweat.
What about breathing? We can choose to hold a breath; surely that’s a matter of free will? Perhaps it is when we give it our attention, but when we don’t, it seems to take control ofitself. Pretty much everyone recognises that some events are determined, or at least, even though we might be the agent, are out of our control.
Courts of law make the presumption that human beings have free will; a person can be punished for the choices he makes. If you stomp a person to death, you are liable for your action; if, on the other hand, you fall out of a window and crush a pedestrian,you aren’t; the first was an exercise of free will, the second wasn’t. But even if you walk up to someone and deliberately shoot him, you aren’t considered liable if you were not exercising fee will. If you had a mental defect that caused an irresistible compulsion to behave in that way, it wasn’t an act of free will and you aren’t liable.
Even with a presumption of free will, we are more and more coming to accept that there are times when we act because there is no way not to act. It might seem to the alcoholic, for example, that having that next drink is a matter of free choice, but whether it is or not is certainly a profoundly contentious issue. We recognise already that free will is far from absolute. Just how big a leap would it be to go all the way and accept the proposition that everything is determined in this mechanistic world?
But the reallyinteresting point is: it doesn’t matter.
Let us suppose you completely accept the proposition that each event, every roll of the dice, each flap of the sparrow’s wing, is predetermined and simply an inevitable consequence of physical laws acting on physical objects in the world. Moreover,since mind is a function of brain, and a brain is a physical object, even our choices, as a function of mind, are subject to those physical laws. That being the case, free will is only an illusion.
We might agonise over whether to hit or stand on seventeen, but whichever way we go, that decisionwas made for us when the universe first got started. When we hit, it feels like we are making the decision, but according to a deterministic view, in fact the decision was inevitable, because we could no more stand on seventeen in this instance than a domino could refuse to fall when its time comes.
But it doesn’t matter.
What are you going to do? Cross a busy street against traffic, because the result is predetermined? Okay, but your decision to do so was predetermined as well, so if you become street pizza, that was predetermined. Even in a purely mechanistic universe,the only way you can tell what is predetermined is by an examination of the events after the fact.
Predetermined or not,our lives must be lived as though we have free will. We are hardwired that wayand there is nothing we can do about it. Even radical determinism places ultimate responsibility squarely upon the shoulders of the agent in every action.
Contrast this with the incoherent and essentially contradictory doctrines inherent in the religious worldview.
It is a necessary componentof the religious worldview that our every act was foreseen and launched by thecreator; that our actions were predetermined when the world was created and that god not only knows what we will do at every moment of our lives, but that we were created to act in that way. Nevertheless, the same world view imposes enormous guilt and unspeakable punishment for actions for which we are not responsible; actions which the creator not only foresaw, but caused when he created us.
Thus, as arguments go, any argument for the existence of god that entails free will has insurmountable problems. In contrast, the accusation that atheism, insofar as it espouses an objective, purely scientific worldview, denies free will is specious at best.


Oh, say, can you see?

Land of the free
Patrick Guntensperger
Manado, Indonesia

I have frequently suggested that the United States of America, despite its posturing, is far from the bastion of democracy, development, and freedom its citizens generally believe it to be. In more than one essay and article, I have referred to the States as a wealthy Third World country, and pointed to some facts to support my contention. I am far from alone in this assessment. Many Europeans and most Canadians are bewildered by the insistence of Americans, without a shred of evidence, that their way of life is superior to that of every other culture; Christopher Hitchens, the British born, naturalized American intellectual has referred to the US as a “banana republic” for many of the same reasons I have cited. I make this observation not out of a desire to tear down the country with which mine shares the longest undefended border in the world, but rather because I have such respect for the idea, the people, and the potential for redemption of the great but faltering experiment in democracy.

Let me try to put some empirical evidence to work here.

