Good versus evil

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This essay was published in the September 14, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

We see Noynoy Aquino’s campaign for the presidency snowballing. We frame the 2010 elections as a democratic struggle of the Filipino people versus Gloria Arroyo, her anointed one, and her Philippine Mafia.  Noynoy has taken up the challenge of being the people’s candidate and has adopted the frame that the main enemy is Arroyo and the rotten order that she personifies.

A variation of this frame has been articulated by Mar Roxas, who indeed deserves public praise for giving way to Noynoy’s candidacy. Roxas expresses the frame through a catchphrase:  “good versus evil, tuwid versus baluktot, tama versus mali.”

The scholarly Randy David is quite uncomfortable about this “good-versus-evil” stuff, leading him to write a Philippine Daily Inquirer column (12 September 2009) to explain why  “I am one of those people who squirm each time I hear people reduce Philippine politics today into a fight between good and evil.”  David is alarmed that he hears this moralistic language from “modern Filipinos who ought to know better.”

He argues that “such moralistic formulations preempt and disparage the need for a careful and reasoned analysis of the problems that confront us a nation…. Gloria Arroyo may be the most despised president in the nation’s history, but instead of ascribing to her sole authorship of everything that is bad in our government, I find it more arguable to think of her as a reflection of our society’s basic problems, or the street-smart personification of a dysfunctional social order.”

I can understand Randy’s discomfort.  After all, he is a rational, sophisticated academic who values contexts, nuances, and relativity.

The “good-versus-evil” rhetoric has oftentimes been abused.  Recall Dubya Bush’s war on terror, painting America’s interests as a fight between good and evil; that we’re either with him or with the enemy.

The problem though is not the use of the “good-versus-evil” language per se but whether its use is misappropriated or misapplied. “Good versus evil” could hardly justify the US invasion of Iraq, which in the first place was based on deception and unfounded information and defied the United Nations.

But in a totally different context—in a state where good institutions are being ravaged, in a state of extreme polarization—the “good-versus-evil” frame is most appropriate.  Wasn’t Hitler or Nazism a most evil force that had to be defeated, even if that meant making Stalin look good?

Why avoid using the “good-versus-evil” frame, when this is an extraordinary moment to deploy it as a fighting slogan?  And note Roxas’s phrasing: it’s not limited to good versus evil; it’s also about tuwid versus baluktot, tama versus mali.

And why hesitate to pin the evil tag on Mrs. Arroyo, the destroyer of democratic institutions and who, Randy says, is arguably the country’s “most despised president?” Mrs. Arroyo, by praising General Palparan, encouraged the Palparans to commit atrocities. From the Garci tape, we learned that Mrs. Arroyo did not object to Garci’s plan to kidnap a schoolteacher who didn’t want to cooperate in the cheating.  Aren’t these evil acts?

Randy is correct to point out that Arroyo is a reflection of “our society’s basic problems.”  However, it is misleading to de-emphasize the “character of the doer” and just focus “on the origins and consequences of the deed.”  First and foremost, we must demand accountability from Mrs. Arroyo and her accomplices for their wrongdoing. The individual is liable; we cannot therefore downplay the “character of the doer.” In addition, the apologists of Mrs. Arroyo have exploited this kind of reasoning: The system is the problem, not Arroyo.  That Mrs. Arroyo herself has been a victim of the system.

A slogan like “good versus evil” is not a treatise.  It is indeed a simplification. But one has to simplify to distill the essence of our struggle and arouse the people to act.  Similarly, a frame or a model, even in an academic or scholarly context, is a simplification.  It has certain assumptions that may not exist in the real world.  Yet, so long as we are aware of its limitations, a model is a powerful tool to understand the world and solve its problems.

A slogan cannot elaborate, but it grabs our attention and leads us to reflect and take action.  I remember the debate on the call to cancel the Marcos debt.  Technocrats didn’t like this because it was simplistic.  Yet, it was a slogan that the ordinary people immediately absorbed. Behind that slogan, however, was a sound analysis that had technical rigor and was sensitive to nuances. Specifically, only the fraudulent debts were subject to cancellation and that debt repayment would proceed based on the ability to pay, measured in terms of a reasonable ratio of debt service to export earnings.

“Good versus evil” is on the surface as simplistic as “Cancel the Marcos debt.”  Yet it has the appeal to mobilize the people to defeat Arroyo and her most reactionary forces and bring about institutional change.

This slogan has an additional advantage: Given the inevitable that Noynoy’s surge is going to attract opportunists, it will compel him to vet people, even relatives and friends, joining the inner core.

Surely, we cannot just rely on the “good versus evil” message to bolster the frame that the struggle is against the Arroyo administration, its illegitimacy and malfeasance. A substantive reform program is absolutely necessary, and it is having such a program that can assure the Randy Davids that the triumph of the good and decent will translate into building institutions.

But at the same time, we cannot downgrade the moral discourse in the conduct of our struggle, contrary to Randy’s opinion to use moral language “sparingly in public affairs.”

Let us be reminded that when the wise, rational and dispassionate Adam Smith embarked on transforming the world by founding modern economics, he did so by likewise raising moral issues.  His most famous opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was preceded by an equally great but relatively underappreciated work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

And in the 21st century, great men continue to value what is moral in affairs of the state.  Draw inspiration from a fairly recent personal letter of the late Senator Ted Kennedy to President Barack Obama (12 May 2009), which was made public after Kennedy’s death.  Kennedy wrote:

“I saw your conviction that the time is now and witnessed your unwavering commitment and understanding that health care is a decisive issue for our future prosperity. But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

Defeating Arroyo and making her answer for her sins will strengthen our institutions and define “the character of our country.”  To borrow Kennedy’s words, it is  “above all a moral issue.”

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