OPINION | Ignorance is bliss

Editorials & Columns
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

MANILA — I’ve developed a theory that we in the Philippines have turned our back on modernity in 2016 when we elected the current president, and are reaping what we sowed.

As Nietzsche put it, “Pure will without the confusion of intellect — how happy, how free!” So we have what we’ve been having: the pleasure and comfort of insistent ignorance, brought about by throwing in the towel when it comes to modern data-conscious, systems-oriented governance. Instead of trying to be modern, we are content to settle for government by gesture.

It’s not as if modernity — like adulthood, it’s a difficult thing — hasn’t been something our society’s cringed at in the past. Back in 1966, Nick Joaquin wrote the essay, “A Heritage of Smallness,” in which he said the Philippines then viewed society as a small boat, the “barangay,” and geography as a small locality, the barrio or village. He said that enterprise for the Filipino was strictly the “sari-sari” or family store; industry and production, no more than an immediate day-to-day search; and commerce, the smallest unit possible.

No wonder, then, that six years after Nick Joaquin published this piece, as our society grappled with the contradictions of modernity, Ferdinand Marcos was able to impose tribal-chief-style leadership which promised a return to a Lost Eden but which actually substituted paternalism for democracy, and cronyism for actual competition. As Carlos P. Romulo once wrote in his memoirs, what Filipinos seek in a president is someone who will make decisions for them. In other words, old habits die hard: the tendency to surrender to a supreme leader, in the hope of returning to a past that never was.

The opposite of what modernity means (read on Max Weber on charismatic leadership versus modern rule). Some years back, I wrote about this, in the context of Rodrigo Duterte, in “The Presidency and the Crisis of Modernity.” But that attitude in itself is a relic of what Nick Joaquin called the heritage of smallness. We must replace that with a society that has, as its hallmark, modernity.

So while no one has any real confidence in government measures or statistics or claims on the Covid-19 virus, at least officially we can claim little to no actual infections or fatalities — and remain blissfully ignorant of whether or not it is spreading or not. Contrast this with the grim unease in nations like South Korea or Singapore. Put another way, the story of African swine fever’s spread from our northern island of Luzon to the southern island of Mindanao suggests the level of (in)competence to expect (contrast this with past efforts at containing foot and mouth disease, remember the chemical trays you had to step in and out of, after getting off flights?).

Name any society we envy: Japan, South Korea, or Singapore, and what they have at heart is this: perseverance. It is that quality that has allowed Singapore, for example, to punch way above its weight as a city-state. It is the quality we find in our countrymen abroad who succeed, and that is so lacking in our institutions here which undergo a memory-wipe and thus a collective state of amnesia, every six years.

A memory-wipe would be very satisfactory not only to those vested interests who cannot tolerate another six years of being on the defensive; it is reassuring, too, to the elements in society who fear modernity. In February 2009, I wrote in “The End of Social Mobility” that we risked a revival of fascism because the core constituency of liberal democracy, the Old Middle Class, had been gutted, and that the New Middle Class came into being without the institutions of church, club, and school, to foster the civic sense necessary for positive engagement for the citizenry. At the same time, we faced the problem of a permanent underclass of citizens trapped in poverty without prospects of escaping it. In 2010, with the election of President Benigno Aquino III, a great effort began to liberate the very poor. But so intensive was this effort, that, upon reflection, it may be that the New Middle Class — or, to be precise, a significant but not major, chunk of it — became even more alienated as to provide the legions for a fascist movement.

Read more articles