"To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power." - Montesquieu
Over the last few weeks I have been hesitant to write about the smoldering controversy surrounding the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) in any sort of detail - which of course, has not precluded commentary in fits and starts on Twitter where instant reactions are the norm and detailed consideration of the various levels surrounding the ‘controversy’ are practically verboten. But, noise is the norm on Twitter, and sitting down to explore an issue should require more than just playing to the mob or gleefully acting the contrarian: It needs an approach that offers the writer and the reader an opportunity for introspection and deep consideration of the topic.
More than that, I have struggled with the entry point into the discussion. Worthy commentators like Dean Antonio La Viña, Randy David, John Nery, Raissa Robles, ex-Supreme Court Justice Adolfo Azcuna, Dean Mel Sta. Maria, the CMFR (in the form of Melinda Quintos de Jesus and Luis Teodoro), and ex-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Artemio Panganiban have weighed in on the subject, and its concomitant complexities, through the prisms of their advocacies or defined intellectual frameworks. In much the same way, the opinions of Justice Marvic Leonen and Justice Mariano del Castillo, and the Supreme Court Disbursement Acceleration Program decision penned by Justice Lucas Bersamin, offer not just judgment, but clarity in accessing the manifold legal aspects. I tend to view and understand issues, especially those relating to government, governance, and constitutionality, through a historical lens. Which requires, to a certain extent, an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings that gird democracy and our form of government, the nature of action within a deeper historical context, and in terms of critiques of discourse and public intellectualism in the Philippines.
Considering Discourse, Conversation, Media, and Provocation.
The seeping of social media read and react sorties in discussing issues into the main (or maybe the continued prevalence is a more apt description) bring to mind the pressing issue of a lack of distinct public intellectualism in the Philippines. For better or worse, the names above are those who seemingly embrace their role as public intellectuals and work clearly within the context of educating and informing; not just pandering, playing, or leveraging. In critiquing the role of American intellectuals in the 20th century, Tony Judt offered a compelling description of intellectualism and its position with a nation’s discursive sphere should not be:
“ So I don’t think intellectuals do very well talking about the need for the world to be democratic, or the need for human rights to be better respected worldwide. It’s not that the statement falls short of the desirable, but it contributes very little to either achieving its goal or adding to the rigor of the conversation. Whereas the same person, really showing exactly what’s defective about democracy and democracies, sets a much better base for the argument that ours is a democracy that others should be encouraged to emulate. Merely saying that ours is a democracy or saying that I’m not interested in ours but I want to help make yours, encourages the response: well, go away and fix yours and then may you’ll have a foreign audience, and so on. So in order to be international, we have to be national first.” - Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, page 303-304.
While this conversation focuses on the nature of intellectualism in the United States, and obviously in terms of exporting American conceits and perceptions of democracy, it holds some cogent points for consideration for us. Judt well-reflects the need for intellectuals to aspire to something more than just rabble-rousing or top-line discussions. Instead they have to, for lack of a better term, “show their work.” They have to take the reader on a journey, they have to help challenge preconceptions, demonstrate avenues for consideration, and inculcate deeply a penchant for critical thinking. Or, they run the risk of being propagandists and preachers, polemicists and demagogues:
"Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment…professional politicians now claim to listen to vox populi in the form of instant phone-in votes and popularity polls on everything from immigration policy to pedophilia. Twittering back to their audiences its own fears and prejudices, they are relieved of the burden of leadership or initiative." - Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land
Reflecting the emotional temperature or feeding and fanning seething anger and outrage, is not constructive when taking a macro-perspective on the growth of body politic. Sure, it can bring short term gratification in the form of street protests, petitions, and ‘venting’ through emotionally charged polemics, or high handed denunciations based on tenuously constructed grounds, but on its own these actions matter little except to satiate a desire for emotional expression: In some cases, satisfying desires to rewrite a perceived electoral wrong from 2010, or stemming from unsatisfied anger that has festering since the PDAF rallies of 2012, or any number of reasons ranging from political to ideological differences. This is not a indictment of the appropriateness of the motives behind some of the moves; the uncomfortable truth is there are kernels of truth behind some of the accusations, but it also begs for a deeper understanding of the historical and socio-political context in which governance (and governance decisions) occurs. Now that can be uncomfortable and refuge often is found in retreating to motherhood statements of expressions of clichéd ideological sloganeering and pandering or the blasé dismissal of any differing opinion.
