Political will

We often hear it said that what we lack as a nation is “political will.” The term varies in meaning depending on the context in which it is used.

Sometimes it simply means clarity of purpose, and therefore a lack of political will means a failure to focus on essential problems.  Most of the time, however, it suggests boldness and determination to do what is felt to be necessary to achieve certain goals.  And so to be without political will is to lack courage and to be intimidated by obstacles. Both meanings are based on the belief that we are, in the final analysis, capable of total comprehension of our situation and full control of our destiny.

I am going to argue here that such understanding of the notion of political will, especially in situations of desperate public impatience over government ineffectiveness, may often produce risky and simplistic responses to very complex problems.  Instead of paving the way for discussion and dialogue as the route to clarity and consensus, the perceived urgency of social problems is used to justify the resort to shortcuts.  These shortcuts, created from impulse and opportunity and packaged as political will, become sources of new problems.

We find ourselves today in such a situation.  Observe how difficult it has become to question the rationality of inviting American forces to help fight local bandits and communist rebels without being tagged an Abu Sayyaf or communist lover.  Notice how difficult it is to talk about the human rights of accused persons without being attacked for failing to speak up for the rights of their victims.  The moral climate in which we find ourselves today is congenial instead to black-and-white certitudes and demagogic talk.  It provides less and less room for sober analysis informed by history and for cautious approaches to problems appropriate to a democracy.  It is the kind of situation that flourished all over the Third World in the Cold War era when the US had no qualms about sponsoring authoritarian regimes that were willing to adopt the American definition of the world.

Try as we may, we cannot shortcut our way to nationhood by installing an authoritarian government that caters to our impatience and sense of helplessness.  We tried that before under Marcos and we failed.  Under Martial Law, petty criminals disappeared from the streets, but new criminals inhabited the government and robbed the nation with impunity.  A weakened nation woke up one day to realize how its dream of a society free from poverty, corruption, crime, and insurgency under a willful dictator had become a nightmare that set back the country’s economic and political development.

I have always believed that the crucial lesson we must learn from that particular episode in our history is that we should not expect national discipline and political will to be imposed from the top.  Rather their seeds should be planted in the soil of the national culture, and painstakingly nurtured in the practice of our everyday lives.

Empowerment does not happen overnight.  It is slowly acquired in the evolutionary chain of generations responding to the challenges of their respective epochs.

In his essay, “The Philippines a Century Hence,” Rizal spoke of a rising generation of Filipinos that served as the brain of the new nation.  Tomorrow, he said, they will be the nervous system.  The choice of metaphor points to the necessity of creating a collective consciousness of nationhood among the masses rather than just relying on the vision of its most advanced classes.  It is no accident that Rizal was a great believer in the power of education.  He did not think that political shortcuts taken under the initiative of even the bravest and most enlightened leaders would create a nation.

I am aware that to suggest a reasoned approach to social problems in the face of rampant lawlessness could be taken as naiveté and insensitivity.  But then these are not new problems.  They are old problems that have acquired a new significance in the light of America’s response to the events of Sept. 11.  America’s war has globalized the problems of Mindanao and has given a new spin to the decades-old communist rebellion by adopting the US anti-terrorist vocabulary.  Can we really say that we are closer today to ending these problems than we were before we began to look at them from the prism of US security concerns?

An effective response to the challenges posed by criminality, corruption, and insurgency cannot avoid looking into the complex ways they are woven into the very fabric of our national life.  How can we talk about fighting crime without looking at the culture of the police and the courts?  How can we talk about corruption without inquiring into its links to our political system?  And how can we talk about ending the Islamic separatist and the communist rebellion without reexamining the institutionalization of inequality and oppression in our present social order?

To say that all we need is political will is to substitute bravura for intelligence.  It is to fall victim to leaders who can project themselves as the personification of political will by simply drawing courage from the impulsiveness of their acts.

Genuine political will belongs to a people who never forget they are charting their destiny under circumstances not chosen by them.  Their actions are constantly tempered by self-critique because they know that their own consciousness is itself a product of these circumstances.


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