Consider the percentage of national populations in prisons throughout the world. Iceland has 55 out of 100,000 of its people in jail while 63 out of 100,000 Japanese are incarcerated. Out of 100,000 population, Canada and Australia have 117 and 134 imprisoned respectively. In the less developed countries, that number is 194 in Namibia, 267 in Botswana, and 313 in Thailand. Banana republic Panama’s number is 324, while Rwanda and Russia are contenders for the title at a jaw-dropping 593 and 596 respectively. Nevertheless, far and away the undisputed champion of imprisonment of its own citizens is the United States of America at a breathtaking 748 per 100,000 people.

Or we could look at government debt measured as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Australia’s figure runs at approximately 17.6%, while Sweden, often pointed to by American fiscal conservatives as the paradigm of “tax and spend” socialism, runs at around 41.6%. Finland is at 43.9% and Norway services a 54.26% debt burden. Although in this instance the US doesn’t hold the title (fiscally desperate Japan and utterly insolvent Liberia are ahead), it is a contender at 84.26% of GDP.

One could also look at the “Gini index” or “Gini coefficient”. This is a measure of the income gap between the rich and poor. In an uneven distribution, the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor; the higher the coefficient, the higher the disparity. Sweden and Norway have coefficients of 23 and 25 respectively. Canada shows one of 32.1 while The United Kingdom and New Zealand come in at 34 and 36.4. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a shameful index of 44.5, just slightly lower than Cameroon and Cote D’Ivoire both at 44.6. Once again, the US is a noble contender at 45, beating out all those and nipping at the heels of Uruguay at 45.2. This number is projected to increase exponentially.

How about that frequently cited indicator of a country’s level of development, the adolescent birth rate? These numbers indicate the rate of births per 1000 to the high-risk category of women in the 15-19 year age bracket. Sweden’s rate is 6, while Finland’s is 8.7, and Norway’s 9. Germany’s adolescent girls produce offspring at a rate of 9.9 per 1000 while the lascivious French outdo them at 10.6. Canada’s birthrate among female minors is 14.1 and Australia’s is 17.5. Third World country Morocco’s young girls give birth at a rate of 18 per 1000 while chaotic Russia’s rate is 30.1. In the United States, not to be outdone, teenage girls have babies at a rate of 40 per 1000, .5 higher than backwards Romania, and challenging India’s 45.2. And this is a country where the most strident “moralists” violently oppose the teaching or provision of birth control to teenagers.

This analysis could proceed along these lines indefinitely.

By most yardsticks commonly employed to measure a country’s level of development, the United States has fallen to the back of the pack; it is outstripped in some instances by even the most backward countries. What is going on here? What happened to the heady days of post-Eisenhower America?

Well, for one thing, with a few hiccups and adjustments, the last four decades have been marked by a clear migration toward right wing conservatism. At the moment, the administration of Barack Obama is fighting a losing battle to institute social and fiscal policies that are denounced as radically left wing and yet are far to the right of what Ronald Reagan ever got away with. The centre of US politics has moved so far right that Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize the political landscape today. In tandem with this occupation of reactionary territory has been the truly dangerous infiltration of the radical religious conservative movement. Jefferson must be restless indeed in his grave when politicians today can seriously make the claim that separation of church and state is unconstitutional.

If those who run for office while denying that evolution is a scientific fact and refusing to have science taught in classrooms are successful in establishing the theocracy they espouse, we will certainly see more figures like those above. Unless the U.S. genuinely wants to part of the 21st Century, the country will slide into deeper and deeper ignorance and intolerance. It is time for the misplaced complacency to be set aside and Americans to take a hard, objective look at themselves and ask if they like what they see.
The figures quoted come from a variety of sources, but all can be verified at ( )

