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Our undemocratic mentality January 11, 1967

Our undemocratic mentality

The starting point for achieving the ideal of good government is a change in the people’s attitudes.

By Manuel L. Quezon, Jr.
January 11, 1967

A DIPLOMAT from one of the countries of the British Commonwealth remarked to a small number of Filipinos that Malaya was not a democracy but a bureaucracy, a very good bureaucracy perhaps, but not a democracy. The Philippines, continued the diplomat, was the only democracy in this part of the world.

I was not then, nor am I now, in a position to pass judgment on the diplomat’s view of Malaya (now Malaysia), but I have very serious doubts about his observation regarding the Philippines.

If he was referring to the form of government, there would be very good reason to question the accuracy of his comparison. Although Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and the Philippines a republic, both are democracies.

If the diplomat was referring to the style in which things are done on the governmental level, I must abstain from commenting on Malaysia, being entirely ignorant on this point; the style of doing things in the Philippine government is frequently anarchic rather than democratic.

But if the diplomat was referring to the mentality behind government in Malaysia and in the Philippines, mentality which is manifested in various ways, I must still abstain from comments on Malaysia, but I would say that we do not have a definitely democratic mentality, and that the diplomat’s remark about the Philippines would have to be hedged with so many reservations that it simply could not stand as it was made.

Exactly what do I mean when I assert that the Filipino mentality is not definitely democratic? Do I mean that it is not democratic at all? Or do I mean that it is almost, but not quite democratic? Let us see.

Studies on government all too often suffer from a very serious defect: they fail to devote time and space to a consideration of four factors, which have a decisive influence on the success of failure of the government. Those four factors are: the ideal of government, the constitution and laws in which that ideal is embodied, the way in which that embodiment is applied to practice, and the mentality and customs of the people.

Those four factors are not isolated, unrelated things; they hinge on one another, they are so interrelated that, unless the proper relationship between them is maintained, successful, efficient government cannot be achieved or, if already achieved, cannot long be sustained. Let us begin by explaining very briefly what those four factors mean.

The idea of government, or ideal of government if you wish, is to concept, the theory of the kind of government, which the country under the consideration is supposed to have. We have, for example, the ideal of a democratic republic. An ideal, however, is not of much use unless it takes concrete form.

We would have no government at all if we were to rest content with saying that we want a democratic republic: it is necessary that a definite form be given to that ideal, by having a constitution and laws which determine the basic principles of the government, the allocation of powers to the officials of the government, qualifications of officials to be selected, etc.

Thus far, however, we are still in what we might call the realm of the theoretical. How are the constitution and the laws put into practice? Is the constitution observed? If not, is it because the constitution cannot be observed or because there is no desire to observe it? Lastly, what sort of mentality do the people have? Does it accord with the constitution and the ideal of government? How compatible are the customs of the people with the ideal, its constitutional embodiment, and practice?

As the reader must have noticed, there is a connection between the four factors. The connection between them is not such that one of them can be left out of the picture without serious consequences. Ultimately, they are all dependent on the last factor, the mentality of the people and their customs.

The ideal of government presumably exists in those who rule. But it must exist over and above all in the people.This is not a case of high-toned idealism; it is a practical and unavoidable necessity.

It is impossible for the ideal of government to be anything but a mockery unless that ideal is held by the people. It is not enough that those who rule should be sincerely convinced of the ideal. If a sufficient part of the people does not go along with the ideal, the business of government becomes a very precarious matter. Sooner or later it is bound to grind to a halt.

Furthermore, it is not enough that the people be committed to the ideal nominally; they must have more than a mere inkling of what the ideal is.

If, for example, the people were to vocal in their commitment to democracy, but by democracy they understand the absence of any and all authority –a kind of condition of every man for himself– obviously the ideal of democracy will be impossible of attainment. (Let no one say that the example chosen is absurd. Implicitly, it is the idea of democracy entertained by many.)

The constitutional and legal embodiment of the ideal of government will also be a farce if the mentality of the people is opposed to it, or simply indifferent. The attempt to import British constitutionalism into several European countries has been a colossal failure, either because it ran counter to the way of thinking of the people, or simply because they could not understand it and, as a result became frustrated and apathetic. One does not have successful government based on indifference and apathy.

The reduction of constitution and laws to practice almost brings us to the question of the mentality itself, for its possibility depends on the customs of the people and their way of looking at things.

The Federal laws against racial discrimination have been well nigh unenforceable in the Southern states: all sorts of strong-arm methods on the part of the Federal government have been necessary and even they have not always been successful. In fact, it is generally pointed out in discussions on the subject that a change of mentality on the part of the Southerners is necessary before the anti-discrimination laws can really bear fruit. In any country where the holding of public office is looked upon as a means of enrichment, not only by the officeholders but also by the general public, laws against that sort of thing are a dead letter.

The mentality of the people is, therefore, in the last analysis the factor of overriding importance in making the ideal, its embodiment, and practice come together to make for successful, efficient government.

