Thursday, October 10, 2013

Democracy and Respect

Commentary
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer


We carry our democracy, as we do our faith, in fragile earthen vessels, to use St. Paul’s words. Although we know from experience that democracy can be lost in the country, we are still careless in how we act as democratic citizens. We forget that democratic government, in which free men and women hand over part of their freedom to one of their peers to lead them in a search for the common good, is one of the supremely great achievements of human history. It can be lost, however, like grace and innocence.

Respect and humility are essential parts of the good citizenship needed in this aggressive age, both on the side of the ordinary citizen and on the side of the elected officials. Even if we disagree with what our presidents decide—even if they sink us in debt or drag us into war—they remain the embodiment of the entire people’s aspirations and are still deserving of respect. Our presidents are not Moses, but some of the thunder, smoke and lightning that surrounded Moses on Mount Sinai still surround our presidents, even in their weakest moments.

A secret service agent in Washington or in Manila may have lost all respect for the president as a man, but the agent is still willing to “take a bullet” for him because of his respect for the office and the entire people.
We should criticize, but without hostility. Isn’t that the core of the nonviolent teaching of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King? Nothing of lasting good comes from hatred, insult, or ridicule.

Presidents, in turn, should respect ordinary citizens. An example of how respect can be shown by a president is seen in the decision of US President Barack Obama to punish Syria for its use of poison gas. He was, and maybe still is, determined to launch the missiles, even if 80 percent of the American people and the great majority of men and women everywhere in the world, from Pope Francis down to the poorest scavenger, oppose such a strike.

The American president has in that country’s law a legal right to make such decisions. If it were a technical matter of pipelines or mining practices, or concerns over the best use of interest rates, a president may justifiably think the ordinary people do not know enough about the matter to question his decision. The Syrian affair, however, is a matter of war, and people in the United States and around the world know all about war. President Obama, I believe, should listen to the people and respect their judgment in such a matter.

Is there an issue about which President Aquino may feel compelled to change his mind and do what the great majority of his people want him to do? Though I am not an economist, it seems clear the President has been very hesitant to interfere in the workings of the marketplace. He has let business people continue on the road they were on, albeit with a concern to limit corruption and to increase the country’s competitiveness. As a result, we have an economic surge that is jobless and its benefits are skewed toward the well-off members of society.

A case can be made that by an overwhelming majority, the Filipino people would want the President to intervene in business activity to secure more jobs for the unemployed and to narrow the income gap between rich and poor, if they had a chance to vote on the matter. They would surely want him to try to do both.

As Presidents Obama and Aquino get deeper into their administrations, they should ask more insistently than ever if there is something very important that all the people want them to work on. It may be the key to the historical success of their administrations.

President Aquino, in his “Covenant with the urban poor” (March 6, 2010), promised to examine the possibility of public works programs where workers would receive both food and cash for their labor: “We will create large-scale public works programs that can generate a substantial number of jobs for poor men and women. At the onset of our term, we will emphasize labor-intensive public works programs that can generate significant numbers of jobs for our poor people and give them access to at least the minimum amounts of money, food and dignity needed for their daily survival and wellbeing. Recognizing that the primary and most important resource of our country is its people, we will emphasize the creation of jobs that empower the work force, jobs that build capacity and create opportunities for the poor and marginalized.”

There is much manual work to be done throughout the country. On TV we see hundreds of men digging out a village lost in a mudslide in Zambales. Why can’t we dig safe places for the families threatened by mud flows before the damage happens? We are still not doing a good job of replanting forests; farm roads need construction and sea walls need to be built around our low-lying cities, such as Malabon. Millions of poor families need decent housing.

One of the great dangers we face is the generation of young men growing up in our slum areas with no work and no skills. In 18th-century England, these young men were taken into the navy. In the Bronx of my youth, the young men who didn’t like school or office work joined the Marines. Maybe public works programs are our solution. We have the problems, and we have the young men to do the work. Mr. President?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).


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