Public Lives



It’s one of those moments in a democracy when we’re reminded that the rights of citizenship come with corresponding duties. I refer to the fact that the deadline for the filing of income tax returns this year came just a month before the midterm elections. This fortuitous sequencing of two vital events that mark our lives as citizens should make it clear that paying one’s tax obligations is as important as exercising one’s right to vote.

That many of our people continue to take a cavalier attitude toward both only indicates how far we are from being a democracy. Perhaps, if every Filipino understood how much the future of his own family depended on the progress of the country as a nation-state, he would hesitate to cheat on his taxes. He would willingly give to the government what he can spare, not as a tribute, but as a personal contribution to the nation of which he is a part. And, if he were aware of how precious his vote was, he would not ever think of selling it for any amount. He would cast it, as if the future of his family and country depended on it.

But why have conscientious taxpaying and intelligent voting not become second nature to us? The answer might be found in the same reason for the preponderance of political dynasties in our political system. We have an underdeveloped concept of citizenship. While we profess a strong attachment to our country, this is mainly emotional. It has not matured into a commitment to abide by the formal institutions of government. That is why our most basic loyalties and obligations are still reserved to members of our kin group and narrow circle of friends, patrons and dependents.

In a controversial essay, published in the November 1987 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, the American journalist James Fallows summed up the problem of Filipinos in the memorable phrase “damaged culture”—by which he meant, essentially, a lack of nationalism. “When a country with extreme geographic, tribal, and social-class differences, like the Philippines, has only a weak offsetting sense of national unity, its public life does become the war of every man against every man.”

Fallows traces this condition to the persistence of a culture of powerlessness and dependence that had been fostered by both Spanish and American colonialism. Filipinos have been left to believe, Fallows argues, “that they aren’t really responsible for their country’s fate.” This may be true for the masses, but what about the ruling elites who were nurtured by the colonial powers and who later took over the government of this country? What a foreign banker he interviewed told him seems to offer an answer: “There is not necessarily a commitment by the upper class to making the Philippines successful as a nation. If things get dicey, they’re off, with their money.”

Harsh as it may be, Fallows’ insight into the ways of Philippine society contains more than a grain of truth. The lack of a sense of belonging to a self-governing nation-state does seem to afflict all strata of the Filipino nation. This is the only way we can explain the ease with which many of our people give up their Filipino citizenship once they find themselves settled in a more prosperous country. Coupled with the crippling sense that they are powerless to change the course of things, Filipinos’ lack of national cohesion produces a nation that seems unable to redeem itself from its colonial past.

The governing elites fear that if they fail to perpetuate their families’ fortunes, others would not hesitate to take what they have, and no one would protect them. Their enemies might go after them, and, quite often, use the force of the law to strip them of their wealth and power. “An anarchy of families” is how the historian Alfred McCoy once labeled this state of affairs. How does one “break” this culture?

Fallows himself could not match the sharpness of his analysis with a clear view of the road that must be taken. He was writing at a time when the euphoria from Edsa 1 had started to fade. “America is full of people who have changed their ‘culture’ by moving away from the old country or the home town or the farm. But a culture-breaking change of scene is not an answer for the people still in the Philippines—there are 55 million of them, where would they go?—and it’s hard to know what else, within our lifetimes, the answer might be.”

Part of the answer might lie in the fact that about 10 percent of Filipinos today work and reside abroad. Their overseas experience cannot be other than culture-breaking in many ways. I have said many times that they could be crucial harbingers of societal modernity. But then they are also the same people who would be inclined, when the chance presents itself, to uproot their families and settle abroad permanently.

We have to contend with the fact that cultures change very slowly. It is futile to place the onus of cultural change on the educational institutions of society, as if change were just a matter of opening people’s minds. I think that as societies become more complex, the pressure to alter their way of doing things also becomes more intense. This paves the way for new functionally differentiated structures that can take the place of old ones built along tribal and hierarchical lines.

I am convinced that we have entered such a period of change. We are becoming less tolerant of feudal privilege, of patronage politics, and of unaccountable public officials. We sneer at the rich who avoid paying their full tax obligations. We are contemptuous of those who trade their votes for cash. And, as important, we are more inclined than ever to criticize each other, and to express our disaffection with the way we run our society.


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