Allocating responsibility

It has been roughly two weeks now since the Inquirer first broke the news about the pork barrel racket that allegedly permitted businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles to siphon as much as P10 billion in public funds into her private accounts, supposedly splitting the proceeds with her clients in Congress who wielded the power over these funds. That is quite a long time for any issue to remain in the news.

One can imagine how many PR operatives are now being deployed by politicians to contain the damage.  I think it’s important that we don’t drop the issue at this point. I understand that the level of public interest is beginning to wane.  It will stay alive only if the reportage avoids repeating stale information.  If they are so minded, the media can help the public gain a better understanding of corruption in government by focusing on the big picture, and resisting the urge to find a scapegoat.

It is important to keep in mind that corruption is a system whose operation is made possible by the collusion, encouragement, tolerance, negligence, fear, incompetence, and sometimes willful blindness of many people.  The complex web of corruption in which individuals are entangled in various ways makes it extremely difficult to pinpoint responsibility.  That is why, in many instances, it is the lowest clerk, the most vulnerable in the chain of authority, who is made to carry the onus of guilt that belongs to the entire system.

By maintaining a systemic view, we may begin to understand the external and internal conditions that sustain and reproduce the whole. Beneath the normalcy of things, tension accumulates over a long period of time, surfacing as occasional complaints about poor performances.  When basic services and infrastructure, for example, show no sign of improvement despite the funds annually appropriated for them, people start to ask where the taxes they pay go.  Next year’s budget sets aside P27 billion for the so-called Priority Development Assistance Fund.  In the light of this pork barrel exposé, people now want to know how the PDAF from previous years had been spent.  Demanding accountability is clearly something that is learned.

But, the reality is that the average citizen hardly cares whether it is right or wrong for legislators to be allocated pork barrel projects in the national budget.  His only concern is that he is attended to whenever he runs to any public official for help.  Indeed, he very likely does not mind if part of the PDAF goes into the pockets of legislators; he understands that politicians sometimes need to dig into their pockets to help their constituents.  Thus, we may blame the ordinary citizen for partaking of the fruit of corruption and allowing this to happen.  But that would not be very different from blaming people for being poor and dependent and ignorant.  Blaming the victim is like blaming external forces for our problems: It sheds no light on the nature of responsibility and offers no ethical guide.

Those who have the power to make decisions in the people’s name, those who are expected to see farther and more clearly on account of their education, training, and experience, those who have the time and the leisure to reflect on their actions, those who can teach and act on the truth as they see it but do not—it is they, I think, who ultimately must bear the greatest responsibility for what happens to the human community.

Sixty-eight years ago almost to the day, America dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, followed by another one on Nagasaki a few days later, killing in an instant a quarter of a million people.  It was the first time such a lethal force was unleashed against any nation.  The use of the atom bomb forced the surrender of Japan and put an end to the Pacific War.  Japan’s humiliating defeat, capped by the subordination of the Japanese Emperor’s godlike authority to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, triggered an internal debate about responsibility that continues to this day.

The debate centered on the question of who was to blame for Japan’s aggressive foray into other nations that culminated in defeat.  Many Japanese blamed their government, specifically the military, for misleading the people.  But, others thought more broadly.  One young woman from Nagano prefecture was quoted as saying: “Naturally the government that deceived us is bad, but are we people who were deceived without crime?  That stupidity, I think, is also a kind of crime.” Indeed, throughout that period, Japan had an elected parliament that gave its imprimatur on military plans.

Almost completely forgotten in this self-referential national conversation about the war was the scale of the atrocities that the Japanese forces inflicted on other Asian peoples.  Not many Japanese knew about the barbaric behavior of their soldiers abroad as they took one country after another.  Lacking in self-insight, they could only mythicize the courage and spirit of sacrifice of their own war dead.  John Dower, author of the classic “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II,” observed: “Many Japanese were sensitive to the dangers of such a myopic fixation even as they eulogized their dead compatriots as tragic victims of forces beyond their control.”

Beyond the preoccupation with assigning blame for its woes is the need for a society to know how it is moving in time, what impact it is having on the rest of the world, and whether its people are growing in self-awareness.  What this demands of each one of us is an ability to imagine our society as a collective work in progress, and ourselves as both its authors and characters.

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