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Passion For Reason

Sona’s metaphors for a ‘kinder, gentler’ nation

ESSENTIALLY PRESIDENT Aquino’s latest State of the Nation Address has been criticized for being more populist than institutional. It aimed at changing our attitudes and ways of thinking, rather than laying out technocratic projections and legislative roadmaps. The policy wonks and the legislative types were disappointed, but sorry, guys, who says you are the main audience of the presidential address?

I can perfectly understand why we have come to expect the Sona to deal with the hard edges of policymaking and lawmaking. After all, under a constitution of separated powers, that is how a president leads. Day by day, he issues marching orders to his subalterns in the executive branch. But once a year, he sends just the right signals to the elected deputies of the people in that other elected branch of government, Congress, in whose home the Sona is delivered and who is expected to pass the laws needed to carry out his reform agenda.

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But perhaps this populist President wants to govern popularly as well. If he wants Congress to follow, he talks past the elites and institutions, and speaks to the real boss in the language that that boss speaks. Thus all the Sona’s talk about saying “thank you” to the jeepney driver, the teacher and student, the artist, the policemen, firefighters, soldiers and street sweepers—and these spoken in Filipino. Let the politicians “fiscalize,” that unique term of Pinoy English for career naysaying and professional contrarianism, but we the people must “make the effort to recognize the good that is being done.”

To start with, the barest minimum legal requirement says nothing about road-mapping and agenda-setting. All that the Constitution says is that the “President shall address the Congress at the opening of its regular session” which shall be held “once every year on the fourth Monday of July.”

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Moreover, if you are looking for smoke signals on presidential priorities, that is dealt with in a separate section of the Constitution that actually fixes a 30-day deadline for the president to submit the proposed budget to the Congress.

But the real question is: If not in the Sona, where else can we as a nation talk about reforming our values and attitudes? Inherited wisdom says: in schools, churches and with local variants of Oprah Winfrey, but certainly not in presidential speeches. It’s about time we changed all that.

The metaphor “a kinder and gentler nation” came from the acceptance speech given by George H.W. Bush when he was nominated as the 1988 Republican standard-bearer to succeed Ronald Reagan. (It wasn’t a Sona, I’m sure I’ll be reminded by the critics.) It was his way of setting himself apart from Reagan who was ideologically averse to the welfare state. It was his way, too, of matching the welfare state credentials of the Democrats and their candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

The first President Bush said: Prosperity “allow[s] us to pursue ‘the better angels’, to give us time to think and grow. Prosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness. It means helping a child from an unhappy home learn how to read… Some would say it’s soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well I am moved. I want a kinder, and gentler nation.”

This Sona will be remembered for the same spirit, though in a less elegant turn of the phrase. The term “utak wang-wang” reflects the more graphic idiom of the streets from whence it came: It is the attitude that power is free to be used for egoistic preening and self-aggrandizement. And even more significantly, this Sona gave it a new angle: “Utak wang-wang” is not a sin of government alone, but afflicts the private citizen as well. He struts and swaggers when he can, and he accepts the strutting and swaggering by others more powerful than him.

Recall Bush’s words: “Some would say it’s soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things.” Recall too that during those heady days of struggling against “imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism,” anti-corruption crusades were seen merely as political bombast between the “ins” and the “outs” of the political elite. We were told that we  must turn to the true and fundamental ills of society, and that tales of corruption were merely a side story and not the controlling narrative.

Today there has been a sea change in attitudes about corruption. We have come to realize that all the finest government reforms cannot be carried out through institutions that are impoverished or, even if enriched, are only thus perverted. Conversely, we have come to realize that even a poor government like ours can afford to help its neediest citizens. Regardless of ideology or economic system, and even while we await an economic turnaround, we have enough funds for conditional cash transfers, for decent health care, schools and welfare services. Yet corruption wastes away those resources—almost 50 percent of pork barrel alone, by some estimates—and feeds the system of patronage that perpetuates institutionalized theft.

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Corruption complicates even the simplest act of charity. Faced with Typhoon “Juaning,” even the plain act of giving is hobbled by the fear that emergency funds, once released, will be pocketed by local rulers or that relief goods will not get to the real victims. It’s bad enough that material help is wasted and diverted. It’s worse that spiritually the instinct to care and nurture is poisoned by cynicism and distrust. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind a Sona that confronts the poverty of the Filipino soul.

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TAGS: Aquino, featured columns, Government, opinion, SONA 2011
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