Guiltless Youth?

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, March 26, 2007  edition, page S1/4.

I have frequently heard the comment or observation that today’s younger generation is clueless, politically passive, and socially apathetic.

A vain, aspiring socialite who thinks he has the cachet to come out with a line of luxury items named after him—has the nerve to speak for the younger generation: “There is this mind-set, which I think is so passé, that says: ‘The country is in shambles and the country is having a hard time and you are out there partying.’ But this generation is guiltless when it comes to that.”

Tim Yap’s statement is perhaps as inflated as his ego. More than that, it shows how vacuous his mind—or life—is. At least the socialite of a generation ago, say, Bong Daza, had and still has substance.  Despite his indulgent and carnival spirit, Bong has been at home mingling with common folks and leftists and having a conversation about Armand Hammer and the Soviet Union. And while Yap peddles vanity products in Rockwell, Daza sells bangus in places like Cubao.  Even as he enjoyed the good, decadent life, Bong soaked in the ideas and culture of the swinging but radical late 1960s and early 1970s.

Counter-culture, activism, and revolution filled the air during that period.  Junior-senior proms, debuts, soirees, beauty contests, and society gossip became irrelevant.  Being groovy and right was joining demos or teach-ins, waving a red flag or quoting Mao’s red book, smoking pot or popping acid.  Reds, hippies, bohemians and gays were one—they were anti-establishment.

The student movement—with the First Quarter Storm of 1970 as a milepost—attracted the best and the brightest from the public and private schools.  Yet, one should neither idealize nor romanticize the generation of the 1960s and 1970s.

A cause of deep sadness for our late colleague Lito Añonuevo was the failure of our generation’s activists to bring about lasting change.  Sheila Coronel, in her message to the 2006 graduating class of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, challenged the graduates to assume the task of pursuing the social reforms that her generation failed to achieve.  She said: “Now in the throes of middle age, my generation has realized that many of our great hopes about this country have been frustrated, our big dreams of reform have turned to dust.”

This isn’t a Pinoy phenomenon, either. Wynton Marsalis, in his latest jazz composition titled “Where Y’All At?” (from the album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary), gives poetic expression to the sentiment of many who come from that generation:

All you’60s radicals and world-beaters, Righteous revolutionaries, Camus-readers, Liberal students, equal-rights pleaders. What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders?

It is high time the youth took over the mantle of reenergizing the movement for social change.

The old activists, the product of the student upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s, lament the dearth of young leaders. But is that observation accurate?  Are the youth really indifferent or, worse, guiltless?

The samples of independent surveys, Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations, capture the youth’s opinion.  A plurality of the youth has strong moral sentiments—opposed to the corrupt, unscrupulous, undemocratic, and illegitimate administration of Gloria Arroyo.

The challenge is how to transform their moral sentiments into political action. Political action, however, is not confined to the demonstrations staged by angry, gruff members of the League of Filipino Students.  Well, even the ill-humored activists of today have found new means of expression like the YouTube and the blog.
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A new breed of activists has surfaced; they are less radical, less ideological, more refreshing, and more open.  But because they are not ideological and militant, the public doesn’t pigeonhole them as activists.  Still these new youth models—think of debater and columnist Patricia Evangelista and the actress Angel Locsin—contribute to the cause of activism.  Evangelista, who describes herself as the “rebel without a clue,” has consistently railed against the political killings, the political persecution, and other injustices.  Locsin has appeared in a TV ad on violence against women and has endorsed Kabataan an activist party-list group that represents the youth sector.

A less-familiar name is Harvey Keh, who is involved in non-governmental organizations that support basic education for the poor.  Keh has gained some fame, thanks to his email letter, which has spread far and wide, about possible outcomes in the elections that might make him eventually vote with his feet and leave the country.  He dreads the scenario where Virgilio Garcillano, Tessie Oreta, Richard Gomez, Gringo Honasan, Manny Pacquiao, Lito Lapid, and Chavit Singson get elected. If such situation occurs, he said, “don’t be surprised if I decide to leave this country that I love dearly.”

The first reaction of some, including myself, to Keh’s message was:  Should a young idealist leave and give up?  But then, I thought of a different interpretation to Keh’s letter.  Perhaps, Keh’s threat of leaving if the seven controversial or notorious candidates win is but a rhetorical device to dramatically drive home his message—that is, for us to vote “leaders who have a good track record for service and who are genuinely committed towards serving our country.”

Nevertheless, the purity of the youth’s idealism has to be complemented with the political savvy and sophistication that the older generation can provide.   Keh and Evangelista are disappointed that the two main parties lack principles.  For instance, they cannot understand why Manny Villar, who was instrumental in the impeachment of Joseph Estrada (Erap), would now join the Erap-endorsed opposition party.

In my younger days when lily-white idealism reigned supreme, I would have had the same opinion as articulated by Keh and Evangelista.

But as we grow old, we get wiser—we play more clever games—on how to change the world without abandoning our principles.

What I fear is that many well-meaning youth, such as those who are “men for others” like Keh or “scholars of the people” like Evangelista will look at the forthcoming elections as a battle between two bads.

The problem with this frame is that it diminishes what should be seen as the greatest danger of all–that Arroyo and her allies are destroying the institutions necessary for democracy and long-term prosperity to flourish.

And so part of the clever games we have to play is build a united front to crush the main enemy.

Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill knew how important the united front was to defeat Adolf Hitler and fascism.  So they had an alliance with the evil Josef Stalin, knowing that without the Soviets, they could not defeat Hitler. Indeed, a turning point in World War II was the terrible defeat the Nazis suffered in Leningrad, thanks to the courage and patriotism of the communists under the brutal Stalin.

And so, let us concentrate our fire on the Filipino Hitler first.  Hopefully, the youth, and others will recognize the pragmatism, principled nevertheless, of tactically uniting even with those faces we don’t like in order to defeat the bigger enemy.

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