Breaking the silence

In her 2005 State of the Nation Address, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo spoke of two nations – one experiencing vibrant economic growth, and another mired in endless political bickering.  The political system, she said, must be reformed in order to ensure the economy’s unimpeded growth. The vehicle for this is the shift to a federal parliamentary government via the fast route of a constituent assembly.

Whether this smart move buys her time remains to be seen. The force of inertia, the fear of chaos, the uncertainty of the alternatives, and the basic distrust of politicians – all these, for now, are working in Mrs. Arroyo’s favor, notwithstanding the serious allegations of electoral fraud and corruption against her.

The situation we face is not unlike the wrenching dilemma that a wife faces when confronted by the painful discovery that her husband has raped his own daughters. To ask him to go away because of this unspeakable betrayal is to expose the family to economic insecurity and ruin, from which the members may not be able to recover.  This is how countless families end up staying silent under a regime of mendacity, abuse, and pretense. They abhor this person in their midst.  But they fear the unknown even more.  They invent all kinds of rationalizations to justify the arrangement. They seek comfort in the recurrent thought that he has been a good provider. They hang on to the hope that someday he may reform. It’s a no-win situation for the mother.  Only the thought of her children’s future finally makes her break the silence.

Whether one is dealing with the pathology of a family or that of a nation, therapy must begin with a recognition that there is a problem, that an honest understanding of its complex roots is needed, and that an enduring cure can replace short-term palliatives.  Tinkering with the Constitution at this time, to my mind, is like saying to a family that is recoiling from the blow of a betrayal, “I am sorry for this lapse in judgment, but let’s move on. Let’s take a holiday and play Scrabble.” If the problem were not so serious, a respite from bickering might work wonders.  But when the problem concerns the trustworthiness of the head of the family himself, a holiday is nothing but a tawdry attempt at bribery and evasion.

Let us step back momentarily from the sordid situation in which the nation finds itself today, and try to make sense of this political crisis.  I think the attempt would give us an insight into our political culture and the unjust social order it serves.

As our people become poorer, and as the government fails to respond to their growing needs, their demand for relief from poverty through patronage also becomes greater.  The poor know that the politicians are exploiting them, and they respond to this by milking the politicians as long as they can.  They would take the money and goods offered to them and proceed to vote for the people they truly admire, namely, their idols and folk heroes. The more their disenchantment with politicians grows, the more they turn for redemption to the celebrities they trust.

The phenomenon of Joseph Estrada was a product of this shift in our political life.  His 1998 electoral victory would have been easily duplicated by Fernando Poe Jr. in 2004.  Only a patronage machine of the kind mobilized by Mrs. Arroyo in 2004 would have been able to match the power of FPJ’s popularity.  But even such a well-funded machine has turned out to be insufficient.  That is why the expertise of Commissioner Garcillano was desperately sought.  It was the main reason for his appointment by Mrs. Arroyo just a few weeks before the 2004 election, over the strenuous objections of people who knew the man’s notorious credentials as a vote-padding operator.

Herein lies the crisis of the system of patronage politics: it can no longer survive without directly manipulating election results.  What we have here is a virtual civil war between a dying traditional political class and a rising celebrity class that has discovered politics. Both of them feed on the needs and hopes of an impoverished nation.  The middle class – with its battle cry of modernity and morality — is caught in the middle of this war, unable to cast its lot with either the discredited politics of patronage or the politics of mass-mediated charisma.

Also caught in the middle, but actively pressing for a progressive resolution of the crisis, is the Left.  Its mass base has dwindled over the years, a casualty of the collapse of agriculture and the destruction of manufacturing.  It now competes with the trapos for the large urban poor mass, and with the middle forces for the large student population in the major cities.  A residual anti-communism from the Cold War era hampers its efforts at mobilization among the middle classes.

In truth, our formal institutions are too advanced for the kind of society we have.  Our modern constitutions gave our people all the essential rights and liberties of free citizens in a mature democracy, but all these have meant nothing because of their persistent poverty, dependence, and disorganization.  Instead of being able to exercise their freedoms as citizens in a mature polity, they are trapped in the web of an obsolete patrimonial state controlled by an unreformed oligarchy. That is the root of the problem.  As long as the economic vulnerability of the masses is not addressed as a prior objective, no change in the form of government will cure this problem.

This crisis is yet another chance to confront the lies that have marked the conduct of our national life. Break the silence, and free our children!

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