Baby Steps

Baby steps

This essay is a response in part to what Nik said earlier today.

Last night, I watched Raymond Red’s Kamera Obscura for a second time. Its first release at Cinemalaya 2012 was greeted by a cool critical reaction, but a revisit of the film (with a brilliantly energetic score by Spy) evoked thoughts that ran through my head over the week. The supposedly lost but found silent film is a fable about someone who discovers a mysterious device that wields the kind of power that can rock a nation. And as I watched the film, there were reminders that our political culture relies a lot on “someone else” to do something about our problems, whether it is someone with super-human power or someone with the means to buy out our principles.

It is a political fable, a supposed warning to an age to come. But our hero speaks in parables: “We cannot see the light,” says he, echoing the words of the one who gave him the device, “but we can only see what it touches.” For me, the key to this political fable was the revelation to him by the muse appearing at night, when he sees the truth about both the Establishment and its opponents. She speaks too in parables. “You can think for yourself.” It gives him the courage to say no and walk away, which has always been for me far more difficult to do sometimes.

Fables are in many ways cautionary tales. I would have expected our protagonist to do the opposite, to denounce hypocrisy, and to go to the root of the problem. But he walked away. He kept silent. He could not do anything. And he fulfilled his destiny, it turns out. What that meant in the end was something I fear for the country. We love to bury our heroes when they no longer serve our purposes and freeze them in stone. We rarely learn from them.

This weekend marks the death anniversary of Ramon Magsaysay, and the conferral of the Awards named for him. One recent winner has, more than anyone else, represented for me what we as a people should have thought about. Instead of waiting for a Caudillo to lay down the law, he saw what tools were available to make things better, and he sharpened them.

It is possible that a key refinement to the Philippine government’s budget reform is to institutionalize the local development council system as the main focus of identifying projects, rather than relying on individual legislators. In its present form, we give legislators too much power. In this paradigm, this power must be shared with civil society on the ground. And this was something Mayor Robredo understood in reinventing the Naga City development council as a “People’s Council.”

This is just one of the things Robredo did in his time, and for which he was conferred the award. Many of these reforms are predicated on an emphasis on the local as its source, and the level to which most citizens connect with the idea of the nation. This is of course where the principle of subsidiarity comes in. I will not talk about this for now, but suffice to say that this has to do with the primacy of the local and how the bigger sphere must support it rather than subsume it, for the sake of the common good.

The above reforms are refinements, small steps, one may say. It is not radical enough. But in another sense, it is. These tools have been available in some way from before the present crisis, or at the very least these existed as best practices from here and elsewhere. I have put forward one idea, and it is a baby step. Those are, I think, the most courageous ones to take.

I rarely publish political essays on this site, but a promise (made on Twitter) is, for once, a promise.

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