Theories of child-rearing: the laissez faire approach

It takes a village (?)
Patrick Guntensperger
Manado, North Sulawesi
Having little but time to spend with my son in the company of my extended family and countless neighbours, I have been in a position to observe childrearing paradigms and methods here in Indonesia.
Of course I have previously seen, as does everyone who spends any time here, how children are treated, and I have had even more intimate experience with those methods during my tenure as a school principal in a school that included students from the pre-school level through to high school. I also have close exposure to the “adult” products of these child rearing techniques when I lecture at universities in this country.
I am less than impressed.
When I first watched the deference, even reverence with which parents and adults in general treat infants in Indonesia, I instinctively put it down to an enlightened, sensitive approach to the upbringing of children. Children are treated in an almost worshipful manner: coddled, carried, spoon-fed and indulged in a way that encourages the casual observer to assume that children are deeply loved. They sleep with their parents from birth onwards, and most school-age children have quite literally never spent an instant alone in their entire lives. A typical child has never heard “no”, or been prevented from doing anything in his or her entire life by the time he or she reaches school age. 
One of the most common sights here in Indonesia is also one of the most appalling: that of a maid or nanny or mother chasing an indifferent toddler around with a spoon full of rice, while the child plays, watches television, or simply wanders about, stuffing the food into the infant’s face whenever an opportunity presents itself. The infant normally seems barely aware of the presence of the spoon wielding factotum and either opens his mouth when he wants more or spits it out when he’s had enough. Feeding this child is an all-day exercise.

Anybody who spends any time here has seen eight-year-olds being carried about by parents in malls; on many occasions I have even seen third graders being carried crying and sucking on a bottle of formula into my school by nannies whom they outweighed. I am happy to report that I instituted a policy that put an end to servants waiting on children old enough to walk being allowed on campus. This was seen by the parents as being harshly draconian. Nevertheless, I still had mothers sitting outside classrooms peering in through windows and jumping to feed their little princes when the class broke for recess. I saw – all too often – children of nine or ten who, in other countries would have been proud to make their way to school with friends via skateboard or bicycle, being transported by 13 year-old nannies riding them tandem on a bicycle.
In toddlers, getting their own way, at all times under all circumstances, seems to them to be a fundamental component of the structure of the universe. Nobody will say “no” to a child. If the child, barely able to walk, pulls on a curio cabinet door to grab a porcelain figurine and starts to cry in frustration at being unable to get the door opened, a maid, mother, or nanny is likely to open the door for her and hand her the objet d’art. When the piece is inevitably dropped and smashed, the explanation as to why the child had it in the first place is, “She wanted it!” That’s acceptable.
Nevertheless, Indonesian adults are human beings. The result is that as the children are commonly permitted to do whatever they wish, sooner or later they will get on someone’s nerves. That results in a sudden eruption from an adult who has finally become exasperated at the annoying behavior; the child of course, is utterly bewildered and dismayed. To the child there is no discernible pattern; what was normal behavior all day has suddenly elicited a harsh response from an adult. The lack of consistency and the complete dearth of limits, guidelines, boundaries, and rules leave the child assuming that all behaviour is permissible and the occasions upon which he is scolded are aberrations on the part of his guardians.
The upshot of this is seen in the culture at every level. The existence of others is barely noted even by adults, unless that other person is family or otherwise very close. Try getting out of an elevator in a crowded building. The notion of standing back to allow passengers to exit is one that never crops up. It is virtually pointless to go to the cinema if one is genuinely interested in the film being shown; one is surrounded by people talking to one another, or texting or carrying on conversations on their cell phones. There simply seems to be no awareness of normal guidelines that would entail the recognition of the existence of other human beings, particularly if those guidelines would imply the slightest constraint on self-serving behaviour.
This pattern is seen in universities and offices; the idea of arriving on schedule for anything is an alien concept. Students arrive late and wander into lectures, waving and shouting to their friends across the hall; business executives are content to have their underlings wait for hours on end until they deign to put in an appearance. All this and so much more (including the country’s endemic corruption, and even the social toleration of appalling poverty, I would argue) can be traced to the upbringing of children.
If a child is raised believing that her every action is acceptable and that every whim ought to be instantly gratified, that she and her desires are the only things that are worth any attention, it is hardly likely that a courteous, philanthropic social conscience is to develop.
My first impression was wrong. The manner in which children are raised here is neither enlightened nor sensitive. It is simply lazy. It is taking the path of least resistance; hardly surprising, since the parents were brought up in the same way.
A typical scenario which we have all seen: a child demands an adult’s cell phone. He is refused. He whines and then throws himself on the ground screaming. The adult gives him the cell phone. Why? It’s easier…it shuts him up. But what does the child learn? His desires are paramount. His desires, if intensely expressed, override any resistance. And where does that lead us?
I am reminded of Theo Toemeon, the once Chairman of Indonesia’s powerful Investment Coordination Board. Several years ago while watching a second grade basketball game at the prestigious Jakarta International School, he went berserk. Not happy with some of the calls made by a fourteen year-old referee, he leapt from the stands and tried to strangle him. During the ensuing melee, one executive from a major oil company had his nose broken and another required several stitches to his head after Theo or one of his body guards reportedly whacked him with a chair. Theo responded to threats of having the police called by telling the crowd that he “owned” the police and, further, that he could have anyone he wished thrown out of the country. The executive with the broken nose soon left the country with his family after having received death threats, allegedly from Theo’s cronies.
The high ranking govenment official later defended his actions by stating that he had become overcome by patriotism (apparently the calls to which he took exception were against

