The Ugboc syndrome

It was funny, and it was amusing.  But it was also, according to one thoughtful viewer who watched the Public Life episode with the “other” presidentiables, painfully sad.  My guests that evening were four gentlemen who had filed certificates of candidacy for the presidency, but who will likely be declared “nuisance candidates” by the Comelec. I had meant the show to serve as a magnifying glass through which to view so-called “serious” candidates.  But some viewers found other meanings worth pondering.

“Your guests,” wrote Mr. Solomon T. Teh, “succeeded brilliantly in showing us just what it is that is wrong with our country today, the root cause of all our problems —  i.e., the quality of the citizenry is at an all time low.  Though we can take some comfort in the fact that the general public will see these people as eccentrics, I think we should worry about the fact that they are not too different from the average Juan in the street.  The voice of Mr. Ugboc (i.e., kaya kong ayusin ang lahat ng problema ng bayan) is a voice that is too often heard on every bus, every store front, and every street corner, especially when a TV set or newspaper is nearby.”

The point of Mr. Teh is that the ordinary citizen’s appreciation of public issues reflects a very low level of rational understanding, and this is what accounts for the low quality of people who run our  government. I do not think, however, that Mr. Teh is blaming an ignorant public, as much as he is calling attention to the enormity of the problem of social reform.  “There is no way we can solve our problem,” he says, “without improving the quality of the citizenry – and that is not something that can be accomplished in a few decades, much less in six years.”

These observations merit serious discussion.  Every election year, we discover the need to educate the voting public about the crucial issues that confront the nation, forgetting that popular consciousness is not something that is molded overnight.

As everyone should know, the public mind is shaped everyday by what we teach in school, and by what we hear, see or read in the mass media.  If our schools fail to teach our children the rudiments of analytical thought and the secular vocabulary of more inclusive worldviews, why should we expect them to vote on the basis of issues than on personal appeal or popularity?  If the mass media feed their readers and mass audiences nothing but pulp and superstition all year round, why expect that on election time their sensibilities would suddenly be so different?

Mr. Teh despairs because he knows that politicians have a tendency to promise great changes during the brief period they expect to be in office.  Once elected, they would embark on projects that have high visibility (the “waiting-shed” complex) instead of addressing the latent and long-term needs of the community.  The formation of modern citizens through public investments in education, and through the use of the mass media as a vehicle for continuing education, is farthest from their minds.   They would promise to eradicate poverty as if it were a common cold that could be zapped by antibiotics, rather than a chronic condition that is endlessly reproduced by our present way of life.

Andres Ugboc is not exactly alone in his belief that you can invent a new social framework by sheer horoscopic guidance.  According to his view, it would be better to replace the Secretary of Economic Planning with the fortune-teller, Madame Auring.  I know how we can all amuse ourselves by this thought, but to literalize it, as Ugboc does and as many of our people do, hardly speaks well of the fate of civilization in this part of the world.

And do we think that Cesar Escosa (who styles himself as the father of “deuterium” hydrogen gas) belongs to a last breed of men who have visions of quick-fix solutions for our monumental problems?  It was not very long ago that some people invested their savings in an enterprise that promised to extract deuterium from the Mindanao Deep, for an annual revenue of $245 billion!  On the night that Escosa appeared on my show, a number of callers wanted to know what was the status of the project, and whether scientists from the DOST and the UP have validated Escosa’s discovery.

The global realities which shape our everyday lives can appear so daunting and urgent, and our government’s responses so ineffectual, that the field of debate is thrown open to a very wide range of perspectives.  Lucio de Gala, the perennial candidate for president, spoke for many corner store theoreticians, I am sure,  when he proposed the “abolition of globalization” as the first step towards solving the economic crisis.  So did Rady Leonardo, the self-styled “international playboy”, who advocated  “return to God”, as the only meaningful response to the problems of our country.

I call it the “Ugboc syndrome” —  a style of thought that employs catchphrases and slogans to describe an evolving complex reality, that substitutes apocalyptic hope for careful analysis, and prefers redemptive quick-fixes to slow painstaking institutional and cultural reform.  In an earlier time, this way of thinking may have helped our ancestors appease the gods and the spirits that haunted their lives.

But the world we live in is larger and has evolved.  The forms of life it makes possible are beyond the ken of the archaic vocabularies that our elders spoke.  We have to grasp this reality, comprehend its logic, and determine for ourselves – in the words of Marshall Berman on the challenge of modernity – “what is essential, what is meaningful, what is real in the maelstrom in which we move and live.”  Of those who seek to lead this nation we expect nothing less.


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