Oct 17

Civics for the 21st Century: Power of One Concept

a. “The problem with you is that you take the game of politics too seriously. You look too far behind you and too far ahead of you. Our people do not understand that. They do not want it. All they want is to have the present problem solved, and solved with the least pain. That is all.”

b. “The people care more for good government than they do for self-government… the fear is that the Head of State may either exceed his powers, or abuse them by improprieties. To keep order is his main purpose.”

–Manuel L. Quezon in 1922 (a) and (b) 1938

The quotes above to my mind reflect the conventional wisdom concerning our civic consciousness. Many thinkers have reflected on this (see some samples: ranging from Jose RizalLeon Ma. Guerrero, as well as Alfonso Aluit or Rey Ileto or Mina Roces, Randy David or Mark Thompson), and if you’d like a survey of the different sources I’ve consulted and my own thoughts on the matter, please see my Storify story, The Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Randy David’s recent article, Calidad Humana, brings to mind an article I wrote in 2008 (see The Civic Imperative: A Reflection and its companion blog entry, Holy Week Reflection: The Civic Imperative), on how many debates on public issues will be futile, if there isn’t a corresponding, shared civic sense among those who debate.

As I put it then:

The genesis of the project was an experiment I conducted with college students from different Catholic schools to whom I presented copies of these codes, and who I then asked to reflect on them. First of all, they were unfamiliar with all of them; second, the concepts of citizen’s rights and obligations incorporated in most of the codes was an alien concept to them; as were the pretty basic principles of good citizenship and so on that the codes espoused. We then had a vigorous discussion on the relevance of the codes, and from time to time, I’ve tried repeating the experiment with other student groups I’ve encountered.

This was further underscored when, during the campaign against the Palace-proposed constitutional amendments, I found myself having to conduct a 3-hour discussion on the basics of our constitutional set-up instead of doing what I was supposed to do, which was pitch the case for One Voice. And afterwards, I overheard one priest tell another, “you know, maybe we should teach the students about the constitution.”

You think!? I wanted to scream at him. But I didn’t but instead, encouraged him to take it up with his faculty. The point being, never has the citizenry been so ignorant not only of its obligations, but its rights; and never has the workings of government, even in the ideal sense, been so obscure and mysterious to the public.


See also this analysis of public opinion from 2006, during one of the Charter Change controversies; while two sides hope to engage the public to convince them to take on their point of view, both sides at the time found a substantive debate difficult because much of the time had to be spent reviewing or introducing basic concepts.

Now, ongoing discussions stemming from the issues I covered recently in The Abolition of PDAF which in turn led to a Tumblr post that was featured in 8 Concrete Actions You Can Take After the Luneta #MillionPeopleMarch underscores this challenge. The quotations above point to the heart of this challenge: it is far easier to oppose, than to agree on what to do about what one objects to –particularly if it requires concerted, consistent, action.

The result is that instead of igniting a virtuous cycle, a vicious cycle ensues: the viciousness, in large part, to my mind brought about by ignorance.

As Titus Livy, by way of William J. Shirer writing of the Fall of France in 1940 put it, “We reached these last days when we could endure neither our vices nor their remedies.” (The Ancient Romans in the era of imperial decline were obsessed with the decline of civic virtue; later writers took inspiration from this, perhaps best-known to us is Machiavelli).

This is a concern that others have tried to address in other places. The recent passing of Sheldon Hackney, reminds us he tried to initiate a “national conversation” in the 1990s in the United States, to restore civility in public discourse:

The National Conversations, conducted across the continent, in U.S. territories and overseas, grew out of his observations that the nation “not only face[s] the challenges of a new geopolitical situation and the problems of adjusting to economic competition in a new global marketplace, but [also ] a crisis of values at home. What is happening to family and community? Who are we as a nation and where are we going?”

The National Conversation initiative led Hackney to a new set of concerns, that “rights-based individualism on the Left and market driven libertarianism on the Right will leave insufficient room for a common vision of the common good.”

It is also a timely reminder for the present (for more, check out Roundtable: The National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity, which makes for interesting reading).

Which brings me to my proposal for an online initiative which aims to foster civic spirit and consciousness of the civic virtues for Filipinos.

The idea is a website along these lines –for now, let’s call it The Power of One– where visitors can create an account and embark on civic education. The reason for this is that while educators have a role, it is one that will play out slowly, as reforms are (hopefully) instituted in educational institutions. But what of citizens here and now, particularly those done with school but who did not receive a grounding on civics?