It’s patriotic fervour!

Indonesian students). This “apology” was generally accepted. Although he was soon replaced in his position, the Indonesian government insisted that his move had been planned before the incident and was unrelated. There was no loss of face.

But of course Theo’s justification for his out of control behaviour was sufficient to the minds of those raised in typical Indonesian fashion. He hadn’t, after all, had things go his way; a desire had been thwarted. His response had been conditioned by his upbringing…what else should we expect ?


People Who make a difference

I have seen the Future
And it is Good

Patrick Guntensperger

Parksville BC

Just recently I received an email from one of my oldest friends in the world. Dave was a classmate, occasional wingman, and drinking buddy at York University. He was my best man at my brief and ill-thought out first marriage and, with lapses, we have stayed in touch now for three decades. We haven’t actually been in the same room – or even part of the world – for over twenty years but I still think of him as one of my dearest friends.
Dave has a daughter named Alice. She’s ten years old and I hear from her once or twice a year; each time she says hello and enquires about things but she always has a an agenda. Since she was tiny, she has always worn her social conscience on her sleeve. For the last several years she has run an annual lemonade stand at which she sells lemonade by donation, the proceeds of which go to cancer research. In the autumn she donates her hair to a charity that sells quality human hair for the manufacture of wigs for childhood cancer victims; (Her hair is beautiful, what with a mother who could have been a Bollywood star and a father who could have auditioned to play Thor.) All of her efforts go to support those whom she feels have lives that could benefit from the caring and efforts of other people.

This year she managed to catch me at a particularly fortuitous time. Once again I can’t go to Ontario to buy a lemonade but I am in the process of executing my father’s will, and although I am virtually destitute, having been without an income for close to two years, my father’s will allows for a substantial legacy to be donated to charity. Naturally, I earmarked some of that for Alzheimer’s research, but because of Alice’s dedication to her campaign and because of my mother’s death by cancer, I will be donating $10,000 as my father’s legacy, largely inspired by Alice, to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Alice obviously makes the cut as one person without whom the world would be a bleaker place.
This makes me think of one class I taught at the Monash University campus in Jakarta.
As the Jakarta campus is a small one and most students tend to want to specialise in pre-law or business oriented classes, my intro to journalism class was usually sparsely attended; moreover, all too often, the students who did register were only there because they thought it would be a walk in the park and a break from real studies. But one stream of students really stands out.
L -R : Ghian, Alyssa, me, Miriam
I had only three students, two girls and a boy, registered on the first day of class. They were Ghian, a frighteningly smart and very charming young man; Miriam, a somewhat enigmatic and very bright, beautiful young lady; and Alyssa, a bright, hard-working and stunning sixteen year old, whom I later found out was Indonesia’s best known and beloved teen movie star. I was somewhat taken aback when I gradually discovered that all three of my prodigies were there not for the usual reason, but because they had considered journalism something they were interested in largely because they felt that it was a medium through which they could bring about positive change in the world.
Miriam, the professional journalist

The class was great. We were able to tackle the nuts and bolts of fact finding and verification, cultivating contact/source lists, newsworthiness criteria, lead writing, pyramid structure, quote attribution, source protection, copyediting and all the rest quite easily; no small feat since English was the language of instruction and evaluation and it is a second language for all three of them. We were thus able to spend time on those aspects of journalism that I believe are the real core values of the profession.

