The problematic — and for many Filipinos, depressingly predictable — results of the May 13 senatorial elections have provoked the usual mini-debate on whether the mass of the electorate is really so stupid as to vote against their own interests. They have after all elected, among others, accused plunderers, liars, supporters of tyrannical rule, opportunists, enforcers of extrajudicial killings, and, in general, the yes-men and chorus line of the Duterte regime.
Those who say “yes” to that question point out that the voters have instead denied the human rights defenders and progressives aware of the need for an independent Senate the opportunity to implement the legislative programs that can address the majority’s concerns and the country’s legions of problems.
The question has been raised in past elections. But as seemingly relevant as it is to the bigger issue of how elections can better serve the country’s short- and long-term interests, it needs to be re-phrased.
Rather than “stupid,” the key word should be “ignorant.” Stupidity is inherent, and the result of genetics and breeding. Not even a sackful of college degrees can do much about it. Ignorance or lack of knowledge is on the other hand the consequence of such man-made factors as the cultural, social, political and economic environments, the absence of opportunities for enlightenment, and even deliberate manipulation.
More than the honestly uninformed, those responsible for it deserve the condemnation of anyone who still cares for this country and its people. At the top of that list are the oligarchs and political dynasties that have made campaigning for public office orgies of disinformation, vote-buying and intimidation, as well as occasions for displaying their singing and dancing abilities, and regaling their audiences with sexist, vulgar and tasteless jokes rather than as once-every-three-year opportunities for voter education.
The educational system that’s the creation of the bureaucrats in the service of the dynastic overlords of this supposed democracy is also part of the problem. Some of its graduates who claim to have voted for the candidates of the Duterte regime have trotted out their master’s and even PhD degrees to contest the argument that they’re ignorant. In the process they have only confirmed that suspicion.
A degree in a particular specialization is not necessarily any assurance of expertise and wisdom on political and other issues. One MA graduate of a US Ivy League school and the holder of a PhD degree from the University of the Philippines, for example, could not see the implications on press freedom of the killing of journalists, and has even justified those killings on the argument that the victims were corrupt as well as incompetent because most of them have had no formal training in journalism.
In one forum on Philippine governance, a participant who identified himself as a professor of politics in the most expensive university in the country argued in support of the Duterte drive for one-man rule because, he said, his research has established the need for strong government in the Philippines as in Singapore and Malaysia. It was an argument whose advocate was apparently unfamiliar with, and as a result ignored, the differences between the political elites of those countries and the incompetent and corrupt dynasties that rule the Philippines.
Holders of advanced degrees nevertheless make it seem that a PhD is the absolute determinant of intelligence. They disparage those without it when no one else is listening, and weigh in at every opportunity on everything from global warming to foreign affairs to Arundhati Roy’s political writings and her novel The God of Small Things.
The “barbarism of specialization,” the liberal Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset observed decades ago, indeed breeds experts — but often only in narrow fields of knowledge. In too many instances these “learned ignoramuses” have little or no understanding of the broader issues of science, society and politics. But as limited as their areas of competence and understanding are, because of their credentials they are nevertheless presumed to know everything, and often impose their views on everyone else.
There is as well the truth that much of what passes for “education,” as the historian Renato Constantino pointed out, is mis-education, or its very opposite. Beneath the pretense at nonpartisan scholarship can in fact lurk disguised programs of indoctrination in unquestioning obedience to “authority” and uncritical acceptance of what’s going on regardless of its horrors. In the Philippines we have entire generations who have been made to think that the Marcos dictatorship was the golden age of recent history by the “education” they received in the primary and secondary grades and even in college.
Much of the corporate media are no less complicit in the veritable conspiracy to keep in ignorance the millions many practitioners secretly hold in contempt. They report on and quote the powerful to the exclusion of the poor and marginalized, thus assuring the dominance of the former’s narrative in the national discourse. They provide little knowledge if at all, nor any of the information voters need during elections, among them the track records of candidates and their programs, if they have any. Instead they religiously cover the campaign sorties of the politicians who’re spending millions in advertising in their networks. Still others have in their staffs creatures who call themselves journalists but who are skills- and ethically-challenged hacks of the monied and powerful.
The mass of voters so victimized cannot be blamed for voting for the very same class responsible for their misery out of ignorance. But those who vote in full awareness of what they’re doing and its impact on others must be held accountable for their actions. These are the bought-and-paid-for partisans of the powerful whose greed drives them as heads of this or that shady group or equally shady church to sell their votes and those of their followers for pelf and the illusion of power.
What’s evident in these isles of perpetual darkness is that elections as supposedly democratic expressions of the popular will are caught between the rock of stupidity and the hard place of ignorance.
Much of the latter is deliberately cultivated by those who fear and despise the people’s capacity to make informed choices. Over a hundred years ago, Jose Rizal wisely argued for education as the antidote to the ignorance on which tyranny thrives. But it should be evident that only the unwilling victims of dynastic manipulation, educational system indoctrination, and some of the media’s bias for the wealthy and powerful can be truly educated. The consciously logic-defiant and fact-resistant are unteachable, quite simply because it is in their interest to intentionally propagate ignorance, while believing themselves to be intelligent.
Looking out for and enhancing their economic and political interests is in their view the wisest course of all. But despite their pretensions they are still the most ignorant of them all — the most clueless about the immense cost of human rights violations, incompetence, brutality, corruption and tyranny on the lives of millions including themselves, their children, and the future. These and their dynastic patrons are the true enemies of the people, the uneducable “mass-men” of Ortega y Gasset who have helped bring this country closer and closer to perdition.
The education of the misled, miseducated, disinformed and disempowered can help combat the disciples of self-aggrandizement and dynastic rule. But it will take the combined efforts of true educators, the men and women dedicated to the service of the people, and the competent and independent journalists and progressive organizations that are still among us to achieve it. And it won’t happen overnight.