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Interview with director Jan Willem Duyvendak on the NIAS Lecture 2019

Decolonization and The Political Use of History

Interview with NIAS director Jan Willem Duyvendak on the political uses of history, the relationship between scholarship and the background of the researchers, and inviting Ian Buruma. Since 2018, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences presents the Annual NIAS Lecture. NIAS provides a safe-haven for curiosity-driven research, and interdisciplinary slow science. Thereby, it engages with societal issues and contributes to current debates by organizing public events for a broad audience.

The political uses of history?

Last year’s NIAS Lecture was on ‘Violence and the History of Inequality’. How did this year’s topic come about?
The NIAS Lecture 2019 is inspired by the NIAS theme group ‘Comparing the Wars of Decolonization’. This comparative research project investigates the role of violence during the Indonesian struggle for independence (1945-1950). The Dutch presence and the use of extreme violence in the Indonesian case will be compared in-depth with several cases with similar characteristics, such as the Indochina War and the British occupation of the Dutch Indies. The NIAS Lecture 2019 will shed light on those different cases, and ways in which history has been used to legitimize such extreme violence.

What do you mean by “the political uses of history”?
For decades, the acting of the Dutch military in the former colony of Indonesia against Indonesian liberation forces in 1947-1948 were called ‘police actions’ (politionele acties). Rather than conveying a war, the label communicated police coming to establish order. You can actually argue that after 1945, when the Japanese left, the Dutch came back to Indonesia to re-colonize it. It was not just a process of de-colonization. Such historical analyses are obviously not welcomed by those who rather depict Dutch history as heroic or in terms of a superior civilization. This is an example of how history is used in a specific way to legitimize political actions, such as extreme violence in the Indonesian case.

Why does NIAS want to engage with this topic?
NIAS provides a free space for innovative and independent research. As scholars, it is our task to carefully collect and analyze empirical data. Instead of politicizing science and marginalizing it as ‘yet another opinion’ in the public arena, scientific findings should be used as basis for politics – also, or especially, when these findings do not endorse the status quo. NIAS, as an intellectual haven for slow science, wants to highlight the importance of independent historical, comparative research, while at the same time being reflexive on the ways in which research outcomes might be politically (ab)used. By approaching the Dutch presence in Indonesia through a global framework, we do not only go against the tendency of national exceptionalism, it allows us moreover to establish new understandings, contextual specificities and connections between different countries.

Positionality and science

Knowledge cannot be separated from those who conduct the research. How do you deal with the relationship between scholarship and the background of the researchers?
Certainly, the background of researchers does play a role to some extent. The questions that are asked, the methods that are used, the perspectives that become prioritized are always in a way related to those who carry out the research. This counts for both scholars in the social and natural sciences. Therefore, being aware of the blind spots is of utmost importance within any research endeavor. Moreover, cooperating with local scholars and institutes in Indonesia, as well as engaging with critical voices in the Netherlands, enables the researchers to broaden their scope and incorporate more perspectives and empirical data that otherwise might be hard to get access to.

At the same time, we should be cautious not to essentialize one’s position in society, in terms of nation of origin, ‘race’, ethnicity, gender, class or sexuality. NIAS stimulates curiosity-driven research, which means that any scholar who empathically wants to carry out research on a certain topic, must be allowed and enabled to do so. Positioning plays an important role, experience is valuable, but it doesn’t mean you have privileged access in terms of knowledge gathering when one researches oneself and groups one identifies with. Experience is one of the many components of knowledge, but cannot be automatically equated with it. I almost feel ashamed to see just gay people at an LGBT-research conference. Why are straight scholars not carrying research in the field of LGBT? This is exactly why, at NIAS, we are constantly seeking to diversify our group of researchers in terms of gender, age, discipline and geography (especially from the Global South).

Ian Buruma and #MeToo

One of the speakers at the NIAS Lecture is the historian Ian Buruma. Questions have been raised regarding his invitation, after the turmoil around an issue of the New York Review of Books, of which he was editor in chief. In his special issue, entitled the “The Fall of Men”, he gave voice to a well-known Canadian radio host who stated he was the victim of the #MeToo movement; this man had been publically accused of sexual misconduct by over twenty women, but hadn’t been legally convicted. Buruma claims he wanted to open up the debate on how to deal with public #MeToo accusations, but was highly criticized for that. Eventually, this has led to Buruma’s resignation. Has this affair affected NIAS’ relationship with Buruma?
We invited Buruma to give a lecture before this chain of events, but regardless of that, we still stand behind this decision. We have asked ourselves if Buruma has lost his scholarly credibility because of the choices he has made as an editor, and the answer is no: Buruma uniquely contributes to the NIAS Lecture, as a specialist on the Japanese and Dutch occupation of Indonesia and the ways in which this has been politically framed. From a scholarly perspective, therefore, we are very happy Buruma accepted our invitation.

Furthermore, we have also asked ourselves whether or not Buruma has lost his moral credibility, and also here the answer for us is no. It is important to keep in mind that Buruma himself has not been accused in relation to #MeToo. He has self-reflexively argued that he should have shown more awareness of the perspectives of the harassed women involved, and not only provide a stage to the accused man (see Buruma’s recent interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC). Precisely because NIAS wants to harbor an open debate, and not silence those who have become publically criticized, we think this affair should not discredit Buruma to speak on the topic of Japan and Indonesia.

Finally, what can we expect of the NIAS Lecture 2019?
It is going to be a thrilling event, at the Oude Lutherse Kerk in Amsterdam. Three excellent scholars will provide the audience an in-depth understanding of how historical narratives have become politicized in case of Indonesia. This event also highlights NIAS’ stance, that we should always remain critical towards how narratives and histories can become politicized and framed in particular ways, while losing the empirical facts out of sight.

Program and registration

Go to the event page for more information on the program and registration.