While the technical aspects – fact finding and verifying etc. – are the indispensible tools of effective journalists, these become habitual mechanical details with experience. While writing is an ongoing learning experience and one improves it daily, it is the personal approach, the bringing of one’s essential character to the table that separates the competent from the true greats. Because Ghian, Miriam, and Alyssa absorbed the basics so readily and their English writing skills progressed so steadily, we spent that semester, and the following one in which we specialised in feature writing, focussing on those core values.

The glamorous Alyssa Soebandono

We talked about the history of journalism; we discussed the relationship between democracy and the press; we examined journalistic integrity and posed and attempted to solve journalistic ethical dilemmas, we looked at journalist heroes, we brainstormed on the impossibility of pure objectivity versus fairness and even-handedness in reporting. While the basics of journalism were absorbed and given a workout every class, journalism in all of our minds became accepted as a low-paid higher calling. By the time the final semester was over and the three students moved on to pursue and finish their degrees at the mother Monash campuses (Miriam in Malaysia, Ghian and Alyssa in Melbourne, Australia), all three had a concept of journalism as a force for bringing about positive social change; a far cry from the not entirely inaccurate Indonesian view of local “journalists” being little more than hacks who slant their stories for cash and act as the bottom feeders they are paid to be. This must have been a particularly difficult paradigm shift for Alyssa whose prior experience with the press had been restricted to a lifetime of unpleasant encounters with paparazzi.

Ghian, our social conscience

I learned as much from them as they learned from me; maybe more. I know that I am a much better journalist for having worked with them.

I’m pleased to report that I maintain a degree of contact with all three of them and that we consider ourselves friends. Miriam has gone on to become a television reporter (a métier she confided she would never have considered prior to Monash) in Surabaya, one of Indonesia’s largest cities. Ghian is a frequent youth ambassador to UN environmental and democracy conferences and conventions where he acts as press liaison and communications point man. He came to visit me and my dying father on one of his international trips. Alyssa meanwhile has put her multimillion dollar career on hold while she pursues her education and social conscience in the UK.

These are people that I will always be proud to have known and whom I know will make a difference in the world. Like little Alice, they make the cut. The world is already a better place for their being in it.


Arrested development

I wrote this essay recently after having had a particularly irritating experience at one of the universities at which I lecture. I had been trying to give a tutorial to two very bright and enthusiastic students in a room that happened to be across from a student common room where a group of college aged students were playing ping pong.
I had to stop the class on five separate occasions to ask the players to tone down their screaming as it was making my tutorial impossible. The screaming was not the occasional shout of victory or defeat, but rather a sustained blood curdling, earsplitting shrieking; behaviour that would not be tolerated even at a political riot. On the fifth time, I finally threw them all out of the room and had the door locked for the remainder of the day.
Naturally, the spoiled, overindulged children in adult bodies were dumbfounded that their play could be interrupted; it had never happened before. They even complained that they had a right to play their games.

That their boorish behaviour, even in the face of four requests to moderate it, had a serious negative impact upon others was just not part of their worldview. It made absolutely not one shred of difference to them that they were disturbing others and interfering with their education. Their personal pleasures were all that counted.

The incident crystalised some thoughts I had entertained for a long time regarding child raising practices here and elsewhere. As a new parent, I’m interested in hearing any input you might have.
University students in Indonesia
Patrick Guntensperger

Indonesian child-rearing methods, which at first glance appear nurturing, supportive, and positive, have had a profoundly negative impact upon the character and chances for the future development of the generation of Indonesians just reaching physical maturity.

