Santa Claus with an Armalite
Perhaps a family unit started it all. Perhaps dark nights and wild beasts and the wildness in men’s hearts induced other families to camp together. Then intermarriage, bonding, the tribe, expansion and migration.
It took humanity thousands of years and many forms, but at last we have the state—structured for the pursuit of the common good, and to shift allegiance from families, tribes and region to a fraternity called “the nation.”
This ultimate social organization had a superior form to mobilize the talent and energies of a people to achieve the good life: It makes laws to exact obedience from the general majority through the coercive power of the state, and to levy taxes that will determine whether its members will live in great prosperity or in dire poverty.
Historically, the road to nation-building is marked with violence, and no nation was ever created without it. Kingdoms warred with others to whet the territorial imperative, and monarchs were guillotined by the nobles to end their divine rights. Our nation-state was formed through the armed uprising of the separatist Katipunan, led by Andres Bonifacio, in the flame of 1896.
The rise of capitalism undermined religious intolerance, and the new middle class subjugated less-developed communities to rise as world powers. The Philippine-American War of 1898 heralded Yankee annexation as its manifest destiny to eat our lunch, devour the capital and wealth of Filipinas to feed its war machine, and assert world dominion through Pax Americana.
People comprise and govern societies, and they have far too many desires, some quite dark, and it is common enough for the cruel, the rapacious and the inane to grasp the levers of national power. The essential element of a nation is people, who must have a notion of group identity within a common political context.
Irrational and uncomfortable though it may be, people and politics together mean a struggle for power. It is a sad and curious psychological phenomenon that one should derive one’s deepest satisfaction from making others conform to one’s word, even if it be only by wearing a lapel button. A great deal of pain and blood has gone into making others wear our lapel button, and there is no limit to our viciousness in making others happy as we believe they should be happy.
As a reaction to fear and slavery and the bitter pain of injustice, as in Hobbes’ state of nature—where life is “nasty, brutish and short”—democracy gets born.
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But “democracy” ruins itself by an excess of democracy. Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. At first glance, this is a delightful arrangement. It becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to choose the best rulers and select the wisest courses. They will catapult a mainstay of “Iskul Bukol” to the Senate, and humor a conceited mestiza as commander in chief of the armed forces via “Eat Bulaga” theatrics—after she abjured her allegiance to Filipinas for US citizenship and then reclaimed it to head the censors board.
Democracy allows demagogues to win enough votes, and the electorate has unerringly chosen a majority of the unfit, the depraved, and yes, also a lunatic president, to rule over them. Thus far, it has not learned to use its votes for its own good. The process of mechanical selection through popular elections affords the electorate only the choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
That is why essays like this get written, because there will always be society’s select who have ideas on how systems of governance should function—even if imprisoned, hanged, or shot to death—who would want the people to sleep peacefully at night, wake up to a good breakfast, send their kids to school, ride in efficient mass transport, go to work to define their existence, get medical care when sick, watch movies on Saturday and go to church on Sunday. The good life. That is my man who can govern society thus.
Jose P. Laurel once remarked that the ideal government for us would be a monarchy, with an angel on the throne. Alas! We know there is not, and cannot be, one such man. Institutions, instead, must be built, bone upon bone, usually, and a habitude among all citizens, until a culture of common perception binds us all to desire, to accept and to live by the virtue of the good life.
Those who rise from our ranks must know, by now, that man remains a wild beast. Civilization, like beauty, is only skin-deep, and the use of force, under rules acceptable to most, must remain a tool of public administration.
That, really, is the essence of the power of governance in a democracy. The democratic ruler, by definition, aims to lead his people to the good life, even if, every now and then, he must discipline a few as lightly or as intensely as they deserve, and as society requires.
All of us know this historical truth. Our ancestors have all known that abundance and its fair distribution all require benevolence and discipline. It may be a bit too obvious, but why not express this primal wish for a benevolent despot in the metaphor of Santa Claus with an Armalite? Other metaphors may do, but this one does, too.
So Santa, the bearer of the cornucopia—and the Armalite to assure its fair distribution—can serve us all very well, indeed.
Reynaldo V. Silvestre, a retired army colonel, bemedalled officer and multiawarded writer, was formerly chief of the military’s Office of Strategic and Special Studies. He belongs to Class 1968 of the University of the Philippines Vanguard Diliman, and was teaching political theory at UP Manila when called to active duty as first lieutenant in 1975.
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