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Democracy and cultural expression

The Penman as (Pacific Leadership Fellow) PLF at UC San Diego

I spent the past two weeks as a Pacific Leadership Fellow at the School of International and Pacific Relations of the University of California, San Diego, and the highlight of my fellowship was a 40-minute talk I gave on the general topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting Modernization in the Philippines.” The PLF — usually a government or business leader from the Asia-Pacific region — is asked to make a public presentation to a large audience composed of academic and community representatives, to introduce and discuss major issues facing his or her society.

I felt it safer to presume that the non-Filipino members of my audience last Jan. 28 knew very little about Philippine history and politics, so I began with a broad overview of that history, bringing things to the present and the medium-term horizon, considering both our strengths and resources — noting the robustness of our recent economic growth — but also the longstanding inequalities and structural weaknesses that continue to hold us back. Here’s a slightly edited excerpt from the rest of my talk:

We have to pause and wonder exactly what kind of democracy we have in the Philippines, and what needs to be done — particularly on the cultural front — to achieve a fuller sense of the word.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Philippine democracy a sham, because most Filipinos enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms absent in patently undemocratic societies —freedom of expression, of association, of mobility, of enterprise; the right to vote, and a presumptive equality under the law.  But that presumption is also the weakest leg our democracy stands on, undermined by gross economic and social inequalities in our society showing Philippine democracy as more a democracy of style and spirit than one of substance.

Indeed, economically and politically, the Philippines has been ruled for more than a century by an elite, a roomful of families from the landed gentry and comprador capitalists who developed their wealth and power as agents and executors of colonization, and have taken turns at governing the country well into the present.

We cannot have true democracy without achieving a better balance in our economic and social structure, and its best hope in the Philippines could be in our enlarging middle class. They may not yet have the economic and political clout of the elite, but coming from the poor and aspiring in their own way to become more prosperous, they have the most at stake in creating a new regime of opportunity and fairness.

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It is the middle class that has served as the voice of Philippine democracy, primed by its education to value freedom of thought and expression. It is the middle class that stands at the vanguard of modernization, having not just the desire but also the means — through education and entrepreneurship — to change the future.

… One out of every 10 Filipinos now lives and works abroad in a decades-long diaspora that has kept the Philippine economy afloat through remittances amounting to more than $25 billion in 2013. But they bring home not only money but new ideas, and I feel confident that, in the long run and for all its social costs, this diaspora will have salutary effects because that domestic helper in Milan or plumber in Bahrain will no longer be simply a domestic helper or plumber when they come home. Tourists bring home snapshots of pretty places and exotic food; foreign workers bring home real learning, lessons in survival and getting ahead, and raised expectations of their local and national leaders.

This exposure to global culture and its elevation of local aspirations will be a major force in reshaping the Filipino future. And again, it is the middle class — the dwellers of the Internet and the Ulysses of this new century — that will lead in this transformation, just as they have led the most important movements for political and social reform in our history.

… One of the bright spots of Philippine society today is the fact that civil society is very much alive, constantly on guard against governmental or corporate abuse and wrongdoing, ever ready to uphold the rights of ordinary citizens and communities, and firmly rooted in those communities. It has stood at the forefront of the movement to fight corruption, which recently came to a new climax with the explosive revelation of a billion-peso pork-barrel scam going all the way to the Senate and even possibly higher.

One of the greatest challenges of our modernization may be that of electoral reform — not just a reform of the electoral process, but a reform of the voter’s mind — not to vote for popular candidates, but to vote wisely, to see the vote as a chance to short-circuit a historical process and to lay claim to one’s equality and patrimony.

And this is where culture comes in, as an instrument of social and political reform and modernization. If we look at culture more proactively not just as a way of living but a way of thinking, then there is much room for the promotion of true democracy through cultural expression.

By cultural expression I don’t mean simply the writing of stories, poems, plays, and essays, which is what I do most days, partly as my civic duty. I mean the use of all media at our disposal — the arts, the press, the Internet, whatever can influence the Filipino mind — to forge and sustain a set of core values, of national interests that cut across family, class, and region.

Of course, we can take “cultural expression” in its more popular and familiar forms — stories, poems, plays, music, painting, and dance, among others — as gestures toward the idea of a larger, national culture. After all, with every poem or painting, the artist seeks to palpate, from an audience of citizens, a sense of what is common and what is important — or to put it both ways, what is commonly important and what is importantly common. This has always been the social value and the political mission of art — not just as a means of self-expression, but of establishing, affirming, and promoting certain commonalities of thought and feeling.

… We need nothing less than a new cultural revolution — focused on the assertion of the ordinary citizen’s rights over power and privilege, on the importance of the rule of law, and on our understanding and acceptance of what it means to be a Filipino in this globalized world. Forging that sense of national identity is crucial to securing our future, again in a world and in a part of the world where the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Americans seem to have very clear ideas about their roles and capabilities. In this ocean of resurgent nationalisms, we Filipinos need to redefine ourselves as more than America’s students and surrogates.

In sum, much remains to be done to lend more substance to Philippine democracy in terms of addressing age-old economic and social inequalities. But the first field of battle exists in the mind and spirit, and the first campaign in this battle, the first declaration of freedom, has to be an act of the imagination.

I prefer to see democracy as a process rather than a product; the aspiration can be as powerful as its actualization. This democracy is first formed by its assertion: by seeking democracy, we begin to achieve it, and this assertion is the task of our artists, writers, thinkers, and opinion makers, the imaginative shapers of our national identity.

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Email me at penmanila@yahoo.com and check out my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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