In the Indonesian culture, children are treated with a reverence bordering on worship. They are pampered, coddled, and spared any discomfort that can be avoided. Many children have never spent a single instant alone since birth, sleeping with their parents, and later with siblings or other family members. It is customary never to say ‘no’ to a child. In many cases, children are literally spoon-fed by parents or servants until they are in school and, in some cases, long after they have started to attend school regularly.

Children as old as eight or more are routinely carried in the arms of parents or servants; sometimes the child is as big as the nanny doing the carrying. Children remain dependent upon and even unnaturally attached to their parents until adulthood and beyond. The result is that adolescents in Indonesia are far less independent than their counterparts in the rest of the world and tend to display characteristics normally associated with very young children.

Among those characteristics is a tendency to behave as though they are the center of the universe. Far more than elsewhere, in Indonesia, young people act with utter indifference to others. Never having been refused anything, many of Indonesia’s young people carry a sense of entitlement that children in other cultures begin to outgrow in the early stages of socialisation.

All of this is exacerbated by other cultural realities. First time visitors to Indonesia are often astonished at the lack of respect for regulations and laws. No smoking signs, traffic laws, safety regulations of all sorts are routinely disregarded if found to be inconvenient. The disinclination to queue up for anything, the mob behaviour at buffet tables, the charging into elevators without giving others the chance to disembark,; all of these discourtesies are manifestations of a cultural disregard for others’ convenience, comfort, or rights. The constant barrage of noise, the talking out loud and on cell phones in movie theatres, the habitual shouting across rooms, and the lack of consideration for others is simply a result of the self absorption engendered by Indonesian early childhood conditioning.

That behaviour, socially unacceptable elsewhere, is tolerated, even encouraged, in Indonesia. Thus society’s acceptance of boorishness reinforces the egocentricity and neglect of consideration for others.

By the time young Indonesians reach university age, so entrenched are the habits learned from infancy, that, in all too many cases, effort, earned achievement, or working toward a goal are utterly alien concepts. As they have never done anything for themselves, they expect never to have to do anything at all; effort and work is what servants are for. And entertainment and amusement is what university is for.

Since nothing has ever been expected of them, these child-adults have no sense of accountability and they work from the presupposition that their comfort, their amusement, is paramount; moreover, it is up to the rest of the world to provide it.

Certainly these character traits are not universal within Indonesia, nor are they unique to the country; they can be found occasionally elsewhere, and many young Indonesians have astonishingly clear value systems and strength of character. But while there are certainly exceptions to these observations, these generalisations are observable tendencies to anyone who deals with youthful Indonesians on a regular basis. And while instances of these behaviours and traits can be seen all over, they are endemic here.

What university teacher in Indonesia hasn’t had the experience of a student, or a whole class expecting to be given an extension on an essay or even an opportunity to write a missed final exam because the student felt ‘too tired’ to do the work or to show up on time? Or at all? To people with no familiarity whatsoever with the concept of accountability, any reason is sufficient justification for failure to perform. ‘I didn’t feel like it’ is as good as ‘I was unable to attend because of a violent insurrection in the streets’.

These tendencies on the part of Indonesian students can be attributed to the manner in which they are raised. While babies certainly must be loved and protected and indulged, those same babies need to be socialised to recognise the existence of others. As they pass the toddler stage, they cannot be taught that their every whim must always be fulfilled, even at the expense of others’ rights. Children from the earliest age need to recognise that they share this world with others and that those others have the same rights they have. Children need to be guided into an adulthood in which ideas like integrity, accountability, and independence are seen as precious resources rather than bad habits.

Never having to try, never having responsibility, always being indulged are certain recipes for ensuring that our young generation remains socially and ethically retarded by world standards. We are not doing our children any favours by burdening them with a sense of superiority, arrogance, and indolence; virtually guaranteed results of the upbringing practiced in far too many homes.


