Power of the Word

There was a time when every single word that comes from a world leader bore meaning. He or she wouldn’t say something unless he or she understood its implications. There was always a target audience and sound bites were designed or calculated to reach them whether they were the enemy, their countrymen, or simply the world at large.

In the days of Twitter and Facebook, and populism in general, all that has gone out the window. Populist leaders would say what they want, when they want, without regard for how it will impact their country, or just the office in which he sits. You have an American President tweeting to his heart’s delight much to the chagrin of the White House’s communication staff. When they try to do damage control, he comes out and reinforces his original tweet. In fact, he is so tweeter-happy that he even tweets about state secrets. A case of too much truth.

Not only that, he is a believer and/or propagator of conspiracy theories and alternate facts. He will hammer on something as the truth when facts show otherwise. Credibility be damned.

Over at the other side of the Pacific, you have a Philippine President who speaks in public and later tells everyone it was just a joke or a lie. Parenthetically, when people think he was joking, he comes out to assure us that he wasn’t. That makes it difficult for Filipinos, and other nations as well, to read what he is really trying to say and act accordingly.

In both countries, there is now a need for government officials to “explain” what the head of state meant, and where the latter insists on his own interpretation of what he said, then some officials would simply contradict him. That’s a problem for cabinet secretaries who are supposed to be alter egos of the president. They are extensions of the president, and while this is not a problem for some, others soon find themselves out of the government.

To this we can add a tendency towards historical revisionism. No administration is perfect but when the wrongs say of the Marcos regime during the martial law years appear to be glorified, then it tends to belittle the sacrifices and lives lost by a generation who fought those same ills. Of course, this could be expected even as political affiliations swing one way or the other; eventually, a friend of the old regime will surface as president and attempt to rehabilitate them.

We ask: how much of the drug war is real? What about the anti-corruption drive? Can we rely on what they are saying, or is it a lie or just a joke? How is our economy doing? Whose data or what sources can we rely on? What is really going on?

All this reflects badly on their leadership. With people now uncertain of what they mean, or what is real, how are they expected to plan and move forward if they cannot read what their government is trying to do or accomplish? That’s a problem not just for individuals but more so for businesses, investors and other countries. It certainly creates a lot of uncertainty and with it, loss of confidence. While some die-hard believers will carry on regardless, the rest will certainly be a lot more cautious. That caution could hurt the economy and our relationships with our allies, trading partners and neighboring states.

People and nations also tend to dismiss them and their governments. It is strange to see an American president ignored in a meeting of nations but there it was. World leaders have now turned to others for leadership even as the US focuses in on its self. Too much it seems. No one is so naive to think that any of the past US administrations have acted without considering its consequences first on the US yet they have not failed to lead the rest of the world. The current administration is not inclined to do so. It chooses to build a wall both literally and figuratively around it and live in its bubble safe from what it believes to be a climate change hoax. Coaxing it out of its shell and rehabilitating its confidence to lead will take time. Lots of it.

In the end, the victim to all of this is the truth. It’s bad enough that we have to contend with fake news and alternate facts but when leaders consciously actively engage in them, their citizens suffer and the world bears the consequences of their actions. There have been past administrations that have lied but none have done so openly and flagrantly.

Borrowing from the X Files, the truth is now just out there. We cannot trust our own governments. That’s a terrible thing to have to say.

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The World is due for a correction.

I was talking to my dad this morning and our conversation drifted here and there. Out of nowhere, he suddenly said “I have a theory: democracy will kill itself. Why? The objective of democracy is to make everyone equal. People will never be equal in one aspect or another. So, it will fall on itself.”

If we look at the world around us, then we can easily see what he means. The rise of the populists is a worldwide phenomenon that appears poised to engulf the whole world. 

The root of all of this might be traced to the recent troubles with globalization. The near collapse of the global economy brought about by the greed of the largest banks in the US. One can say that the principles of democracy that made the big banks free to do as they did caused the global financial crisis. That caused people to fear what democracy has wrought despite the fact that the global financial crisis was brought about more by the lack of effective regulation to curb that greed that caused all the mess rather than a failure of democracy itself. 

Then there were those who were not able to benefit from an inproved economy. If you look at the last six to eight years in the Philippines and the US, then you would note how their economies have improved over time. The problem is that not everyone have felt the effects of that economic upturn. 

From there grew the strangest, strongest opposition to our democratic institutions that led to the take over by populists. Powered by social media (including hacks and bots), and driven more by anger and hate rather than any clear program of action, populists have managed to take control over the Philippines and the US. 

Similar movements have tried to get ahead in other parts of the world. So far UKIP in the UK has failed to make any headway although it was, surprisingly, able to get the UK to vote for BREXIT, and it may now be paying the price for it.

