The following will be my columns for Monday and Thursday, but I’d like to present them here, intact. They were remarks I delivered last night before the Rotary Club of Manila Bay. I am behind in other work (in large part because of two consecutive speaking engagements), and so this will be my entry for the next couple of days.
IT seems to me, more often than not, when a choir performs for professional gatherings their performance invariably includes a song or two from Les Miserables.
A musical Freudian slip? Are we living in “the best of times, the worst of times,” as dangerous, ominous, yet exciting, as Charles Dickens’ and Victor Hugo’s accounts of the French Revolution? I believe so. The Philippines is dying. A new Philippines is being born.
Which is which?
I recently had a conversation with a Filipino in his 70s, who spoke fondly of prewar optimism — the country had, alone of the colonies of the West in our part of the world, secured, prior to World War II, a guarantee of political independence by a fixed date, and was the envy of our neighbors.
The Japanese Occupation swept all of prewar certainties, even arrogance, away; national solidarity, even identity, certainly the economy, was shattered. Our leadership was divided; our political cohesion fractured; our youth decimated; and out of the cracks emerged the violence that has characterized our political life ever since.
Still, things were slowly, if not very neatly, put back together in the 50s, reaching a high point with the Magsaysay administration; but that era, along with Magsaysay’s leadership, was short-lived. The younger generation of guerilleros who catapulted him to power, in a vote of protest against their elders, were left politically orphaned; and sooner than they could imagine, they, who were once the young and idealistic, found themselves challenged by their own children, who no longer looked to Jefferson but instead turned to Mao.
The signs of those times was not, to my mind, the Diliman Commune, but a parallel effort overlooked because it’s inconvenient. When the Diliman Commune, the revolt by students in the University of the Philippines in 1971 took place, some residents of the area banded together and hunted down the radical students. They were defending order and their property rights. There’s a similar political vigilantism among the middle and upper classes today.
The virtue of democracy is it permits the transition from one generation to the next, with as little bloodshed as possible, and hopefully everyone feels they had a say in what happened. It’s not a numbers game or merely following rules. It’s protecting the minority so that when they inevitably become the majority, they aren’t dying to strangle those that led before. But when Marcos’s pomaded generation decided they couldn’t surrender power to long-haired hippies, they consigned the successor generation to limbo — and our country to an escalating cycle of violence, hate, and fear.
Defective as the period transfers of power before martial law were, even that cycle was stopped. Anyone with an independent mind had three miserable choices: shut up, ship out, or shoot it out.
As an academic recently told me, with martial law, the country lost an entire generation of intellectuals. It lost an entire generation, period. Some went to the hills. Others sold out. Still more shipped out, returning only now, to retire.
It’s no wonder that politically, most ideas seem to be frozen in time, somewhere in the 1960s, and these ideas were themselves questioned by those who to my generation seem the hopelessly unhip hippie crowd. The hippies of yesterday have grey hair today; but what’s worse is the increasingly hairless but still dominant generation that the hippies questioned continue to rule today.
An economist also told me recently that when the economy collapsed in 1983, a significant transformation also took place. It was, he argued, the first time corruption became endemic in Philippine society. More so than during the Japanese Occupation, when, as you can read in Agoncillo’s account, the pretensions of the ruling class were punctured by their having to pawn their possessions and scramble for survival alongside the poor.
The poor have always been called criminal by the rich, even though all the poor are trying to do is survive; but when the middle class and the rich either abandon, or are stripped, of all pretenses to public and private decency, you have a truly dangerous situation. No one is left with any moral authority over anyone else; what once served to keep everything cozy and looking good, proves as rotten and corrupt as those once considered moral, political, and social inferiors. So who has any incentive to worship anything except power and wealth? Why should anyone help or believe anyone else?
With martial law, Marcos secured the support of the middle and upper crust, who only abandoned him when he proved too greedy and then, incompetent; when Edsa I restored the premarital law leadership, who, lean and hungry from their exclusion from the rigodon of power, grew fat while the middle class allied with them discovered there was nothing for them; an entire generation of retired middle class professionals were stripped of their dozens of hectares of honestly-bought land, while the political class retains their thousand-hectare haciendas.
In Edsa Dos, in a last hurrah, the tired relicts of Edsa I were joined by the martial law babies, thrilling at the chance to reenact People Power, only to discover within weeks it was only Nani power, and Chavit power.
And again, there was Edsa Tres which failed, because it was not sincerely led, but which gave the downtrodden a taste of something they’d never savored in an urban setting before: they scared the daylights out of their social, political, and economic bosses. The end result was 2004, when I am sure many of your friends said to you what they told me: “victory at whatever price, rather than let the opposition come back to power.”