Beating one’s head against a wall

Written around the same time as the last one, this opinion piece sparked enough interest that some television current affairs show (I can’t remember which one) invited me to discuss the corruption-as-cancer theme with their host on air. I recall that the interview went well, but despite all the exposure and discussion of the topic, little seems to have changed in the last five years.

Published in The Jakarta Post (
There is a solution to corruption and it lies in our own hands

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Patrick Guntensperger

In this space there have appeared a number of articles on the subject of the endemic corruption that is rampant in Indonesian government, civil service and business. More than once I have argued that the acceptance and toleration of the corruption is a contributing factor to its existence and can be blamed for its continued existence. But to point to a cause is a long way from offering a solution to the problem.

When corruption is discovered to exist in a department or branch of government, it is critical that it is rooted out and destroyed. It is like a cancer. Once detected, it must be cut out completely; if any small malignant bit remains, it will soon regenerate and spread. But also like a cancer, the smaller and more localized the malignancy, the better the chances of a successful excision.

Once it has spread throughout the organism and can be detected in tissue of every organ and system, the patient is generally considered to be terminal. There is no question that corruption exists in every part of the body politic in this country. Is Indonesia’s then a terminal case?

Perhaps not. Let’s not forget that while apt, the cancer analogy is after all, only a metaphor. In fact we are dealing with corrupt individual human beings, each one of whom has his own reasons, motivations and justifications for preying upon those he is entrusted to serve. There are some general observations that can be made, though, in our search for a solution to this social malignancy.
First of all, it is probably true that most people would consider themselves to be more honest than dishonest, more moral than immoral, more good than evil. While few candid people would claim that they never lie, cheat or steal, the majority of people genuinely feel that, on the whole, they could be considered more virtuous than not.

Indonesians are no different from anyone else in this regard. So how does the general feeling that one is a virtuous person tally with the reality that corruption exists to such an overwhelming degree that it is nearly impossible to find a public servant who refuses to accept gratuities beyond his salary for showing special consideration?

The obvious answer is that minor corruption, or entry-level theft, is not considered to be wrong by the people who engage in it or by the people who are its victims. From there to high-level, big ticket extortion and big-profit corruption is a very easy road to travel; without the obvious disapproval and censure of the general population it is possible to be a completely corrupt official and still maintain one’s self-image as a model citizen and even as a religious person.

When we smile and pay an outrageous and illegal bribe, we are telling the official that he is not dishonest in our eyes and that we approve of his actions; we are placing his criminal behavior in the category of the merely technically proscribed. When we continue to treat that corrupt betrayer of our trust with respect we are elevating his dishonesty to a level of honor.

Official to programs to uncover and punish corruption will have an effect. The effect of a token program on its own, however, will be negligible without the political will to persevere in the face of the depth and breadth of the problem. And the political will cannot exist without our insistence that the problem is serious and must be dealt with.

The key, therefore, to address the issue of Indonesia’s poisonous corruption is in generating the political will to do something about it. And that political will is not going to come about as the result of a few pre-election polls that place government corruption somewhere on the list of citizens’ concerns.

That political will can only be the result of a constant flow of complaints and objections to corrupt behavior. That, combined with a clear message being sent to the corrupt officials that their wickedness is not acceptable and that they do not have the respect of the people from whom they are stealing, will eventually have an impact.

Contrary to the cynical view that there is nothing the average person can do about a problem of this enormous extent, we must recognize that the solution is right there…in the hands of the average person. We must become outraged when a bribe is demanded. We must express our outrage when we are extorted by a public servant. We must stand up and say NO! in a loud, clear voice. We must ensure that everyone around us can hear that an official is engaged in a criminal act.

And then we must follow up. Write a letter to the department responsible, naming that person and describing in detail his actions. Send that person’s name and a description of the circumstances to a newspaper so that he may be publicly shamed by his corruption. Keep a constant glare of publicity on this behavior. Officials will think twice before they abuse their power and the constant publicity will ensure that the politicians start to develop the political will to do something about this outrage.

They certainly won’t as long as we continue to send out the clear message that corruption, bribery, nepotism, and theft are all right with us.