The worst, best of times / Back to your cave, Goma
by Teodoro C. Benigno

Philippine Star 01 August 2001

These are the worst of times, the best of times. This is a favorite quote from Charles Dickens I snatch from the literary-philosophical grove everytime the world shakes under my feet. Ninoy Aquino�s assassination almost 18 years ago had my world spinning as did EDSA One in 1986. And then EDSA II and EDSA III just so many heartbeats ago. And so in that sense, they were the worst of times. They rent our breast, spun us against the wall, and we would have fallen had we not also realized they were "the best of times." As Emerson said: "We learn geology the morning after an earthquake." And the Chinese word for crisis comprises two characters � one representing danger, the other opportunity.

And in this worst of times, brought to a brave, optimistic smile however threadbare by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in her promises-punctuated SONA (State of the Nation Address), we learn from G.K. Chesterton that "a tragedy always means a man�s struggle with that which is stronger than man." Know what was missing in that SONA? A soul.

In many of our recent writings, greatly helped by a month�s vacation where he could reflect better, this author chartered a different path. We sought to understand why the Filipino remained a "born loser" in the great human struggle to escape poverty, why our democracy remained an abject failure, why unlike the others our economy couldn�t soar. We talk and bicker too much, and act too little, said GMA in her SONA. The Yellow Paper II of 30 outstanding economists and social scientists said we needed more "effective leadership" plus a program to alleviate poverty. That multinational guru Peter Wallace said Filipinos must develop a sense of national pride and doing things for society, not the individual. The CNN-APS led by Triccie Sison and Brother Roly Dizon brought out its rapier to thrust gamely at poverty and corruption.

I have chosen the culture of the Filipino as my battleground.

Mine is the conviction that unless we dig deep into our culture, we will never see the pit bull that has torn our pants off, gnawed at our intestines and robbed us of our soul.

And so we possess a rich class which does not care about anything except getting more rich, a very corrupt political system that extols democracy but lives off the fat of the land, and a dominant religion, habits, customs and beliefs � yes mores � that somehow glorify the poor and are stubbornly resistant to modern economic progress �- and hard, back-breaking work. Small wonder we Filipinos have the biggest begging panhandle this part of the world.

I have dwelt on this many times in this space. Deep inside, our culture is Ibero-Catholic-Spanish. Let me emphasize that. The Philippines is the only real daughter of the Roman Church in Asia. Thus, we are so different from the rest in Asia. We pray a lot to the Virgin Mary and all the saints in heaven. Hollywood is just frosting on our cultural cake. We speak English by historic accident and not because America�s Protestant Old World culture �- drawn from the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the Renaissance in Europe � got deeply lodged in our psyche.

To better illustrate, we would like to refer to that celebrated Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (who lost to disgraced Alberto Fujimori when the latter first ran for the presidency). Vargas Llosa wrote that economic, educational, and judicial reforms in Latin America (he must as well have added the Philippines) were impossible:

"Unless they are preceded or accompanied by a reform of our customs and ideas, and of the whole complex of habits, knowledge, image and forms that we understand by �culture.� The culture within which we live and act today in Latin America is neither liberal nor is it altogether democratic. We have democratic governments, but our institutions, our reflexes, our mentality are very far from being democratic. They remain populist and oligarchic, or absolutist, collectivist and dogmatic, flawed by social and racial prejudices, immensely intolerant with respect to political adversaries and devoted to the worst monopoly of all, that of the truth."

Digest that well. Don�t you get the heebie-jeebies? And then we go to Samuel P. Huntington (world famous for his classic Clash of Civilizations). In his Pan-American Dream, Huntington identifies ten values or mind-sets that distinguish progressive cultures from static cultures. You could almost swear Huntington was writing about the Philippines, vide:

  • First. time orientation. Progressive cultures emphasize the future. Static cultures emphasize the present or past.
  • Second. Work is central to the good life in progressive cultures but is a burden in static cultures. In the former, work structures daily life. Diligence, creativity, and achievement are rewarded not only financially but also with satisfaction and self-respect.
  • Third. Frugality is the mother of investment � and financial security � in progressive cultures but is a threat to the �egalitarian� status quo in static cultures, which often have a zero-sum world view.
  • Fourth. Education is the key to progress in progressive cultures. Connections and family are what count in static cultures.
  • Fifth. Community. In progressive cultures, the radius of identification and trust extends beyond the family, to the broader society. Societies with a narrow focus of identification and trust are more prone to corruption, tax evasion, and nepotism, and they are less likely to engage in philantrophy.
  • Sixth. Merit is central to advancement in progressive cultures. Again, connections and family are what count in static cultures.
  • Seventh. The ethical code tends to be more rigorous in progressive cultures. Every advanced democracy (except Belgium, Taiwan, Italy and South Korea appears among the 25 least corrupt countries on Transparency International�s Corruption Perception Index.
  • Eighth. Justice and fair play are universal expectations in progressive cultures. In static culture, justice like personal advancement is often a function of whom you know and how much you can pay (Hear, hear! Now you know why GMA and Ping Lacson met in Malaca�ang. TCB).
  • Ninth. Authority tends toward dispersion and horizontality in progressive cultures, towards concentration and verticality in static cultures.
  • Tenth. Secularism. The influence of religious institution on civic life is small in progressive cultures. Its influence is often substantial in static cultures.

What I want to happen is that our culture as Filipinos gets to front and center in a raging national discussion and debate. It�s time we elevated the quality and context of the national agenda. Huge and bigger cracks are opening in our republican armor . . . And unless we move soon, we Filipinos shall all miss the point. The locomotive. We are almost half a century late. Already we are biting the dust of Thailand and Malaysia. Shall we wait for Vietnam to send us to the cleaners?

That�s why the spectacle of Richard Gomez threatening to use "people power" to get himself back into the Congress as MAD (Mamamayan Ayaw sa Droga) representative is absolutely hilarious. Mad, Go back to your cave, Goma, or whatever planet you came from. You�re the kind that People Power spits out. You got a lot of gall, kiddo. Stick to the movies, and get the stink of the last presidency out of your system. Kee-rist! At one time you even heavily advertised cigarettes.

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