Truth and pragmatism

No word perhaps has been more maligned in the vocabulary of politics than “pragmatism.” It connotes lack of scruples, ruthlessness, and even immorality.  Pragmatic persons are thought of as those who will use any means available, no matter how dishonest, to achieve an end. In its philosophical sense, however, pragmatism simply refers to a way of viewing truth from the perspective of action.  Truth is “what works.”

This view contradicts the commonsense notion of truth as objective representation of reality.  It also opposes the belief that the goal of science is to pierce the veil of appearances in order to get to the bottom of reality.  All truths are contextual; they are nothing but beliefs that produce effective action.  In the words of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, “there is no such thing as the disinterested pursuit of truth: no interesting separation between practical deliberation and theoretical inquiry.  All thinking is a matter of problem-solving.”

In the past few months since the “Hello Garci Tapes” became known to the public, the quest for the truth behind the 2004 presidential election has become the battle cry of those demanding Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s ouster. We first heard it when Congress was canvassing the votes for the president and vice-president.  The opposition said that the truth lay hidden in the unopened election returns, and they demanded that they be examined.  The majority “noted” their objections and told them to go to the Presidential Electoral Tribunal to file a protest.  Fernando Poe Jr did that precisely.  But when he died unexpectedly, the PET decided to bury the truth with his corpse by dismissing his widow’s petition to keep the protest alive.

Many questions were left unanswered, but the public seemed inclined to drop the quest for the truth behind the 2004 election.  The nation wanted to move on and leave behind the memory of a controversial and divisive contest.  People were willing to give Ms. Arroyo the benefit of the doubt, but they were also hoping that she would use this new mandate to turn the country around by acts of exemplary leadership.  This has not happened.  No better measure of Ms Arroyo’s ordinariness as a politician is there than the way she has responded to the present crisis.

What we have seen telescoped for us in the last two months is the kind of opportunistic and sleazy leadership that has bedeviled the nation since independence.  There is no honor, no nobility, no highmindedness, and certainly no gravitas in this kind of politician. Instead of raising herself above the run-of-the-mill politicians she has had to deal with in her rise to the presidency, Ms Arroyo is content to offer an excuse for what she has become by blaming a dysfunctional political system.

People look to their leaders not for an affirmation of their basest instincts but for a model of what they can be.  Each day that Ms Arroyo remains the highest leader of this country, Filipinos lower their expectations of themselves.  They start to doubt their own ideals and question the meaning of striving.

In the end it is not so much the truth of the 2004 election that matters, but the truth of what we want to be as a nation.  It is not the truth of the Garci tapes that we are really concerned about, but the truth of what we need to do to rebuild our democracy.  If our collective goals were clear to us, and we could rise above our individual agendas, it should not be difficult to sort out the truths that are important to our country.

If we adopt a pragmatic view of truth, then we may begin to understand why many of our people continue to ask not whether Ms Arroyo cheated in the last election but who can lead the country at this time.  The truth of the 2004 election is important to them only to the extent they can imagine a better replacement.  In 1986, Marcos exploited this mindset by painting a post-Marcos Philippines that would be ruined by civil war and fragmentation.  It was not clear at that time who could take his place, but when the people saw how the nation was already being ruined by his rule, they rallied around an alternative leader.  In 2001, it wasn’t the truth behind the second envelope that caused the downfall of Erap.  What brought the people out into the streets was the clear realization that the country would not survive the incompetence and corruption he seemed to personify. It wasn’t because the people wanted Gloria to be president that they brought down Erap.  They did so because they thought the country needed and deserved a better government.

Today the nation finds itself stuck with Ms Arroyo.  No further truth is needed to justify unseating her.  If an election were held today, no amount of vote-rigging would make her win even under the same Commission on Elections.  The public has judged her to be unfit; that is what the surveys are saying.  But the truth that has not been found is where we want to go from here.  If we can settle that question, the issue of an alternative leader would be easy to resolve.

Impeachment would pave the way for the succession of Vice President Noli de Castro.  Though he is not exactly the alternative leader the public has in mind, if it is shown that he was not a beneficiary of the electoral fraud that made Ms Arroyo president, I do not think the country would object to him. Some have offered the option of a snap election.  I think the country would embrace it if the impeachment does not prosper.  An election has the advantage of forcing a discussion of the country’s directions.  It may work, or even if it doesn’t, it may lead to something better.  These are the truths that will unstuck us.

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