The Forest Of Our Democracy

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“Things are the way they should be.”

The present moment is not separate from its context. We are where we are because this is the continuing result of our life’s journey. This is not we wanted, I am sure, but this is what we managed to achieve, of that I am just as sure.

Our national life is a collective one, even as our individual lives are, to a controllable extent, quite distinct from it. Being distinct, however, does not mean separate. We may try to disassociate ourselves from our collective, national life, but we can never be totally apart from it.

It is of utmost importance that we understand the relationship between our individual and collective lives, between what is personal and what is national. This is the very basis for our sense of nation, or lack of it. This is what makes Juan de la Cruz a member of the Filipino race, a citizen of the Philippines, and other roles we take on as part of society.

If we step back a little, it will allow us to see recent history, not just of ourselves, our families and our communities, but the context of our relationships with country as well. One step back can be a twenty-year period, and another step can take us all the way back to our independence from America. If we want a deeper understanding, then we can step back until we can review the Filipino under all his foreign masters.

What for, then, would be this exercise?

For those who study history and societal dynamics, they know that different societies go through different paths but follow similar processes. The greatest difference would be the starting points at any time. The most developed societies today, also the most modern and powerful, underwent similar stages of maturity though at different times. France may have played with dismantling their royalty ahead of its neighbors, while China is only starting to wrestle with the need for more democracy from its authoritarian state of governance.

The Philippines and Filipinos, too, move in the same direction but in its own moment, ahead of others, and others ahead of it. The present moment, one surely of not just change but rapid and capable of being radical. It is not our first. People Power was the most dramatic and radical, more than bloody revolutions that have been standard fare for political change. It can even be shown that our present political and social dynamics, triggered by graphic stories of shocking greed and terrible plunder, remain an intimate evolution of People Power.

There are those who say that we wasted so many opportunities presented by People Power and the revolutionary government that followed it for a short while. I do not believe that the opportunities we lost are permanently gone, I believe they just stood aside for what was more understandable and doable then.

People Power was a Filipino expression of democracy fighting a dictatorship in a peaceful manner, using our culture of bayanihan in a spectacular way to achieve radical change. It did not mean we understood democracy, but it meant we understood, and preferred, peace and freedom. Using People Power for democracy is another matter, as we are finding out for ourselves today.

Somehow, the people’s view of representative democracy is pretty mature. Citizens have freely and quickly delegated to their public officials the authority to run government. What has been most immature has been the way that political leaders have understood their responsibility and accountability to the people they serve.

Coming from our culture of strong family ties, Filipinos have always regarded their public officials as parents or elders. That is why they willingly submit to authority and are faithful followers. The problem is that the models they follow are bad models.

Parents protect and nurture. Public officials, both elected and appointed, have shown throughout our democracy that they cannot be good stewards of the people’s patrimony. Instead, they coveted what belonged to the collective and actually converted parts of it to become their personal property. I am not saying that all public officials have been dishonest these several decades. But I am saying that the dishonest ones were allowed to have their way until corruption, instead of honesty, defined government. It has not been just about good men doing nothing, it has been about good men turning cowards.

May I make myself clear. Corruption is a disease that has been festering in our body politik. It is not a virus that we caught in the air, it is a cancer we developed over time from what we breathed, what we drank, what we ate, what habits we picked up and what we threw away. Corruption began way back but not, and only now, facing a serious challenge from key public officials and a growing number of newly awakened citizens. When we attack corruption without seeing its context, we will miss the forest for the trees. One day, we will ask ourselves why we are still beset by a web of corruption when we had cut down so many of its trees already.

The forest is us, we the people. We are the context that can feed a cancer or can starve it. Yes, it will mean cutting down the corrupted trees, but we should know which ones. Else, the real culprits get away to corrupt more trees. And as we cut down the real corrupt trees, we make sure we plant good ones and nurture them to be the strongest trees in our forest. We are the forest, we determine who lives or dies in our collective space, who thrives or fails.

We are the forest of democracy. We decide our future, if we care, if we dare.

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