Monday, February 26, 2007

Kabataan Party: A Critique of Revolutionary Discourse

The formula for revolution is frighteningly simple: tell the people what they want to hear. The slogan of the Kabataan Party is lifted off the banner of the League of Filipino Students: “Nationalist, Scientific, Mass-Oriented Education”. With ideals like that, they pretty much cover the values of the entire bloc of Filipino youth. Activist, student, and downtrodden—everyone gets a mention. Combine this with their list of demands for subsidized public education, and the whole idea can be very seductive to a young mind. Blanket statements like “Who among you here wants Gloria to remain in power?” and “Dapat tayo magkaisa para sa bayan,” forward a mindset of non-thinking. They make some rather grand assumptions that, in the discourse of the revolutionary, are not to be scrutinised: The Administration is evil; the people are oppressed; the solution is a system overhaul. These are not ideas to be examined or critiqued if they truly reflect the realities of Filipino society. Instead it is a discourse that treats everything as in terms of a binary conflict: us versus them, opposition against administration, people against the government, the oppressed against the oppressor. This sort of portrayal is easy to understand, and it is easy to communicate. But is it really the sort of discourse that will lead to real solutions for our country?

There are some serious contradictions that exist within the discourse of the revolutionary youth. The first is the idea of equality and freedom. Basic political analysis shows us that the values of equality and freedom are essentially at odds with each other. A people who are all equal are not free to be better than others. A people who are all free will not be equal, because some will possess more opportunities, better skills or just plain dumb luck. In espousing freedom and equality, one must ask the question of which is to be valued more than the other.

Another contradiction is the discourse of the reversal of power-relations. The revolutionary wants to replace the elitist power institutions of the status quo with power institutions that will be truly representative and mass-oriented. But this misses the point of simply replacing one power institution with another: the society is still divided between the institutions and the mass.

Lastly, let’s go after the specific contradictions that arise in the list of values of nationalism, science, and mass-oriented policy. Again, at face value, these are very convincing; these values are what the people (you and me) want to hear. Unfortunately, there are basic contradictions that arise from the combination of these values: what may be scientific may not necessarily be mass-oriented. For example, the protection of fishing areas to maintain sustainable levels of fish populations will necessarily mean that local fishers will have to go further (spending more money for gas) to reach viable fishing sites. Nationalism can also be in contradiction with science, which recognizes the benefit of humanity as a whole, rather than the petty lines of geopolitical borders.

At the end of the day, we don’t find anything wrong with a desire for change, with a desire for improvement. In fact, the need for a positive change is crucial to our survival as a nation. But what we need is more than just the blanket rhetoric of ideological discourse. What we need is a focus on finding carefully thought-through, stringently scrutinised and intelligently critiqued solutions.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Talk about Talk: Discourse-Oriented Analysis

Language. Among all the creatures that inhabit our planet, humans are the ones that take the fore with the ability to express themselves on a scale that far outweighs anything else we've come across. One of the prerequistes for the idea of "intelligent" life is the ability to communicate through language, through signs and sounds that signify ideas. Language-- mathematic and linguistic-- has enabled civilization. Writing and mathematics: these were the foundations of empires. The progress of history, the marvels of engineering, philosophy, the Bible, Google, the ideas of Jacques Derrida, the United Nations... all possible because of our ability to community. When one really considers it, language truly is a powerful thing; it is the vehicle of ideas, the expression of personhood. It can be used as a weapon, it can be used to create weapons. Take a National Socialist Party (Nazi) rally in 1939. The words of one man turned an entire country into a weapon that forced the world into global war. On September 21, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos used words to bring about some of the darkest days of the Filipino people, and a regime that lasted nearly fifteen years, and until now manifests its insidious influence on our economy and government. Words can bring people together as well. The writings on the UN Charter have created the first sustained attempt to bring the countries of the world together against the barbaric action of war. The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi brought about the impossible dream of a revolution without blood, laying the foundation of what is today one of the fastest growing countries in Asia. Words express the very human quality of love in the poems of Pablo Neruda. This power isn't limited to linguistics; another form of human expression is found in the abstractions of mathematics. Arithmetic forms the baseline for economic operation. Algebra lets us explore the relationships of energy and matter in the physical world. Calculus lets us create aircraft, and Chaos math and phase-space models let us explore the uncertainty of the real world.

