The emptiness of a self-referential presidency

On the eve of her 8th State of the Nation Address (Sona), the polling firm, Pulse Asia, sought to quantify the public attitude toward President Arroyo’s speeches before the joint session of Congress.

Only 13% of the 1,200 randomly selected informants said that Ms Arroyo’s previous Sonas were “truthful,” while 40% believed they were “not truthful.” Forty-six percent were “undecided”.

The same survey was conducted last year, and the changes are quite revealing.  In just one year, the proportion of skeptics has risen from 29% to 40%, while the number of undecided has gone down from 55% to 46%. On the other hand, those who expected this year’s Sona to be truthful have dropped from 16% to 14%.  These figures are consistent across all social classes and all regions of the country. They would alarm any rational head of state. In parliamentary systems, they would constitute sufficient basis for a no-confidence vote and a call for new elections.

But in GMA’s self-referential presidency, public opinion counts for nothing.  Listen to Press Secretary Jesus Dureza’s reaction to the survey: “The president will just do what she thinks she would do irrespective of what the skeptics say. She is laser-focused although she listens as she’s a listening president.  She listens but at the same time, she makes a decision whether it is popular or not popular.  This is not important to her.  What is important to her is that she does something and she thinks she does the most appropriate thing to do for the benefit of the bigger public in general.”  Poor Jess Dureza! Not even he, a new appointee, can get away from the tautological double-talk of the office he represents.

Self-referentiality is, of course, a feature of all living systems, including humans.  By the manner in which they live, they bring out a particular world.  And by the way they view that world, they confirm the correctness of the way they live.  This circularity is fatally flawed. Fortunately, self-observation across time and in relation to others enables us human beings to interrupt this insidious egoism. We begin to see ourselves in relation to the past and to a desired future.  As important, we learn to take into account others’ observations of the world and use these as reference points.  This is what induces change.

But we sometimes encounter people who cannot seem to free themselves from their self-referentiality.  They appear to listen when you talk to them, but in fact they don’t hear you.  What they hear all the time is just their own voice. They are locked in their self-created world, sealed off from almost anything that may interrupt their daydreams or refract their illusions.  As soon as something threatens to break their view of the world, they explode into a tantrum or take refuge in cynicism.

I have often wondered whether in our country we are not dealing more with such pathology in the national leadership than with a structural defect in our society.  As I am not a psychoanalyst but a sociologist, I am partial to a view of failed leaders as symptomatic of a society’s inability to manage the growing complexity of its internal and external environments.  Even so, politicians like Ms Arroyo fascinate me: I find their ability to inoculate themselves against contrary public opinion amazing.  Where is it coming from? Are such leaders merely the remnants of an obsolete society that is passing on?  Or are we fated to have them for another generation?

In any event, when politicians fail to listen, the public learns to switch off.  They will not take the trouble of protesting; they will simply stop communicating.  I think we are getting close to this stage in our national life.  The public is withdrawing from the political system – this is what the surveys are telling me. If this hunch is correct, the large number of the “undecided” in the Pulse Asia survey may indicate not vacillation, nor openness to persuasion, but a tuning out.  Numbed and exhausted, our people cannot get angry anymore.

And a lot has happened in the past year that should rouse popular anger.  The other day, a knowledgeable group of citizens calling themselves “Former Senior Government Officials” (FSGO) issued a long statement in which they remind all of us that, for all that has been done to it, this is still our country.  They refuse to tune out; they want to engage the government. And so they have drawn, based on their study of the facts, what may be one of the sharpest indictments of the Arroyo presidency.

“Here are seven curses that seven years of GMA have wrought upon our nation,” the FSGO says in its statement, titled “A stolen, not a strong republic.”

“The first is the curse of a country unable to feed its own people, due to gross neglect of agriculture and rural development…. The second is the curse of worsening poverty and increasing disparity between rich and poor, due to economic mismanagement that ignores the needs of the many to serve the interests of the few…. The third is the curse of deteriorating basic social services essential to the survival and welfare of the people, due to callous disregard of the public good…. The fourth is the curse of a national government gripped by a metastatic cancer of corruption…. This corruption is fed by and feeds from the fifth curse, which is the curse of wanton abuse of presidential prerogatives…. Many of these curses are linked to the sixth curse, which is the curse of an illegitimate president…. Finally, the seventh curse which combines the malignant effects of the first six curses.  This is the curse of a nation robbed of its dignity, unity, and future.”


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