“Thus, the constitutional litigation presents a dilemma: it requires the Supreme Court to be more judicial than other govern- mental bodies yet more political (i.e., concerned with policy) than
other courts.” - Archibald Cox
I believe that, in some respects, the trivialization of issues and the stripping of their attendant complexities comes through personalizing the nature of the discussion. For example, one criticism I have held with regards to the complaints filed before the Supreme Court versus the DAP (and as a result the decision, pending reconsideration) was the focus solely on acts perpetuated under the DAP. While it is well and good to declare acts as unconstitutional, it almost felt like the point of the initial complaint was not necessarily stripping out the relevant provisions located in law that allow to Executive to implement a program as expansive as DAP (or for that matter, the Senate Hearing on DAP felt less like an exploration of remedies for legislation than an opportunity to question Executive decision-making) than to utilize the Supreme Court to score political points against the administration. This interpretation is somewhat borne out in the Motion for Reconsideration filed by Belgica, which again seemingly focuses on proving the administration acted in ‘bad faith’ and pushing specific ideological agenda points. While this may suffice in the moment for purposes of scoring political points and ‘rallying the base’, it (as well as a projected failure over the next few years on the part of the Congress to pass any sort budget reform and fiscal control measures) does little to remedy the issues inherent in our budget and fiscal management system. As has been cogently discussed (in the opinions of del Castillo and Leonen, as well as other commentators) there is a need for flexibility on the part of the Executive in executing the budget; however, flexibility is not indicative of carte blanche in rebalancing the budget during the fiscal year, which seemingly remains a concern for the future; remember budgets can still be re-enacted. But, appearances by ‘concerned’ members of Congress and civil society members, indicate that the focus is on constructing a foundation for impeachment and holding the administration ‘liable’ on relatively tenuous grounds (now and likely in two years) versus remedying the system through legislative means. In terms of remedying existing laws and laying the foundation for future legislation, DAP offered a ready entry point. One that I fear has been squandered. Expediency is the name of superficial oppositional politics, not necessarily seeking lasting legislative and judicial reform of the system. Any Executive budgetary reforms (whether they be zero-based budgeting, performance informed budgeting, and bottom-up budgeting) initiated by this administration can easily be undone by the next without concurrent legislative remedies. Mayhaps the challenge to our esteemed representatives in Congress is for them to propose budget reform legislation to the Executive and challenge for support in its passage in the next two years.
The fact is the Executive and Legislature get first crack at determining and interpreting constitutionality of relevant laws on the books. Bills are deemed constitutional when passed and signed into law by the Executive branch, sans any immediate challenge before the Supreme Court (witness the excising of certain provisions of the RH Law by the Supreme Court recently). As long as provisions exist in the GAA or in the Administrative Code, the potential for a wide-ranging program that could make DAP look like an exercise in moderation and restraint exists. However, precisely because of the flattening, trivializing, and personalizing, of the complex issues of budget reform (as well as the conscious misunderstanding and ignoring of budget context) the dangers enshrined in law still exist and remain relatively unchallenged.
What is apparent, despite attempts to delineate the discourse in overly simplistic terms, is that the discussion surrounding DAP must take place on multiple levels; no single issue is capable of being reduced to utterly simplistic and binary considerations, much less one possessing such inherent complexities as this. Yet, Manichaeistic denunciations and pronunciations have become the norm. One commentator recently wondered about what is in actuality driving the almost unreasonable anger and seething hatred that is apparent when discussing DAP. The nuanced discussion is ignored in favor of something more akin to muckraking and divisive rhetoric in constructing stories and talking points on DAP. The conversation and the manifold issues inherent in DAP have become flat in a sense; with the various pathways and levels available for exploration leveled and linked: Constitutionality is linked directly to criminality, which in turn presupposes corrupt practices as inherent and prevalent. This is not to say that impeachment complaints and investigation of liability and criminality born of the DAP should not be explored and adjudged in the appropriate forum. That, however, is a far cry from immediately equating unconstitutional with immoral and criminal; or for that matter the perceived overturning of the presumption of good faith, whether binding or not. As has been noted, those two paragraphs appear out of step with the rest of the decision penned by Bersamin; one can easily imagine the nature of discussion in the Supreme Court that lead to the inclusion of those paragraphs. My suspicion is that part of the heightening of the rhetorical environment (whether on the part of the Palace in impolitic public speeches or from provocative pronunciations from some legislators and civil society members) is precisely born of implied accusations of bad faith. What struck during the July 24 Senate Hearing is that the administration perceives the DAP as part of their overall reform agenda; and seemingly cannot reconcile how a reform program is being accused of bad faith, criminality, and corruption. That being said, at least the building of tension between the branches (despite dispute and disagreement being hardbaked in the structure of a tripartite government) was blunted with declarations that the Supreme Court decision will be honored.
