Politics is our maelstrom

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Jose M. Montelibano

Maelstrom is defined as “a powerful whirlpool in a sea or river”. But it is its second definition that is decidedly more dramatic and more often used “a situation or state of confused movement or violent turmoil”. The second definition is what I refer to in this essay.

For idealists or advocates, looking forward or pursuing higher visions or versions of life is a constant state of mind and lifestyle. Nothing will frustrate them more than the kind of politics that has swallowed Filipinos and the Philippines. I know it is not unique, I know other people and countries are going through their own yet similar kind of politics. Still, it is largely none of our business as we cannot address our own sorry state. It does not mean that global politics do not affect us; they do. Yet, they are a serious distraction if they divert our attention away from ourselves.

The history of our country ever since foreign powers invaded, conquered, and occupied us has been most unkind. Four hundred years is not a fleeting trauma. A conquered people move along life quite differently from their conquerors. Unfortunately, the perspective and norms of conquerors are those that are followed, and the conquered can only develop coping mechanisms. Seventy years from 1946 to the present are not enough to correct or delete the perversions built into our way of thinking and culture. In fact, the way we have handled things could have made it worse.

The worst perversion is the partisanship that dominates our views and behavior. I am not saying that there never was partisanship before our being a colony of different foreign powers – I am sure we had our own tribal intramurals. But conquerors employ the most effective and time-tested methodology for maintaining control of the vanquished more popularly known as divide-and-rule. Conquerors need local leaders to help them pacify and keep the natives subservient yet productive enough to give material tribute and slave labor. Truly, nothing works better than pitting natives against each other.

We woke up to independence after World War II with a culture of partisanship. From our revolutionaries betraying and murdering one another to traitors betraying Filipino rebels and sympathizers to the Japanese military, we went immediately to elections in 1946 instead of going into firm governance to rehabilitated a devastated country. Elections divided us when we needed to be working together after a terrible disaster. That began a pattern that has a life of its own by now. We now move from weakness to weakness whoever it is that we elect.

Strength and wisdom come from a struggle to find common ground in order to identify the common good. Partisanship is so insidious that it becomes difficult even to identify that common good. It seems what is good for one side is automatically bad to the other. The regularity of elections guarantees that the common good will always have two or more sides because partisanship drives the process. If we cannot accept the simplicity of our disunity and how our infected patterns are programmed to drive the divisions deeper, all talk of change for the better only means change of leaders, not attitudes.

I have watched the filing of candidacies for a week. It is like a fiesta with all the trimmings. We seem to celebrate the cyclical partisan activity as though we are going to find salvation through it. After seventy years of failing to do so, plus fourteen years of trying dictatorship, we want more of the same – either elections or strong-man rule. Truly, it can seem that Filipinos have a penchant for self-flagellation – as if the pain of our experience was not yet enough to convince us to avoid the same today and tomorrow.

If we watched a little more carefully, and if we carried with us a little sense of history, we do see many familiar personalities among the most winnable. What we do not see or care to remember is what their old promises were, and what political parties they once belonged to. Do we as voters even know the difference between one party and another in terms of what they stand for? At the rate political personalities switch sides, I see a merry-go-round, a circus, and not a process of raising the vision and quality of leadership.

Our politics have become a maelstrom, then, a situation or state of confused movement or violent turmoil. The opposite of confusion is clarity; the opposite of turmoil is unity. We want neither. We want more confusion, more turmoil. That is why elections are fiestas – because we want them although they offer no clarity and no unity. We do not make hard choices, only bad ones.

Ironically, except the poor among us. They vote, they may even provide the most number of votes, but they have no options. They may see an overload of names to choose from, but their only choice is to see their urgent needs and who has given them more or who promises them more. It matters little that promises were not kept before. After all, a promise is better than nothing.

There is hope, real hope, but it is not in the elections, it is not where we expect it to be. Hope resides in us, not in them. Without us hoping and aspiring, they who promise to save us have nothing to save us with. We are the people, we are the country. If we do better, we will be that nation closer to our hopes and dreams. Again and again, I can only point to the OFWs whose forty-year sacrifice has proven to be the most massive anti-poverty effort in our history. It was not politics, it was them. They are our lessons, they are our heroes. And they are who we should be, Filipinos who looked to themselves for their own salvation.

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