The bigger picture

When, finally, this is over, and we are asked to tell the story of what we did – why we tirelessly poured out into the streets to demand the ouster of yet another president — I hope we will remember to recount the big picture and not just the details.

This is not just about a nation’s disgust over jueteng bribes, or the theft of tobacco taxes, or a president addicted to high-stakes mahjong, mistresses, and mansions. This is about the daily pressure we bear  – to alter our institutions in order to position our country for survival in a competitive world ceaselessly being transformed by dizzying advances in knowledge, technology, communications and travel. This is about the urgent need to change our way of life, the way we run our economy and govern ourselves, the way we choose our leaders and treat the less-privileged among us.  This is about the values we teach our children, by the example we show them, in the desire to achieve the nation that our heroes imagined.

Our struggle today is the same struggle we waged against the system that Marcos tried to secure through martial rule.  That system cloaked in law and presidential decrees, and adorned with development rhetoric, what was essentially an outmoded, corrupt, and autocratic sultanate.  Our people followed Marcos not because they were afraid, but because they were tired of being poor and being lied to and fooled by politicians with small minds.  In Marcos, Filipinos saw a visionary who gave them hope because he seemed to know the importance of national pride, collective discipline, and sustained effort.

But he failed them.  He turned out to be not very different from the long train of traditional politicians who misruled and exploited this country.  When the people saw there was nothing great about him except his enormous capacity to plunder the national treasury, they did not hesitate to junk him in one heroic moment of reckoning that we remember today as the People Power Revolution.

That way of life, symbolized by our elections and our system of governance today, has long become dysfunctional for the times we live in. Yet it has persisted despite our best efforts at societal reform – and Erap is probably the best marker of that persistence – basically for two reasons.

First because the bearers of modernity have been content to operate mainly in civil society and business, and have, as a result, failed to make meaningful inroads into the political system.  Second because the modern project itself has failed to address the urgent problems of poverty and inequality.  The first failure left political competition almost entirely in the hands of feudal warlords, rent-seekers, political entrepreneurs, and traditional politicians.  The second failure left a broad section of the population – the poor – open and vulnerable to the unchanging predatory ways of political patronage, to vote buying and to the illusions peddled by the idols of an escapist mass culture.

The combined effects of these defaults are best seen in the glaring contradictions of our society today – a thin layer of rich and successful people floating in an ocean of absolute poverty, an educated elite that can stand with the best in the world but unable to make a dent on the ignorance and superstition gripping the broad masses of our people, a world-class managerial technocracy that can run giant firms in other shores but immobilized in its own country by the idiosyncrasies of an obsolete political culture, a people with a very high sense of the possible but failed at every point by leaders without a clear sense of what is great and achievable in our time.

A growing number of Filipinos are unwilling to live much longer with this situation.  They express their dismay and outrage in different ways.  They rally, they take up arms, or they migrate.  Some see it as a crisis of morality.  Others see it as a deficit in governance.  Still others view it as a crisis in the ruling class.  In whatever vocabulary they articulate their agitation, they know one thing – enough is enough.

We may not solve all our problems just by impeaching a president or forcing him to resign.  We may not change our obsolete political culture by simply changing administrations.  But every little step we make that liberates us from a system that imprisons us and prevents us from realizing our best gifts as a nation – is a step in the right direction.

The world is getting smaller day by day.  National boundaries have become so porous they actually seem mythical. The failure of our society affects other nations on this planet.  Whether we like it or not, the rest of the world is watching how we run our ship.  The days of the personal use of public power are numbered. Increasingly we have no choice but to live transparent lives in an environment of stable rules and institutions.   More important, we can no longer afford to have a system that generates wealth for the few but impoverishes the many.

It is just a matter of time.  We can hasten the process of change, and our generation can be the midwife of a modern and prosperous society, in which everyone can have an equal chance to be human. Or we can delay it by our fear, lack of will, and pessimism.  But there is no way anyone can stop it.  Joseph Estrada, an unfit leader for our complex times, will go sooner or later.  The system he personifies will also come to an end.  I hope, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, that we can make it sooner.


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