Wisdom from suffering

HINDSIGHT - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

Never had so much depended on the ballot in our history as in last week’s vote.

Only the snap election of February 1986 – a hubristic miscalculation by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. that hastened his downfall, among other factors – came close in significance and drama to May 9, 2022. This brings up the irony that without that election and its aftermath, this year’s exercise might not have happened at all, or at least not its cast of characters and with its stakes.

Had Marcos Sr. not fallen then (a fact his apologists insist on crediting to the shadowy CIA than to the multitudes of protesting Filipinos right before their eyes), he surely would have found a way to prolong his family’s grip on power, perhaps through his wife, and then his son. We would have agonized through another decade or so of gross maladministration and rampant injustice before sweeping them out of office and out of our lives forever. We would have suffered, but we would have learned.

That last line lingers in my consciousness from a college course in Greek drama – specifically the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus – where Zeus memorably explains why the gods bring pain and torment to humans, when they could just as easily shower them with joyful blessings: “Justice inclines her scales so that wisdom comes at the price of suffering.” Man suffers, so he will learn.

Did we not suffer enough over the Marcos years and from the plunder and repression enabled by martial law to have learned that unbridled authoritarianism is a curse on everyone, both despot and citizen alike? Clearly not, or we would not be here today, facing the restoration of that rapacious regime. And it will be because – going by the moral logic that informed the Athenian stage – we have brought it upon ourselves, by casting more votes for the very same people whose greed we continue to pay for, and will pay yet more for, all over again.

In that case, should we flog ourselves over that seeming poverty of collective wisdom? Shall we call ourselves stupid and even hopeless, to have gained the freedom to vote, only to squander it for the benefit of those who took it away in the first place?

Of course, the right to vote never came with any guarantee of voting wisely and responsibly – that is, with democratic values foremostly in mind. For those whose lives have never changed regardless of administration, it can simply be another source of easy income. For others, it can be a form of personal revenge for injustices suffered daily, for the sharp tongues and heavy hands of otherwise pious employers. Still others might simply want, for once in their lives, to be part of what they think is a winning side. A relative few will choose the thief out of some carefully constructed argument that (1) no one saw the thievery happen; (2) there are many other thieves; (3) the loot will be shared with everyone and (4) contented thieves will not steal again.

In other words, for right or wrong, we are all just exercising our free will, our freedom of choice, which after all is central to democracy – right?

And then again, freedom has never equated with critical intelligence. Which leads me – not being a political scientist – to ask these questions of those who might know better:

What if that “freedom” had been subverted and compromised by massive and deliberate disinformation? Was it still a free citizen who willfully cast a ballot for someone provably inimical to democracy, or a wound-up robot executing a series of plotted motions? Can we blame the desperate and the misled? Can we still call it a “free, fair and clean election” if the fraud already started many years before, in the distortion of history and the rehabilitation of unpunished convicts? If and when voters elect a buffoon and a bully president – like they did with Donald Trump, among other such demagogues we know – does that validate buffoonery and bullying, and make them acceptable? Does it wipe the slate clean, erase all liabilities and establish a new norm for political behavior? Most simply – as millions of us must have been thinking these past few months – if the president refuses to pay his lawful taxes, can we be morally compelled to pay ours?

How much more suffering do we have to endure for our people – especially the generations post-martial law – to learn that voting has personal consequences, that the Marcoses do not represent “moving on” but sliding back into the dismal past and that this election was their best chance in ages of creating a true “golden era” of humane, honest and progressive governance, instead of the tinsel fantasy they’d been sold? How and when can we value the truth once more?

Again, Aeschylus – writing half a millennium before Christ – throws us a line from Prometheus Bound, spoken by the hapless girl-turned-cow Io. Hounded by a gadfly, Io is in constant pain, and tells Prometheus her tale of woe; but she insists, at the end of her story, that she wants to know her future, however difficult it might be: “If you can say what still remains to be endured, tell me; and do not out of pity comfort me with lies. I count false words the foulest plague of all.” This campaign saw innumerable “false words” rain down on our electorate, not just words of spite but also of artificial sweetness.

I am angry and dismayed, but not without hope. In Io’s case, despite her terrible travails, she learns that her future is much brighter than she would have expected – she will be restored to human form, and would count among her descendants the great hero Hercules. We can yet be the progenitors of our best selves as Filipinos. We just need to endure, to learn and to endure some more.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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