But lets not get too lofty with the whole discussion of language in general. It's enough for us to realize that what people express has the ability to influence or even create realities that will not be immediately apparent from the face-value of what is being expressed. It is important to understand, not only what people are saying, but the nature of its discourse, that is to say, the way the ideas are crafted, expressed, understood and the organic way in which discourse evolves in the process of its transmission.

An example of this sort of analysis is present in the lectures of Michel Foucault in his lectures on power and war at the College de France in 1975-76 (transcribed and published in English as the book "Society Must be Defended", by Picador publishing). In his lecture dated 28 January 1976, Foucault talks about the binary of historical discourse: the discourse of power, and the discourse of the enslaved. He uses the example of Roman history for the former, and the Biblical account of the Hebrews for the latter. What makes this distinction interesting is the conflict that arises between the two, antithetical histories. The discourse of power seeks to maintain the status quo, perpetuating the insitutions of power by establishing historical precedence as well as surrounding present institutions with a sort of razzle-dazzle cloak of myth and greatness. This sort of history, according to Foucault, creates and is challenged by the discourse of of the enslaved, of the hidden, which arises in the language of the revolution, of the reversal of power structures.

I think that one should begin to realize how important it is to characterize and be critical about the sort of discourse that is present in a society. On one hand, it is an indicator of realities that are. In other words, realities in the present state. I think that the discourse of Filipino political culture reveals certain themes that reflect realities of Filipino politics: its irrelevance to day-to-day life, its corruption, its unreliability, its inability to respond to the basic needs of the people. However, not only does an examination of discourse reveal present realities, but evolving realities as well. Again, I refer back to the idea of Filipino political culture. Here, we see two discursive forces in conflict with one another, one of power and one of enslavement: the former is that of apathy, resigned acceptance, as well as the want for stability and unity. On the other hand, we see a discourse that seeks reform, change, and participation. It's the sort of talk that takes the fore in the idealistic setting of the university and in the columns of indignant writers.

I think that it is important to approach discourse with a critical mind, taking into account the power of language. Again, like I've written about before, our world is a world of information. The vehicle of that information is language. It is important for us, those of us who wish to find the best solutions to the problems of our country, to be able to differentiate and critically approach the things being said by the people around us.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Misrrepresenting Support

A United States House of Representatives, under the leadership of Democrat Nancy Pelosi, has recently shot down the proposal of President Bush for an increase in the number of troops in Iraq, as well as increasing military spending in Iraq with an additional $93 million. So far, 3,100 American servicemen have been killed in the continuing conflict. For the full story, click here.

One of the main criticisms for any sort of measure that stems the finances or number of American troops in Iraq is the commonly quoted "Support the troops!". Americans romanticize their warriors. They portray them as heroes, away from home, fighting for ideals across the seas. The servicemen and servicewomen are seen as "citizen-soldiers", kids from next door who went to church and joined up so they could get money for college. These are kids from Anytown America, serving their country.

However, the idea behind "Support the Troops!" is that if America supports the troops, it should also support the war that the troops are fighting. This is a dangerous misconception, and a very forced linkage of two different concepts.

Because what soldier really wants to go to war? Philip Caputo, in his personal account as a young lieutenant in Vietnam, wrote "Anyone who understands the reality of war will do anything to keep from going to war." What is this reality? It's a reality of uncertainty, of being faced with violent death or mutilation every day. It's the reality of seeing human suffering up close and personal. It's the reality of watching friends die, of seeing things that no one back home will understand. War is not something that people look forward to. The best thing for a soldier, is to go home in one piece, knowing that they've done their best, and that they're country is proud of them.

No one says the men and women serving America in Iraq have done less than their best; they're bleeding and dying over there. We've lost 3,100 brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters in Iraq. To the American people, the price is paid. But to the politicians, to the decision makers, it's not enough.

The reality of the decision to stay or pull-out of Iraq is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. Eventually, the Americans will have to pull out, and Iraq will have to find its own equilibrium in the post-Saddam world. The question is how many more Americans have to die.

I like to liken the situation in Iraq as being a pendelum that has been released into space. Before it was released, it was stable and predictable, held in the iron grip of Saddam. The problem was that this iron grip did not allow for any sort of change, positive or negative. However, upon removing that hold, the pendelum swung into open space, and it has to settle into a new sort of balance. Right now, America or not, Iraq will be unstable, and America hasn't the strength (or the unethical/barbaric power) to control Iraq the way Saddam did.

Get the troops out, leave the Iraqis to settle their own problems. America decided to force change in Iraq; they got it. The real way to support the troops is to bring them home.

-the 9th_wanderer