Rogue Magazine: The unbearable burden of being

Rogue Cover - October 2014

Rogue | October 2014

The Unbearable Burden of Being

by Manuel L. Quezon III 

Since independence in 1946, we have nearly doubled the number of our provinces, and gone from 18.4 million people to 100 million today. The sheer volume of both people and government means you have more doing less for more. And so you have officials and citizens, both, exasperated with the system.

 Having reestablished the government of France after the German Occupation, Charles de Gaulle went into a decade-long retirement, sulking in his tent like Achilles until the Algerian Crisis when he made a political comeback and established an almost monarchical presidency. He found the parliamentary government established after World War II frustratingly chaotic, leading to his famous remark, “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”  Luigi Barizin in his highly entertaining book, The Italians, explained his society in this manner: Italians, he argued, followed a double standard: extremely honorable in matters internal to the family, and willing to cross any line when it comes to the government which they are convinced is out to get them.

Sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it? Barzini did say that the Jews and the Chinese were quite similar; the writer and diplomat Leon Ma. Guerrero once described our society in a similar way, and for similar reasons. The sociologist Randy David has argued in recent years, that the latest manifestation of this is something he calls a Crisis of Modernity in our country —where old instincts and habits among the political class leads that class to be increasingly incapable of adjusting to the challenges of a society that is outgrowing what I call the “old obediences.”  The institutions that linked together to give cohesion to society —Church, club, and school— are increasingly losing out to new challengers; but the old network built around these institutions stubbornly cling to them, leading to the kind of frustration over social exclusion that drives so many of our best and brightest abroad. Not just as economic refugees, but in a kind of collective protest vote against how things are at home. And so while Lasallians, Ateneans and UPeans  still enjoy the best access to jobs in the public and private sector, those sectors are too small to absorb enough talent, which looks for opportunities elsewhere (this includes the Top Three graduates, by the way, particularly those who may have a degree but lack social or political pull). 

The son or daughter of a kasama, who becomes a seaman, or nurse, or nanny abroad, and who then saves up to buy a small house in the province, enables their family to leapfrog in status from serf to middle class in a generation. Without the acculturation —yes, Church, club, and school— the old middle class took for granted as setting it apart from the hoi polloi and granting it proximity to the so-called leading families. If the family remains teetering on the edge of security, say due to not being frugal, then the old powers-that-be retain a hold over the family of that breadwinner; but if, for example, the breadwinner in turn has children who study in better schools, but who focus on learning simply to be able to line up for a ticket or contract to go abroad, then the only stake at home they will fiercely defend is that most thorough of middle class rights, that of property. But politics? Whether in its crudest form, voting for a patron, or in terms of civic participation in the community? It is irrelevant and possibly downright dangerous and best avoided.

An OFW I once met on a flight home, after eight hours of singing the praises of good government, of a genuine party system, and other blessings of democracy, excused himself from our conversation as we began our descent by pulling out a big wad of cash and flamboyantly counting it out in my presence. “For customs,” he shrugged. We had earnestly discussed the changes the country needed —but for him, some things would never change. One day, someone bolder than I might take a stab on a fascinating book waiting to be written: the Filipinos whose ability made this country too small a pond for them to get big in, but who, upon achieving success abroad, came back: only to become every bit as cynical, venal, and ruthless as the movers and shakers they’d once despised, and despaired of. They had, in a sense already beaten them —so why join them?

Which brings me to the debates on forms of government, the arguments about amending or not amending the constitution, that periodically take up column inches in the papers and from time to time leads to “experts” being trotted out to say nothing about something in front of the cameras. To be sure everyone seems pretty eloquent about what they are against but become vague when asked to put forward what they actually want. You cannot help but think we are well and truly stuck between a rock and a hard place. A Filipino political scientist once expressed his exasperation with our post-EDSA system of government in this manner: “It is,” he said, “set up to guarantee to fail.” When I asked what, then, did he propose as a solution, he put forward a thoroughly middle-class proposal. Take away the vote from the masses! Abolish the presidency or make it a decoration! Shift to the parliamentary form of government where the professionals can elect one of their own to run the nation! 

Oscar Wilde once described an aristocrat in a foxhunt as the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. You have the unelectable in full pursuit of the unpalatable.

There are many earnest and eloquent advocates of things like the parliamentary system but they tend to ignore the inconvenient question of how do you convince a national electorate to give up the one basic democratic right they understand, which is to periodically cast their vote —freely or for a fee— for the country’s leader? Then they expect congressmen and senators to lead the charge, when legislators themselves derive their position from the same electorate (which doesn’t mean they don’t dream of it: taking a cue from de Gaulle or Barzini, they would probably much prefer not having to deal with a head of state with a mandate independent of theirs). And yet, parliamentarists have at least tried to imagine a status quo different from the one we have at present. It is all very interesting. But it is not, in any real sense, a real public debate.

Writing in his diary on December 23, 1938, former Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison caught his friend Manuel L. Quezon in a moment of reflection. “The people care more for good government than they do for self-government,” Quezon told him, adding that “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.” In the three generations since then, this seems as good a rule of thumb regarding public expectations of our leaders, as any.

In the end, what makes or break any proposal is something not found in any constitution —the constantly shifting sands of public opinion.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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