Indeed, although we started our discussion from the factor of the ideal government, it is the mentality of the people, which should provide the starting point. The ideal of government should be drawn from what the people look upon as an ideal. When that is not possible, because the people have no ideal of government –as in the case of savages– or because their ideal of government is unacceptable –such as Imperial Japan of pre-World War II days– the ideal of government to be set up in its place must be very carefully studied, so as to introduce as little friction as possible.

The example of Japan cited may raise some eyebrows and be considered the very denial of our contention, since the democratic ideal is very far indeed from that of Emperor worship, and popular sovereignty from that of the Emperor as being the holder of all sovereignty.

I shall be content to point out that it is possible for a country to have a government democratic in form and yet not be democratic in reality. That such is the case in Japan is the opinion of a number of serious students of post-war Japanese government. There are powerful forces at work in Japanese society which make the democratic ideal only partially operative –the strength of tradition, the kind of hold which employers have over their employees, the attitude of politicians toward government and government positions, the resurgence of the enormous companies with their unavoidable influence on government, the not very satisfactory condition of political parties, etc.

How much of a shift in the Japanese mentality is to be expected is of course debatable. The mere dying off of the older generations and the coming to maturity of younger generations is no guarantee, since there is a noticeable trend all over the world for people to be less and less interested in government and to be more and more exclusively interested in money-making, without which the advances of science which make contemporarily life so comfortable and luxurious cannot be taken advantage of.

What is the Filipino mentality in regard to government? I do not think our mentality is substantially democratic, except insofar as every human being’s mind and heart may be said to be democratic, because deep down in every human being there is some kind of yearning for freedom. But in countless instances, despite our protestations of our democratic convictions and commitment, we show that the opposite is the case. A look back on our history will show why.

Our pre-Spanish society was made up of three classes –slaves, freemen, and nobles. An aristocratic society, in other words. It was not what the Europeans call an absolute monarchy –it seems that a more highly developed state of affairs is necessary for that. The long years under Spanish rule did nothing to destroy the social mentality that went with such a pre-Spanish society, although the legal status of slave had been abolished.

I can remember very well the pre-war relationship of servants to masters –from what I have read of the relationship between slave and master in pre-Spanish days, I gather there was not much difference between the two relationships.

Before any of my readers feel indignant at this observation, let me point out that the type of slavery to which our minds spontaneously turn when the word is mentioned is the Roman and the American type. That kind of slavery seems never to have existed on our shores.

Slaves were truly part of the household, part of the family –at least so our older historians assured us. It was a very strongly paternalistic relationship. Obviously, that sort of relationship, although it may at times be very touching when found in master and servant, transforming the relationship into one of parent and child, is hardly conducive to the kind of relationship of equality which a democratic mentality thrives on.

The general reliance of the Filipino on the wisdom and goodness of those above him on the political, social, and economic ladder, which was transferred from the maginoo class to the Spanish rulers, then to the American rulers, finally to the Filipinos who replaced them, is also, to say the least, not very conducive to a truly democratic mentality and democratic attitudes.

This explains in large part why so many of our politicians, when holding office, do not really feel that they can be called to account for any of their actions. It also explains why public office and public property are so often treated as personal belongings, almost as something which is by right in the family.

Thus, we hold on to a title long after the position has been relinquished. The manner in which we treat our public officials is another indication of an undemocratic mentality –we refer to them very impertinently when they are not around, and yet when they do make an appearance, we practically fall on our faces before them. It is not the dignified respect which implies self-respect.
The insufferable manners of those who manage to climb up the ladder of success, the way in which they try to lord it over those under their authority or below their position in the community, show how undemocratic we really are in our outlook.

Some will of course say that the aggressiveness of the underprivileged Filipino is a proof of the spread of a truly democratic mentality. I challenge the allegation.

The aggressiveness of the under-privileged Filipino is no different from that of his fellow countrymen, only aggravated –it is of the chip-on-the-shoulder variety, which again is not indicative of the self-assurance as to equality which is part and parcel of the democratic mind.

Perhaps if truly serious studies were made of the gap between our ideal of government and our Constitution, on the one hand, and our political practices and our mentality, on the other, it would become clear why our government is and has been a failure in many respects. It would then be easier to assess the situation in order to make whatever adjustments are necessary to make our democratic ideals a reality, instead of something we run after yet never quite seem to grasp. It would be possible to bring our mentality fully in line with our professed ideals.

It is only the development of a genuinely democratic mentality which will protect us from the horrible temptation of a society which allows for no differences at all, no personal initiative free from state control, and no individual distinctions based on natural and acquired gifts on the one hand; and deliver us from the present situation, in which our undemocratic mentality continually obstructs our democratic aspirations. For aspirations there are, and the change in our mentality was started long ago, but unless we are very sensible about this whole business, and relentlessly pursue our goal of a truly democratic mentality based on the deep conviction of our God-given equality as human beings, with all it implies both of sameness and of diversity, we shall not merely fail to progress –we shall end in tragedy. –#

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  1. Manuel L. Quezon III: The Daily Dose » Blog Archive » Junket of Doom

    […] 82nd birth anniversary, and as a token of remembrance let me put forward two of his essays: Our undemocratic mentality from January 11, 1967 and The meaning of equality from January 25, […]

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