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Pinoy Kasi

Appreciating freedoms

Over the election campaign period and the last few weeks after the elections, I’ve been hearing many animated, even heated, political discussions in all kinds of public places — the proverbial barbershops (“kwentong barbero”) and beauty parlors, restaurants, malls, and offices.

In a drugstore, I caught an exchange between two security guards. The older of the two was the dominant one, running through his views on the Philippines’ problems, which, he asserted, would be solved by the new president and vice president. Most striking was “sobrang human rights human rights” (too many human rights).

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It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that argument, and I am convinced many (I hope not “most”) Filipinos do buy that line that we have too much of human rights and that translated into many votes for Marcos (father and son) and Duterte (father and daughter).

Human rights are enshrined in our Constitution, taught in our schools. Its practice, in governance, is another matter. Being a senior citizen, I’ve felt the differences across decades, depending on how old you were during which presidency.

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In high school and college, we were coming of age and focusing on personal rights, to grow our (males’) hair long for example. With Marcos’ martial law, our parents could now speak with one voice with the government when they had new rules. Sometimes in our exasperation, we, kids, would protest and murmur under our breath something about martial law at home.

Those of us in college began to become more aware though of more serious restrictions. We read about raids and police carting off “voluminous subversive materials” and had our bags checked by guards in the university, to make sure we were “clean,” even if we didn’t always know what was banned except for a vague “anything critical of government.”

We guarded our speech, aware of “ajax” (government agents) in our midst. Later, from underground publications and word of mouth, we would learn about homes being raided in the middle of the night, and “aktibista,” many our age, taken away and imprisoned, or worse, tortured or salvaged (extrajudicial executions).

After Edsa, it took some time before young people felt comfortable speaking out in classrooms. I was already teaching then and would despair when students would not answer me when I asked when we could have an exam or what deadline we could have for a term paper.

The sense of “rights” had its ups and downs but even in periods where we felt fairly free to speak up, I knew there were differences, for example in rural areas, people were more careful, the hold of local warlords being so much more pervasive. Under President Duterte, I felt so much more of the restrictions, regardless of class; the increasingly arbitrary killings in the name of the war on drugs were casting longer and longer shadows.

There is much to do ahead, and all the legalistic declarations around human rights are not the best places to start. Maybe we should go back to the “four freedoms” enunciated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in January 1941, as the clouds of a new world war were gathering. They were simple enough — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — yet, they encompassed so many of the human rights, and clearly illustrated how we need to appreciate freedoms as intertwined.

In 1943, The Saturday Evening Post commissioned popular artist Norman Rockwell to render the four freedoms into paintings, accompanied by essays on each of the four freedoms. Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino-American writer and trade unionist, was commissioned to write on the freedom from want, a powerful piece that ended up connecting all four freedoms. We should bring those essays, Bulosan’s especially, into our classrooms in English and local translations.

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In our current situation, I worry most about the need for freedom from fear, what with six years of that freedom being eroded by terror and impunity. Roosevelt was the one, too, who pointed out that “the only thing to fear is fear itself.”

Let’s at least start with appreciating the freedoms that we still have, and then commit to defending them.

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TAGS: freedoms, Michael L. Tan, Pinoy Kasi
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