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Feb 10

The Long View: Faith, not fear

Faith, not fear
By Manuel L. Quezon III

TWO surprising questions have confronted me lately, both asked by readers I ran into in social occasions. The first question is, do I regret my column last July, in which I expressed my belief that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo should resign and that far-sweeping changes are necessary? I do not. “But you were hyperventilating about a mere actress,” they say, citing my comparing Ms Arroyo to Susan Roces. I must say: Susan Roces has done nothing to shame either herself or the country up to now.

But beyond comparing personalities, I do believe we must remain in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with what we have now. I have always borne in mind the memoirs of an American communist, Sol Auerbach, who recounted having asked Manuel L. Quezon about the secret behind his tremendous political success. Quezon’s answer surprised the communist: “He answered without hesitation, — have always realized that power rests in the masses.” The American then went on to recount the candid thoughts of the Filipino leader: “Not that he thought much of democracy, either in its formal aspect or in its essence, he was quick to add. The country had never been democratic, he explained, nor was it now democratic despite the pretensions of the Constitution and the Commonwealth setup. Only few know what democracy is, he continued, and these are disgruntled individuals like the young writers of Manila and some leaders of the Popular Alliance. He had postponed the first local elections to be held under the Commonwealth, and I wanted to know why. Elections mean nothing, he said, since they are controlled by the landed rich and the cacique.”

Democracy is our national ideal; but its past and present conditions have always left much to be desired. Instead of perfecting it, we have abused and debased it. The least we can do is achieve the democracy of the past; the best we should hope to do is have a society at least marginally more democratic than the one that existed before we were born. I happen to think we should be secure enough in the efforts of past generations to realize we can improve on their work.

The second question is, doesn’t my support for constitutionalism and my love for history contradict my belief that wide-ranging changes are required? I see no contradiction between giving the existing constitutional order every chance to heal itself (and keep itself relevant) and the need to keep pressing forward, so that if the system proves itself incapable of reform, then at least a preparatory debate has taken place for more radical changes.

To remain stuck is to invite disaster. This realization is nothing new. In the same memoir, the American communist recounts Quezon explaining in 1937 that he wanted to set up institutions such as the National Rice and Corn Corp. (today’s National Food Authority). Quezon went on to tell the American something that remains relevant to this day: “For the rest, he was engaged in solving the problem in his own way – by putting the fear of the masses into the hearts of the wealthy land barons. “Tell them, if you know what’s good for you, better improve the conditions of your tenants. You do not have enough sons for the army, so we must conscript our soldiers from the poor. We put guns in their hands and teach them how to use them. If you are not careful, they will use those guns against you. If you want to save what you have, give them ten percent of it or they will take it all.”

That was true in 1937, it is true today – the situation made worse because of three generations of delayed reforms. Instead of faith, we have fear – so much of it, and from which I myself often suffer – of rebels, of revolutionaries, of those not from the status quo. A passage from Leon Maria Guerrero always reminds me to resist those fears. In trying to explain why Ms Aurora Quezon was killed by peasants when she had tried so hard to help them, Guerrero wrote, “People who ask this have never been hunted. They have never starved and shivered in hiding. They have never felt that the hand of every man was turned against them. But the outcasts of society, or those society has made outcasts, no longer recognize any duties to it. Humanity is their enemy.”

“All those who have homes while they lack a roof over their heads; who have food on their tables while they must pick the fruits and berries of the forest; who have clothes on their backs while their own rags are torn in the underbrush; who can sleep secure while they must start with panic at the sound of every twig breaking in the night – all those are their enemies. And they wait for a time when they can hit back, briefly, blindly, but enough to suit their wild envy and humbled pride; they watch the laborers clearing the winding road; they watch the bright banners of welcome waving in the forbidden towns – an enemy comes, one of the happy and secure – they watch the long rich plumes of dust sweeping across the gorges from the road, their hand is eager on the smooth barrel of the gun, one more chance to get back at them, no matter who, no matter if the gentle lady in the official car is a friend, for they have no friends, and so they press the trigger.”

The danger of the present situation is that it is establishing the law of the jungle as the supreme law; dog-eat-dog becomes a substitute for the rule of law. And if such is our poor excuse for law, then away with the law! We can surely do better; we can surely take a step toward being a national community again, instead of being an isolated, atomized people living in fear, hatred and suspicion – turning our eyes away from those who beg, or worse, simply seeing right through them, comforting ourselves with thoughts of escaping to where the law belongs, and applies, to all.

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