MANILA, Philippines – It seems to me very apt that you have chosen to make Apolinario Mabini the inspiration for this year’s conference. I still remember a story about him that I heard from my history teacher at UP, the distinguished historian Teodoro Agoncillo.
Agoncillo recounted how the president of the then budding Philippine Republic, Emilio Aguinaldo, referred to his newfound adviser, Apo Mabini, the question of granting agricultural lands in Pampanga to a long-time ally and general of the revolutionary army. Mabini, taken aback, protested, “What will the people say if we who are in power abuse it for our own benefit?”
It is interesting that this moral issue already had to be confronted even as the nation was still being born. Even more interesting is that a Filipino leader of that period had unhesitatingly produced the correct response to that moral and ethical question. The land-seeking general was not given the land he coveted.
Sadly, though, that is only part of that story. Shortly afterward, despite vigorous opposition from the morally scrupulous Mabini, the moneyed and propertied class in the Malolos Congress — who Agoncillo picturesquely described in an essay as “men who conjugated the verb ‘to serve’ to mean ‘to grasp’” — managed to effectively capture government by giving themselves strong discretionary powers over public funds and the allocation of public resources.
The consequences of Mabini’s lost battle clearly hounds us today. Tremendous discretionary power over public funds, public resources, and public policies is vested in those who capture control of government, and that power has been consolidated, increased, refined, guarded, and avariciously used over the years by the nation’s politicos for their own private and personal gain. Irrespective of any labels or party names that presidents, senators, congressmen, governors, mayors, and other government officials have attached to themselves over the more than hundred years since, all have been joined – save only for a shamefully miniscule few — by the notion that the positions they occupy are opportunities “to grasp” and not “to serve.”
By its very nature, of course, it is inescapable that power is vested in government and, by extension, in government officials. Because, however, it is not reasonable to expect that our public officials will be as moral or as ethical as the “sublime” Mabini, their powers should be strictly limited, constantly monitored, and held always in check. Discretionary allocations in the national budget — like the huge presidential discretionary funds and legislative pork barrel — should be eliminated altogether. The decisions to award public projects should always be minutely scrutinized, publicly justified, and never cloaked in “executive privilege.” The discretion to impose regulations on economic activities should always be seriously questioned and constrained. Finally, a system for ferreting out, censuring, and punishing erring public officials should be in place and operating effectively. All these imply a watchful citizenry, a vigilant and fearless media, an equitable rule of law, and a working justice system.
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Sadly, our society is severely deficient in all these.
The morality of our highest public officials has actually been on a decline since Mabini’s time. When Mabini’s valiant efforts failed to overcome the machinations of the political and economic elite of his time, government essentially became a tool that could be easily exploited for private gain by the morally corrupt. Accordingly, public office — and the enormous power associated with it — has become in our society the vehicle of choice en route to riches and wealth.
In theory, the extent of government power is specified by the role the people assign to it. In practice, that role is actually determined by the latitude the political class is given to arrogate powers unto themselves. Unfortunately, “the people” — being a dispersed, diffuse mass — have no real ability to limit that latitude. It is therefore left to other organized institutions of society — such as civic groups, business groups, advocacy movements, professional associations, religious institutions, academic institutions, and the media (writers like you) — to try to circumscribe the role of government and the powers of government officials, and then hold them to account.
A recurring underlying theme in my writings is that the problems of our society since its birth have essentially been caused by concentrated, unchecked power wielded by a privileged few. Such concentrated power is bad for any society because the lopsided distribution of power will produce uneven societal outcomes. Unfortunately, those wielding such power invariably use it — for as long as they are unrestrained — to benefit themselves and their private interests.
Consequently, the general thrust of my own position on various public policy issues is toward the dispersal of power and toward the building up of different — and competing — centers of power in society. The overriding object of social action, I believe, should be the creation of counterweights to any power center, particularly mighty government. Those who may temporarily administer the monopolistic coercive powers of the state must be effectively restrained from using such powers to promote private interests and subvert public ones. In this connection, the actual effectiveness of such restraints depends on the relative strength of other societal institutions that may wield some degree of power in the community of citizens – like the media, the judiciary, organized citizens’ groups, religious institutions, professional associations, the academe, etc.
Power — we must bear this in mind — is realistically checked only by power. Citizens, even in democracies with constitutions spelling out their bill of rights, must realize that they do not, as individuals, have the weight nor the force to prevent government officials wielding the concerted power of the state from doing anything they are bent on doing. Government, unchecked, can overwhelm any citizen or group of citizens. And, in the effort to maintain power and to continue to rule, governing elites commonly weave great webs of deception and maintain a whole structure of public lies.
The popular historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in her (1984) book The March of Folly, “Mankind makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.” She added, “as history has often demonstrated… the process of gaining power employs means that degrade or brutalize the seeker, who wakes to find that power has been possessed at the price of virtue — or moral purpose — lost.” Tuchman’s words imply that the process itself of acquiring power corrupts and that, by the time our leaders get to wield power over us, they are already bereft of virtue or moral purpose.
So what can we — the powerless in society — do?
Clearly, we must always stand together every time the governing powers make an attempt to violate some citizen’s rights or undermine an important democratic institution. Only by acting together and in concert can we powerless citizens exert any sort of clout against powerful ruling elites.
Further, we citizens must be committed to speaking out in defense of our democratic rights and freedoms and in upholding our society’s institutions and values even when the mighty power of government is wielded against us.
The phrase “the power of the powerless” was coined by the Czech writer and one-time dissident (before he became president) Vaclav Havel. Havel believed that the “powerless” in a society exert power simply by rejecting the falsehoods that governments regularly lay on the citizenry and by refusing “to live within the lie” as perpetuated by governing regimes. According to Havel, “the power of the powerless” consists of articulating the truth in the face of a public lie. That means pointing out that the emperor has no clothes whenever, indeed, the emperor has no clothes. Havel believed that an expressed truth can destroy regimes because an indefinable force at some deep “existential level” within each individual compels each one who hears this truth to admit it, and affirm it, and, in good time, to act on it. One voice, in this view, can make a difference.
That is a heady and encouraging thought. To imagine, however, that those who do not belong to the cabals of power need merely cry out “The emperor has no clothes!” (when the ruling powers insist that the emperor has wonderful new clothes) in order to bring down the existing power structure is not very realistic. If recent historical examples of regime change are used to illustrate Havel’s notion, it will be clear that any truth about the state of the emperor’s clothes must be repeated again and again and again and again in countless conversations for this to acquire any kind of motive force.
And therein lies the power of governments: the power to suppress the required repetitions of the truth. The all-too-predictable efforts on the part of ruling regimes to try and keep the press bought and controlled and muzzled are principal indicators of this.
To end, writers cannot be indifferent to the events going on in the society where they live. We are part of what goes on around us and what we write reflects the values we believe should govern our community. In that sense, all writing is political.
The Tamil writer Poopathy wrote, “Literature is not a way to merrily spend one’s time, but a way to awaken society. Writers have a social responsibility to tell the truth that may help the progression of society.”
Now let me leave you with something Ana’s Nin once said: “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but to say what we are unable to say.”
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(Opening remarks of René B. Azurin at the P.E.N. Annual Literature Conference, held at The Verdure, 5th Floor Multi-purpose Hall of Henry Sy Sr. Hall, De La Salle University, 2401 Taft Avenue, Manila, on Dec. 2 and 3.)