Good and evil in politics

As my previous columns on politics may have shown, I am one of those who squirm each time I hear people reduce Philippine politics today into a fight between good and evil.  I view this way of thinking as a residual habit from traditional society.  And so to hear it from modern Filipinos who ought to know better is truly dismaying and alarming.

I don’t know what prompted Senator Mar Roxas, perhaps the most modern of those who have aspired for the presidency, to say in a recent Inquirer interview:  “You know, this is good versus evil.  This is tuwid versus baluktot.  This is tama versus mali.”  The interviewer, who had merely asked how he felt after his momentous withdrawal from the presidential race, wondered if she got it right: “As simple as that?”  And Mar replied: “Yes. That’s why I was very willing to engage in this; it’s because it boils down to that.  All the frustrations, all the anger, all the hopes of our people – it’s not anymore in the policy this or policy that.  It’s just good versus evil.  You know, that’s the campaign the reformists are going to wage.”  Wow!  I hope Mar uttered this more out of a sense of frustration than as a matter of conviction.

For, such moralistic formulations preempt and disparage the need for a careful and reasoned analysis of the problems that confront us as a nation. They tend to focus on the character of the doer than on the origins and consequences of the deed.  They ride on unexamined moral prejudices, and simplify the search for political solutions into a quest for heroes.  Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may be the most despised president in the nation’s history, but instead of ascribing to her sole authorship of everything that is bad in our government, I find it more arguable to think of her as a reflection of our society’s basic problems, or the street-smart personification of a dysfunctional social order.

I recognize the emotional power of moral language in everyday life. But, instead of exploiting it, I think it gives us all the more reason to use it sparingly in public affairs.  In complex societies like ours, we can no longer take for granted the existence of moral consensus. Though they may use the same words, today’s Filipinos are likely to have different notions of what constitutes good and evil in various situations.  Moreover, we may find that most of the moral dilemmas we encounter in everyday life are not so much choices between good and evil, as they are conflicts of values — choices between two equally desirable goods.

After Marcos proclaimed Martial Law in 1972, many of our people accepted the restrictions on their civil liberties and political rights in exchange for the promise of peace and order and economic prosperity.  Had he succeeded in using his vast authoritarian powers to transform the Philippines in the same way Lee Kwan Yew rebuilt Singapore, he would likely be remembered today as a statesman rather than as a tyrant.  But because he failed, only the abuses that were committed by him and his regime are remembered.

For this and many other reasons, it was not difficult to portray Marcos as the incarnation of evil in the 1986 snap presidential election.  To combat evil, what the nation felt it needed was not another politician but someone of Marian purity, a person who could symbolize everything that was good and decent in our culture.  There was no one else but Cory, the widow of the martyred Ninoy.  Where politics had poisoned society, her political inexperience became a virtue. This morality tale quickly seized the imagination of the public. It shaped our politics in unexpected ways.  It foretold the end of the Marcos regime, but it also defined the terms of the people’s engagement with the Cory government.

Instead of treating social reform as a continuing project of people power, Filipinos promptly withdrew from public affairs, preferring to leave the business of governing to the good men and women that Mother Cory had recruited.  They were caught unaware by the power struggles that ensued among those who had fought Marcos. Many could not understand the virulence of the coup attempts against Cory, except as an effort to bring back the evil that was Marcos.  But the “evil” did not go away with Marcos, it continued to reside in the system.

The reality is that while it is a great advantage for a nation to have an incorruptible president, it is not enough.  Beyond serving as a moral exemplar, a modern leader is expected to be a statesman whose function – said the political philosopher Hannah Arendt – “was not to act but to impose permanent rules on the changing circumstances and unstable affairs of acting men.”  In short, to build institutions.

Today, Noynoy Aquino finds himself cast in the same role that his mother played in 1986.  He must not waste this chance to form a durable constituency to support a vision and program of social and cultural transformation.  Because of the credibility he enjoys, Noynoy is uniquely situated to wage a campaign to change our people’s beliefs about politics in general — to make them see how, in many ways, they too unwittingly contribute to the problems that bug our society.

I would advise him against playing the morality card not only because it has no place in modern politics, but because it conceals the complex nature of our problems and the solutions they require.  It is correct, in my view, to zero in on the record of the Arroyo government as the main issue in 2010, not in terms of the kind of person GMA is, but for the kind of governance she exemplified from which she could not rise as president.   But, we cannot stop there; we must take pains to define the alternative.

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