Collective reason and democracy

Collective reason and democracy (February 27, 2008)

By Ben Teehankee

Mirror Image, Business Mirror

Here we go again. Consistent with every year before, our nation faces itself in the mirror as allegations from, this time, Jun Lozada about corruption in the highest places have hogged the media channels these past few days. Whistle-blowers always command the public’s attention, especially with a lot of help from the media. The appetite for exposé is widespread. I have lost sleep trying to keep apace of the next piece of Lozada testimony. He is an insider and at the rate he is going, he will likely have more to share with the public.

Although we’ve seen many whistle-blowers in the past, Lozada does not just share explosive allegations; he has a take on why things happen the way they do. He’s someone I would call a “thinking man’s” whistle-blower. For one thing, like Joey De Venecia before him, he is talking about complex matters. International project finance and broadband networks are not pedestrian topics. In addition, he delves into why he thinks the current procurement system, even in its international aspect, is “dysfunctional” or prone to corruption.

While I find the “kidnapping” issue deeply bothersome and his reference to large kickbacks as “bubukol” fascinating, I believe that his analysis on the systemic nature of procurement corruption is the most important part of his testimony. Certainly, if the Senate hearings are to be helpful in legislation, systemic reforms should be given the highest level of attention.

I hope that citizens following the testimonies of Lozada and the other witnesses will be challenged to think about the urgent need for such system reforms. The accountability and possible criminal liability of those implicated are also important, of course. No one will be happier than I to see a guilty high-level official do the perp-walk on TV on the way to jail. But putting people away, just like regime changes, do not improve governments and the way things work. Systemic changes do. A coughing man is not getting cured each time he spits out phlegm. Phlegm is the symptom; the source is elsewhere.

The problem with systemic problems is that they need highly developed reasoning and a focused analytic approach to fully understand. The short-term tastes of a noisy media do not encourage this kind of understanding. A popular quote whose source I forget says: “Little minds talk about people. Average minds talk about events. Great minds talk about ideas.” I sometimes feel that our media-addicted culture is turning us into a country of little minds. We see the trees but we’re oblivious of the forest.

The Lozada testimony is a great opportunity for us to practice the great minds that’s in all of us. We can ask careful questions about what we are hearing beyond the usual “who’s lying?” or “who’s fault is this?” and more about “why is this happening?” and “how are we contributing to this?” The Church leadership has called for as much as the bishops challenge us to look deep into ourselves and to discuss, analyze and reason with each other about what is happening and what do about it. This is as it should be. The Church has been often criticized for not taking a more direct role in the current political crisis that grows by the day. But I don’t agree. The Church is a teacher and should measure its success by how well its devotees have learned to think and act for themselves. If a teacher always has to do the thinking and acting for his pupils, he has certainly failed.

Are there enough of us who are thinking and acting? After all, for every crook in government or business that succeeds, there’s at least one citizen who looks away. I ask myself: “Have I been that citizen? Have I looked away once too often? Have I been too comfortable merely voting for my government leaders but not doing the hard work of being vigilant and making my presence felt?” My answers are obvious and embarrassing.

In response to the Church call, I have been trying to organize group discussions to share perspectives and to analyze what’s going on. It hasn't been easy. Many of my friends have made up their minds that their version is the only true one. There's also very little patience for the give-and-take of discussing a complex issue and many fear that their relationships will be strained. A look at the abusive exchanges in the popular blogs is not very encouraging for those looking for sober discussions.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised. After all these years of hearing about issues as sound bites on TV, why do we need to think and discuss? If news anchors can tell us what’s important and the news editor can tell us what we should see, then they might as well (or even the Church) just tell us what we should think. And yet, without an intelligent community-based discussion of these issues, many of us are really just led by the nose by powerful people who have mastered the use of media for shaping our perceptions. We are not growing as a people. And we are not learning to act collectively and responsibly.

Some writers have called our brand of democracy as “demo-crazy”. I pray that when the dust settles on the NBN exposé, it would not have been another short-cut taken and opportunity lost. I pray that we would have emerged a wiser country knowing that a true democracy is a people reasoning and acting together. This would be a legacy that I’m sure Lozada would be proud of.