Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Losing our sense of purpose

It is the prevailing view that bad government is at the root of our prolonged crisis, and that if we could but replace the knaves and scoundrels who write, interpret, and enforce our laws, we shall all be living in an earthly paradise. So much of this is true, but it is not a simple question, and it is best to approach it humbly and cautiously.

Every government is a product of society. The men and women who enter government are first born, raised, educated or mal-educated in society; it is the society that provides the raw materials for government, not vice versa. No government has values of its own; these are supplied by the men and women who constitute it. Thus, bad government is first a consequence of a corrupt society before it is the cause of further corruption of that society.

That we must replace unprincipled, corrupt, and incompetent men and women in government is not open to debate. But the society must be able to provide the suitable replacements for them, men and women who are principled, incorrupt, virtuous and competent. They will probably not nominate themselves; they will have to be chosen by responsible political parties before they are chosen by the people themselves.

Do the parties and the people have the competence to make the proper choice? Can they tell the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy, the genuine from the fake? Are they capable of, or at least interested in, setting up standards and criteria to make sure they choose only those who have all the qualifications and none of the disqualifications for the office they seek?

Our cumulative experience does not encourage us to answer in the affirmative.

Our political parties and our people do not specify what kind of leaders they need, nor do they exact non-negotiable demands on those who seek public office. It is always a popularity contest. They tend to wait for the big propaganda swindlers to tell them who among the ambitious incompetents are the “most popular” and, therefore, “worthy” of their support before they make their move. They then repeat and spread the propaganda they have heard, and fall in line behind the living product of media spin and hype of the propagandists.

I once suggested that government should be run by patriots who understood what society is all about, what the state is for, why government exists, and what is meant by the law being a “rationis ordinatio ad bonum commune ab eo qui curam communitatis habet promulgata---a rational ordering of the common good made by him who has the care of the community and promulgated.” And very quickly I was reproved by a much more practical man who said that “we live in an imperfect world, and we can only have imperfect choices.”

That remark goes a long way to explain why we are in such a mess. We disdain ideals, and we abhor standards. We begin by coping out. We do not aim for the highest we can possibly achieve; we aim for the lowest. The vanishing European child is encouraged to communicate in several languages from birth; the Filipino child is told his brain is too small and his tongue too short to speak more than one language. Even the educated adult cell phone owner induces himself to believe that he can only communicate in idiotic ‘syllabytes’.

In our search for leaders, we are always looking for the lesser evil, or the least worst of the pack. It has never occurred to us to aim a little higher, and demand that we be led by someone who is clear-headed about the truth about man and about God, who understands the human condition as one should, who has the moral and intellectual courage to stand for what is right, and the competence to address complex issues.

We tend to assume that all politicians are unprincipled, opportunistic, adulterous, and corrupt, so we no longer bother to look for those who are faithful to their principles, to their families and to their God, who have not sold themselves to the Devil or to some local or foreign interest, and will not sell their souls for the spoils of public office. We give up all hope of ever finding the Holy Grail even before we begin the quest.

We insist on what is right only when it does not work against our self-interest or demand any personal sacrifices. Our normal impulse is to set aside, evade or at least rewrite, every rule we meet, dilute and water down anything demanded of us, and expand the scope of every little privilege we get. We denounce something objectively wrong as wrong only when people we do not like do it; otherwise we will defend to the death our “right” to do it ourselves.

Legislators, law enforcers and judges are not the last ones to break the law. And all we do is watch in silence and wait for the day when we, in our own way, could imitate the abuse which we, in principle, disapprove. So instead of demanding equality before the law, we simply demand equality to disobey the law. And we spend six years complaining about a corrupt and rotten President only to replace him or her with someone as rotten, if not worse.

During one of Argentina’s worst economic crises, when no president seemed able to survive beyond a few days, the country had to appeal to its most qualified citizens to lead it. The most eminent ones were approached, but almost every one declined, fearing they were not equal to it. In sharp contrast, we seem to have an unnatural excess of ambitious trapos who are so eager to nominate themselves, even though they have long become part of the problem whose solution they have not the slightest clue about, and to which they have nothing to contribute. They all seem to believe that so long as they have the money, whose origin they need not explain even to the taxman, they should be free to nominate themselves, even if nobody else does.

Nothing will change much until the silent majority stops being silent and the elite stops being amoral, irresponsible and opportunistic, and both of them begin to concern themselves with the degeneration and decay of our institutions and values. Until the society as a whole recovers its sense of right and wrong, of good and bad, of what is sacred as against what is profane, of the supernatural as against the natural, the future of bad government is assured, and we shall continue to blame all our ills, moral, social, economic and political, on those who preside over it.

Indeed, our problem today is not only that we can no longer take government seriously for having no direction and being hopelessly insensitive, incompetent and corrupt. That alone is a monumental problem in itself, but infinitely bigger and more fundamental is the fact that the society has lost, or is no longer able to articulate, its sense of itself.

A general feeling of boredom, ennui, and malaise has enveloped the nation’s visage and corpus, and drained the individual and the society at large of all energy, purpose, and resolve. It is a moral storm, before it is anything else. The ship of state is lost in that storm: it is in the high seas and there is no landfall in sight; it has cast its compass overboard, and is rapidly getting water-logged; but its captain and crew are busy rearranging the chairs on the deck, in the grand tradition of the Titanic.

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