Le Pen in France is already having a hard time at it and a European nation had rejected a populist party.

I suppose that the world have seen what populists can do to a country and decided to go against it. In the Philippines, a misguided war on drugs is blamed for the deaths of 6,000 men, women and children, while the US is grappling with a rising  nationalist agenda. The planned replacement of Obamacare was embarassingly pulled out and its anti-Muslim immigration executive orders have been slapped down by US courts. If this is how populists run their country, then it is a terrible future ahead for them and all those thinking of electing populists into office.

However, this is all part of what it means to be a democracy. The citizens were free to elect populists into office (let us put the issue of hacks and bots aside for now). One might say this is just a phase where nations try to press the reset button to get a reboot.

The hope is of course that after this terrible experiment, there is still something left to reboot. We get over that, then democracy will rise again. Perhaps, democracy will in fact kill itself as my dad says but it is quite capable of bouncing back into existence like a phoenix from its ashes. It is a dream I have…

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I, God.

Today, we live in a world that is quickly losing any sense of appropriate boundaries in everything, and yet creates the most baffling restrictions.

Imagine this: we want to be able to criticize someone’s religion but his race is off-limits. The logic behind this is suppose to be one’s beliefs are different from who he is in his very core.  In other words, while we can supposedly change our beliefs like our religious beliefs, one’s race is something so fundamental in a person that criticizing it would be attacking his very person. Now, think about that. First, what if a person’s belief was so ingrained into him that one cannot easily separate one from the other? You think it is not possible? Think again. Recall all the hurt a single satirical illustration of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo caused. You think this is an extraordinarily singular event? It is not. That one illustration, even when cloaked in what we call one’s freedom of expression, did not just hurt the few who attacked the magazine’s offices but the majority of all Muslims. One can say much the same thing about Catholics. There are just some things that they feel they cannot compromise such as issues like abortion and contraceptives. Any debate allowing or restricting these will always be contentious, at times violent. Certain beliefs are part of someone’s inner being.

Second, when we are willing to accept actions as part of one’s freedom of expression — such as flag-burning that offends ultrapatriots — to the point of protecting it under law, then why wouldn’t something far more extreme be covered? When jihadists took exception to Charlie Hebdo’s satire and attacked, would that too be an expression protected by law? No less than Pope Francis did note that if you say something against his mother you may expect to get punched in the nose. Rights are never absolute yet we’ve lost sight of that simple truth in the drive to be more our selves.

Third, think of the other extreme. Why shouldn’t one be able to criticize another’s race? If we all have the right to speak what we want, when we want, under the great umbrella of freedom of speech, then surely one should not be restricted by something as “silly” as another’s feelings. Of course, that would be racism but, again, in a world quickly losing all sense of restraint, racism is just becoming another norm. This should not be.

We are turning too much in on ourselves. Deciding for ourselves what was set long ago. Imagine a white woman who identified as black. People ridiculed her and yet we allow people to identify themselves as male or female even when they were born female or male respectively. Taking everything to extremes, there are some who now identify as animals. We laugh. They are serious. Again, think about it: why shouldn’t they be able to choose what they want to be? Countries are now allowing children as young as ten to choose their gender, or just be someone other than who they were upon birth. Why draw the line on one’s ethnicity?

This world is changing…and not necessarily for the better. There are commentators who have noted the similarities (not literal naturally) of the situation today with the period prior to the First World War. Rising from the Industrial Revolution, a great many felt they were not part of the progress brought about by the new age of the 1900s. This is no different from those who now feel left behind by globalization of the 2000s. Germany of the 1910s wallowed in its sense of entitlement yet feared encirclement, which shadows 2010s’ China’s current situation. Populist movements as well as strong men proliferate then and now. If these situations tell me anything, then it is that people are turning more in towards themselves or their country. Think Brexit and the not so new US first policy of Trump. Other countries have been in it longer with nothing much to show for it. What does the U.K. and the US think it can do better? Yes, economically, they are in a much better place but the future is not so promising.

We note how much our children appear to be driven by a sense of entitlement. Again, more of one’s self over the many. Even their collective action betrays a bias towards self. Self. Self. And even more Self. Be it the individual or the state, we are more and more about our selves. What do we want? We want what we want. And we want more of it. We cannot sustain such a way, a philosophy, a movement. That can only lead to disaster. Remember, if these times mirror the early 1900s, then we are just a short time away from a great war. Three minutes away according to the Doomsday Clock. Is that what we want?

We need restraint. A healthy dose. As Agent Phil Caulson said in The Avengers, we can do with old fashioned. We need to be old fashioned. We may not really want it but we definitely need it.

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