The perfect man to teach democracy to our youth

iTEACH - Jose Claro (The Philippine Star) - December 4, 2012 - 12:00am

When history teachers discuss systems of government, they begin by introducing to the class the founding fathers of each type of government. Students are then acquainted with different pictures of elderly, white men wearing ponytails and elegant robes. Such pictures tend to bore the average teenager and foreign-sounding names such as Cleisthenes or Marx hardly help in capturing their interest in the topic.

When it comes to democracy, however, teachers nowadays are in luck. Lately, a youth idol has been giving nuggets of wisdom with regard to the essence of democracy. He is none other than US President Barack Obama. Always inspiring, he has two excellent speeches lately: The first one was his victory speech for his reelection just a few weeks ago. The other one was his address to the people of Burma during a recent state visit.            

Obama’s speeches discuss many of democracy’s features — free speech, vigilance, accountability, suffrage,  equal rights, and opportunities for all. Obama’s discourse on democracy, however, tackles an essential element that other democratic nations sorely lack.           

Like Christ summarizing all of the Jewish law into just two commandments, Obama simplifies democracy as the self-government of many people as one nation. In our country, Filipinos would associate democracy with our elected government officials. Students always have this naive impression that the sole duty of citizens is to elect deserving leaders and leave the rest of the work to the government. Obama clarifies in his spiel to the Burmese people that “the most important office in a democracy is the office of the citizen — not President, not Speaker, but citizen.” He then goes on to state that only citizens can fight for what freedom should mean to a particular nation.    

This ability of citizens perceiving themselves as a united and empowered people is the underlying principle for each one to use her or his rights. If citizens have no affiliation for the nation, then they will merely abuse those rights for self-serving interests and not for nation building. Oppositionists will block every government policy without proposing amendments or offering alternatives. Critics will magnify the inevitable shortcomings of every administration until it loses credibility with its people. If citizens, however, value the unity of the nation, then statesmanship is possible. Electoral defeats are handled with grace and concessions are marked not by allegations of cheating but of support for winning candidates. “We may have battled fiercely,” Obama talks about Romney, “but it is only because we love this country deeply and we care so much about its future.”                   

Most eye-opening is how Obama points out that empowered citizens are united not just by rights and privilege but by obligations and responsibilities to each other and to future generations. Such element is missing from immature democracies like ours.  Every day, there are news reports of criminal syndicates victimizing our countrymen. Every day, crime reports in the slum areas and provinces never fail to shock us as to how many dehumanizing ways one can carry out murder. But, if we merely look away or worse, blame the government for lack of action, then democracy will forever elude us.   

It is every citizen’s duty to ensure that deplorable events do not happen in one’s native land. “What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold us together, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.” Recognizing our obligations to fight for our wronged countrymen  ensures that we will not be victimized by the same reprehensible events. It is only through defending the dignity and rights of others that we protect our own. This is the essence of democracy.          

As we prepare ourselves for the national elections next year, the cynics among us will once again babble that nothing good comes from such a practice. Pessimists will act like wise people when they exclaim that the tuwid na daan has led us nowhere. It should be shared that we teachers have heard these from our own students in the classroom as if these were gospel truths. However, we know that our students are merely echoing these mantras of despair after hearing these from adults, be they parents or other teachers.      

Jose Rizal said that the problem with Filipinos is that we imitate the vices and not the virtues of our foreign conquerors. For once, we should emulate not Hollywood stars but the ordinary citizens of the United States as they have demonstrated to the world how democracy is realized day after day through citizen action and participation. Like them, we can only reap the fruits of democracy if we finally wake up and take ownership of our shared destiny as one people of a great nation. 





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