The idea is to connect the head (ideas; information) with the heart (ethics and  , leading to at first small, and then larger, actions: the result would be citizens equipped with understanding and motivation to undertake the changes they want.

Here’s a concept for discussion. It would be a website where you could sign on (preferably using a real-life account, say your FaceBook) and engage in tasks which lead you to rise up in levels (you could gain garnish for your avatar, or maintain a kind of scorecard –see the bottom– tracking your progress. Ideally, this would be either a public-private partnership or a purely civic undertaking, a partnership between educators, NGOs, civic groups, etc. The 2010 Census says the largest group are those age 5-9. The next biggest are those under 5 years old! Then those aged 10-14 then 15-19 and then the next two are ages 20-24 and 25-29. So it would be aimed primarily at those age 18-29! (click the image below to enlarge)


 Let’s tackle of the things that might go into this self-education in civics project (click the image below to enlarge):


So for example, this might work out as follows:

1. MIND: Understanding institutions —Executive, Legislative, and Judicial— and their processes. Without this, productive debate is impossible. For example, one could embark on understanding how the budget system works by visiting Budget ng Bayan and going through the Budget 101 Section.

2. MIND: Then processes like impeachment (or past records) or policies, such as What government will do after Abolishing PDAF, or the DAP; or even powers of the presidency –whether as Commander-in-Chief; of appointment; or concerning budgetary powers; or Constitutional Offices such as the Ombudsman; or even our Constitution and those of other nations.

3. HEART: Picking a code of citizenship to abide by. There’s Quezon’s Code of Citizenship and Ethics or The Magsaysay Credo:

And these are just a couple of examples (you could pick the Katipunan, or Mabini, or even Alex Lacson, for example).

4. HEART: knowledge and motivation should lead to community efforts which helps build a well-rounded citizen who can discern. Some concrete examples are as simple as actually joining others in a discernment circle, to discuss public or community issues; or devoting time to helping with rehabilitation/relief efforts.

5. MOVEMENT: The citizen who has engaged in discernment and community action should then be inspired to take steps to engage our public institutions and officials. It can start with something as simple as visiting the barangay; actually communicating with your congressman to find out how they voted, what their stand on issues are, how they spend their funds; and pledging to vote in barangay/local/national elections –with all that requires, from being a registered voter, to studying the issues, and voting accordingly.

Moving Forward:

l understand that “The Power of One” is already used elsewhere. So a better name has to be found. But for an initial concept for discussion, I decided “The Power of One” will suffice.

As for how to actually implement and program a potential site, here are some examples for discussion:

One model might be The School of Life –the achievement of civic understanding is its own reward.

Another model I’m personally more ambivalent about is the “Total Gamification Model” –see Jane Szita’s Life is a Game— in which progress leads to tangible rewards –requiring corporate sponsorship for prizes.

The end goal? Grappling with the kind of feeling of being trapped even sympathetic observers have observed (this was in 2009):

It seems to me that the current set-up in the Philippines helps to criminalize virtually all of us, limiting our capacity, and even our desire, to support justice.

Do you pay all your taxes? If you run a business, have you waited patiently for the endless licences the state requires, or have you “eased” the process with a few hundred pesos? What about that time a cop pulled you over for swerving, did you hand over your licence quietly or slip him a couple of hundred?

I won’t go on, but even you have stoutly answered “yes” to all of those questions, what about your family? Is your dad’s business 100% legal? Your mother works in government service, are you sure everything she does is by the book?

The fact that almost all of us are forced or at least encouraged to commit these misdemeanours is an enormous advantage to the high rollers in the grimy game. To return to Bolante, the real beneficiary of the fertiliser fiddle was not the congressman who received an addition to his election war chest, it was not even Joc-Joc. The spider who wove the web was the president, who through this and similar schemes managed to manufacture an unlikely election victory and to ensure that everyone along the way was caught in her trap.
Those of us in the outer circles of the web are not caught as tightly as those in the middle, yet still we can’t quite kick ourselves free. Even businessmen and women who support a fair taxation regime baulk at the idea of even more BIR interference in their companies. At a philosophical level, our enmeshment breeds a kind of resignation, almost a kind of solidarity with the playmakers.


No expected change to be easy –as Greg Macabenta recently pointed out. But beyond all that, it seems to me this might be an effort that can get people from different sides to work together.

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