Flattened and Flawed.
A deep exploration of the ‘flattening’ of discourse does not, in truth, require much searching. For example, a clear reading of the Supreme Court decision indicates that four practices under DAP were rendered unconstitutional, while at the same time the decision upheld the ability of the Executive branch to implement a plan like DAP in the future. The media, practitioners in their social media accounts, in print and online stories, and many commentators have instead described the Supreme Court decision as rendering DAP completely unconstitutional, while touting the 13-0-1 decision as indicative of an in-step Court. As Dean La Viña has repeatedly pointed out, they agreed on the result, but more than one differed in terms of the reasoning to arrive at the result: Compare the opinions of Leonen to Carpio, or del Castillo to Brion, and we get a sense that interpretive turmoil underpinning the unanimous assent in the result is roiling. It is a nuance that has been lost, or purposefully excised, in discussing the nature of the Court decision. Beyond, some have even utilized the 13-0-1 voting result to discredit the filing of a motion for reconsideration by the Aquino administration; in truth, whether 8-6, 8-5-1, 10-3-1, it does not affect the opportunity to present a counter-argument.
This flattening and concurrent linking of various levels has resulted in a perceived confusion concerning the nature of multiple points surrounding DAP, as well as had the end result of fanning anger and (yes) hatred, entrenching now intransigent positions, and engendering an environment of emotionally charged ‘discourse.’ Understanding has been exchanged with intransigency and an almost overblown emotionality. A question for some media practitioners and organizations is whether they are attempting to educate, elucidate, and contextualize or engage in gross simplifications to entice clicks, bring in the viewers, push paper, or even adhere to ownership’s agenda.
Even if, when taking a step back and considering the various levels upon which an issue like DAP operates, it is apparent that this issue is not simple, nor is it easy to construct as a discussion point. The Senate Hearing on July 24 aptly demonstrated this. At one point the discussion, correctly, became one of arcane budget practices, definitions, and the nature of allotment, allocation, and savings within our legal regime. Whether savings are pooled or line items augmented; whether declaring savings is impounding, and how exactly do we account for savings? At other points, the discussion shifted to the political nature of DAP and the lines between opposition and administration (if not necessarily set in stone, political bedfellows are fluid here) were clearly discernible. Haranguing, fawning, grandstanding, finger-pointing, and hand-washing were in evidence. If we view the Senate as a microcosm of the discussion taking place in the public sphere (or for that matter, with regards to the public screen), the varied dispositions of the senators, and attendant reactions from different corners, becomes fairly evident.
What has become clear is the conversation around DAP is not providing what we need and must evolve. Else what is a key opportunity in the maturation of our democracy will be lost amidst unrelenting anger, virulent defensiveness, antagonistic hatred, and our hardwired need to seek the shorter solution and the easiest answer no matter how complex the problem or complicated the context - consider the inchoate, unfocused nature of public emotionality and we might have a clue why the tensions within public discourse are so heightened. The rhetoric from multiple commentators, proponents, arbiters, oppositionists, and critics, feeds directly (whether wittingly or not) into the Manichaeistic discursive divides does not aid the situation. We continue to short change ourselves through our discursive failures. A learning opportunity can just as quickly become another example of our almost pathological ability to short circuit our democracy.
The Variegated Nature of the DAP Discourse
Part of my hesitation with regards to commenting interrogatively on DAP is the general confusion and disorderliness surrounding. It is difficult, in relation to the current quality of conversation, to engage in a discussion of constitutionality without criminality being interjected; or for that matter ruminations (or denunciations as the viewpoint maybe) on immorality and morality. Once a conversation devolves around the morality, or lack there of, of the proponents (again a dangerously divisive shift from act to actor) it becomes increasingly difficult to excise emotion and constructively engage in the issues. Yes, the political actors can play in the realm of rhetorical considerations of ‘goodness, truthfulness, and morality.’ Intellectuals, media practitioners, and commentators can either choose to play along the thin line of Manichaeistic divides, or ascertain avenues for contemplating issues in less binary terms. Nuance, complexity, and due consideration are antithetical to the prevailing Manichaeistic nature of Philippine public and political discourse.
So, let’s take a step back and consider the various levels in which DAP can be discussed. John Nery offered his “7 Theses in the Wake of Aquino’s Outburst”; Dean La Viña has published multiple columns through his Facebook and in the Manila Standard Times that offers explorations of the different facets and ramifications of DAP. Yet, the sense is, for various reasons, that nuanced commentators are being dismissed out of hand; implicitly accused of favoring the administration.