LEON Ma. Guerrero the great writer and diplomat, once wrote an apologia for martial law titled “Today began yesterday.” And he was right. The problems that horrify our middle and upper classes began yesterday, too.
The ability of showbiz personalities to steal the thunder of our traditional politicians didn’t begin with Estrada; it began with the election of movie idol Rogelio dela Rosa to the senate over half a century ago; about the same time that institutional supports for strong political parties began to be dismantled with the abolition of block voting.
The educational crisis we face today didn’t begin last year; it began under Ferdinand Marcos, when obedience was substituted for critical thinking. The old pillars of our communities — lawyer, doctor, dentist, engineer- cannot eat prestige today; and we already see a tomorrow in which our country will barely have a handful of them left.
The empowerment of places outside Manila didn’t begin last year; it began in the 1950s, when the presidency was stripped of its power of appointment over the mayors of chartered cities. It would have come sooner, if leaders like Raul Manglapus hadn’t been forced into exile. It was made inevitable under the present constitution, which abandoned the purely unitary state. It was given life with the Local Government Code, which remains underutilized to this day. It was delayed by Marcos who replaced the worst aspect of the urge towards autonomy, warlordism, with his dictatorship; and it is sadly being confused with a restoration of warlordism today. The autonomy too many of our local officials want, is entirely different from the autonomy their provincial constituencies actually desire.
Anyone whose been in a meeting run according to parliamentary procedure knows that before new business can be tackled, old business has to be dispensed with. If our problem is that there’s so much old business that needs to be addressed, at least we have the freedom to inquire into new business.
You and I have a lot more in common, not only with each other, but most Filipinos of our generations, than we do with Filipinos of subsequent generations. I am, what they call, a martial law baby; and we martial law babies in turn have more in common with those who grew up under martial law, than those who’ve grown up knowing only relative freedom after Edsa.
The reason for this is whether in Manila or elsewhere, the things that make for familiarity, for a common culture and thus, a similar frame of reference, were enjoyed by my generation but have been beyond the reach of the Edsa babies.
Church, club, school, and community perhaps accounted for a greater continuity between your parent’s generation, and yours, and yours and mine — but there was a sharp drop, like a plunge at top speed off a cliff, which is what took place during the war and again in 1983.
But there is hope.
It’s in Naga City, Roxas City, General Santos City, San Carlos City, new urban areas where partnerships are being built between officials and the citizenry; where technology is being harnessed effectively without waste and window-dressing; where what matters less is what an official’s family has done before, but rather, what they’re doing now — and how they’re doing it, without need of bribery, intimidation, or a new constitution.
Let me briefly describe something I saw in San Carlos City, Negros Occidental. There’s a gated community there; but the homes being built in it aren’t being financed with inherited sugar money. These are homes built by nurses, seamen, contract workers, nannies and caregivers. People whose parents were sacadas told what to do by the hacenderos — or else. To have grown up in a feudal society, then, in one lifetime, to break that society’s shackles: the result can only be something new, unpredictable, and better. They did not go to the schools that tried to produce carbon copies of La Salle, Ateneo, UST or UP; they will never be Rotarians; but they will also probably never settle for a return to the old ways and the old obedience.
Add to their ranks the millions of Filipinos who have migrated within our country, breaking free of the old ties that bind; self-made people who can’t be expected to be as obedient to the local powers-that-be than they may have been from whence they came.
Add Filipinos who can’t continue schooling, or buy books, but who wear out display copies in the bookstores, and who seek alternative sources of learning. They do not obey the “no browsing” signs; good for them.
And yes, add the efforts of the clubs that do medical missions, not because an election’s due, but because it’s simply their civic duty; it’s in Gawad Kalinga that is building and rebuilding communities without asking anyone to be grateful. Though I do think a crisis is on the horizon, when newly-empowered communities start discovering they’re on a collision course with the traditional powers-that-be who hate empowerment. Today’s achievement — to get the comfortable and the poor working together- will become a tomorrow’s call to political action.
You know, the slogan during Edsa Dos was right, after all: “resign all!” But if you won’t go that far, consider what Winston Churchill once said. Explaining his view of his own role in World War II, he remarked, “the pomp and vanity must go; the old world will have had the honor of leading the way into the new.” Those of us who are comfortable, cannot afford the illusion that politics is a waste of time. You cannot switch off the political noise. You can cover your ears, to be sure, but it will only mean you will, one day, get hit by a truck. Neither bribery, nor force of arms, ever replaced noise with harmony -unless your idea of peace is the stillness of the grave. Noise only becomes music with practice and patience.