Interesting Times

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Even as people power takes its own form in the Middle East, toppling one dictator after another in a remake of the same wave of people power that removed dictators and authoritarian governments in the Philippines, Eastern Europe and South Africa, the Philippines today has resumed its march towards democracy and good governance. As I write this, Libya is at the verge of turning upside down as a rebellious people, aided by factions of their own military who withdrew their support from their 40-year dictator, have gained control over almost all of the country.

Moammar Gadhafi remains in hiding, still trying to rally his loyalists to fight back and drive out the rebels. It is next to impossible, however, for Gadhafi to defeat enemies who managed to take over when Gadhafi was in control. To most, not only in Libya but around the world, the end has come for a dictator who ruled absolutely for forty years.

It is apparent that Gadhafi will not be the last strongman in the Middle East to fall. Syria’s Assad is killing his own people in a genocidal attempt to hold on to power but he will find himself in a tighter and dangerous corner as he kills more civilians. Repression does not work very well anymore, not even among conservative Arab countries. It will be interesting to see what happens in Syria in the next few months, then Iran after that.

The evolution of democracy seems headed for more and more countries in the world which had experienced only authoritarian rule for millennia. Few realize how democracy is still in its delicate young years and has yet to fully blossom in form. A few hundred years of experimentation is not enough to wipe out a human mindset that had been molded in strong, central, authoritarian or dictatorial rule. At the same time, those who remain still firmly entrenched in the traditional will be shocked to discover just how evolution works when it demands and will force change.

Oftentimes, change happens imperceptibly, so subtle that the prime target of change like tyrants or arrogant leaders so secure in the dominance of their power don’t realize it until too late. Actually, the whole world is always the target of evolution. As Libya goes into a convulsion, the United States and Western Europe are not exempt either. A traditional way of managing economies is being confronted by collapsing financial systems. Worse, protest movements in England and France bring violence to the streets despite their status as leading democracies in the world.

The Philippines, then, is no exception. President Noy mentions “no wang-wang,” then follows it up with “utak wang-wang” a year after and still hits a raw nerve among Filipinos. “Utak wang-wang” is an aftertaste of dictatorial or authoritarian rule where the power elite have a strong sense of entitlement, and necessarily have a low regard for the rest of society. “No wang-wang” is a spirit that seeks to dismantle gross inequality in Philippine society, a next-stage people power addressing the lingering influence of tradition and history.

Let the politicians and the hierarchy of the Church be aware that evolution is ushering in the spirit and form of what is democratic over what was traditionally centralized in the hands of one or a few. It is natural that those who found comfort and advantage in tradition will try to hold on to it. But it is also impossible for them to do so. What they get at most, and only if they are more sensitive and intelligent than before, is a fading extension.

Just as tyranny, despotism, dictators and authoritarian governments had to give way to democratic experiments, the Church lost its own almost absolute control over Europe and the New World that European empires governed for centuries. The principle of anointment and the practice of obedience find serious challenge in the advent of democratic principle and application. Freedom and choice compliment one another even as technology gives their alliance awesome power. Faith, especially the more demanding of obedience, is threatened by the onslaught of information and growing acceptance of individual rights.

It would be wise if State and Church find fresh and novel ways of cooperation. After all, both are challenged by evolution. Politicians will find citizens, even the poor, more prone to expressing their wants and demands. If one is observant, there are many policies which require community consultation and approval. Even if the more powerful or wealthy remain able to take shortcuts which favor them, this is slowly being curtailed and contained by media and greater society.

The growing tendency of Filipinos to participate in good works, or volunteerism, allows citizens more room for self-determination in very positive ways. It is important to realize, however, that when citizens participate and volunteer in activities relevant to their daily lives, they are entering the zone of governance. This spirit also moves on to the zone of faith and religion. The faithful will become more faithful to their understanding and less so to traditional obedience.

Life, driven by economic and technological demands, challenges all tradition. It does not mean that the demands of modernity are all right, but neither is it that all tradition also deserve to retain their dominance. It may seem that materialism is taking over spirituality; there is ample evidence that points to such. At the same time, the more advanced in material progress are also seen as trying to refine the ethics which define societal life.

These truly are interesting times.

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