Whatever the reasons may be, in considering DAP I see, at the very least, four major entry points (with potential sub-discussion points): Constitutionality, Legality, and Concurrent Issues; The Budget: History, Processes, Decision-making, and Reforms; Politics and Public Discourse; Democracy and Relationships within a Tripartite Government, and Good Governance. Any one of those subjects is worthy of thousands of words of dispassionate and analytic exploration. Will more of our public intellectuals take the opportunity to explore than provocate?
It is evident though that even in the construction of various levels of discussion, there will be interplay between them. For example, the constitutionality of an act will in turn lead to a discussion on the liability and criminality, if necessary. However, it is not the declaration of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of an act that judges that acts liability or criminality. As Justice Leonen cogently pointed out, that is a dangerous precedent. In considering the nature and ramifications of the adjudged acts, liability or criminality becomes a separate discussion, although no less important. Our view, when it comes to ramifications of actions in the here and now, are sadly constrained to a very limited scope of emotional payoffs and political and social expediency; driven in part of superficial understandings of the political philosophy that girds and shores up our form of government and informs the structure of the Constitution.
I referenced earlier the Senate July 24 hearing as a microcosm for the public sphere and public screen in the Philippines. In considering the various lines of questioning evident (as well as the confusion on the part of a number of senators regarding the complexity and enormity of the issue at hand) it becomes apparent how difficult it is to organize the conversation on DAP. This is not the same as considering plunder or dictatorships; economic theory or social programs. If it was, the level of confusion that reigns would not be as great as it is. And yet confusion reigns and I suspect a kernel of the inchoate anger present is precisely because we favor grasping those simple binaries instead of embracing the need to explore. And to be frank, to many of our ‘public intellectuals’ and media practitioners gleefully egg discourse of that level on; I suspect there are elements of the ‘personal’ involved in some of the reactions. The challenge inherent now and in the future is not just for our political leaders to raise the level of their contributions to the Philippine political environment, but to our civil society leaders and organizations to do the same.
Public Sphere. Public Screen. Three Ring Circus.
I wonder if the complexity required to grasp the various levels upon which a conversation such as this must take place in part lead to the marginalization of nuance and the embrace of emotionality. Differentiating between constitutional or unconstitutional, good faith or bad faith, criminality or liability, requires the ability to engage and hold views on multiple levels and with manifold arguments. Flattening a discussion into a simple binary - unconstitutional is immoral and thus criminal - is easy to grasp. It allows for ease is dissemination of talking points. It overly simplifies in favor of promoting reductive party lines in favor of agenda-making. The simplicity of delineating a complex issue along reductive lines also applies to the various discursive proponents: The generalized dismissal as anyone holding a differing opinion as a tie-dyed wide-eyed naif blinded by adoration; or an apologist; or a paid hack; or an ideologically blinded demagogue (Ideology not only can blind, but it can preclude logical analysis through its need to adhere to first principles; from whence all other considerations flow). This is not to argue that these figures do not exist, a quick spin around social media clearly demonstrates they exist in spades, but reducing attempts at multi-faceted discourse and nuanced opinion-making to those levels is intellectually bankrupt. It betrays more about the dismisser than the dismissed.
"Christopher Lasch, for instance, bemoans “the transformation of politics from a central component of popular culture into a spectator sport.” What once existed but has been lost, in Lasch’s view, is “the opportunity to exercise the virtues associated with deliberation and participation in public debate.” What we are seeing is “the atrophy of these virtues in the common people—judgment, prudence, eloquence, courage, self-reliance, resourcefulness, common sense.”" - Michael Shudson
I continue to believe that one of the looming, unaddressed, social and cultural problems in the Philippines is discursive. The battle lines drawn in issues like DAP, or for that matter in measures like reproductive health, the lack of engagement on intellectual grounds and the adherence to emotion and deployment ‘opinion as fact’ bedevil, and likely will continue to do so. Concomitant with reform in governance must come change in the body politic; else it really will not matter who is in the Palace, what names inhabit Congress, or the quality of thought being handed down by the Supreme Court. What we seemingly revel in is not only a hobbled public sphere, but the prevalence of adherence to the public screen: The use of issues by groups to get screen time, the opportunity for media to present politics as entertainment and a never-ending circus.
Welcome the Greatest Show on Earth, it shows no signs of slowing. Popcorn?