Monday, March 26, 2007

The logic of moral equivalence

Former American UN Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick has rejected the “logic” of “moral equivalence” in this manner: “(I)t is a short step from having demonstrated that a country like the United States is not a law-abiding society to demonstrating that it is lost and that it is like any other lawless society. The Soviets can always claim ‘We are no worse than you. Even if we are a lawless society, you too are a lawless society, we are no worse than you.’”

Kirkpatrick was in part responding to criticisms during the Cold War to the effect that “there was an uncanny resemblance between the superpowers,” that “if governments assign to themselves the right to change the governments of other sovereign states, there can be no peace in this world,” and eventually that could be “the most dangerous age which the human race has ever known.” At that time Kirkpatrick attributed the shaping of those criticisms, taken up even by “our allies and ourselves,” to the Soviet’s “very complex, comprehensive, multifaceted strategy” of assault on liberal democratic legitimacy, hence the conclusion “inexorably arrived at, that there is, at best, not a dime's worth of difference between these two regimes.”

But there’s in fact a serious difference according to Kirkpatrick: The soviets “make truth, and not only truth, but reality, dependent on power relations,” i.e., truth and reality are defined or exploited “by those people who hold power.”

In Kirkpatrick’s framework, holding US to its own values, which she believed to be essentially utopian, may not “result in anything but chronic, continuous self-debasement, self-criticism, and finally, self-disgust”; for that matter, US faces a difficult challenge to “simultaneously affirm our values and accept their relevance to our practice” while denying what ought to be utopian as “measuring rods” for actual practices. As a card-carrying neoconservative, Kirkpatrick argued that we should not allow others (the communist, in particular) who “criticize liberal democratic societies measure our practices by our standards and deny the relevance of their practices to judgments concerning the moral worth of our own society. (Italics mine). She called the soviet design as Orwellian “Newspeak” where words, relationships, and events are continually manipulated as part of the process of “redefinition, falsification, and utopianism” (check an older entry of mine here for one example of equivalent manipulation). The concept of superpower equivalence, based on the premise of superpower rivalry, is therefore said to be misleading; for, viewing the US and the Soviet Union as contending for the world, a symmetry that is uncalled for is thereby suggested between their goals: to dominate the world.

“The fact is, of course, that we do not seek to dominate the world,” put in plainer terms by the former ambassador who was also a political scientist. “We do not seek colonies. We do, in fact, seek to foster a world of independent nations.”

Eschewing utopianism Kirkpatrick concluded with her own newspeak of exceptionalism while adroitly avoiding to express it categorically. “It is very important to understand that not only are questions of politics involved here, but also the most basic questions of morality and meaning” which the US defends while imperialistic power (then referring to the USSR) withdraws from.

Renowned historian Howard Zinn poses a different frame of reference: It is the “inability to think outside the boundaries of nationalism” that makes US think it is an exception to certain universal rules. “We are penned in by the arrogant idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.”

Arguably, the common sense of ordinary people active in civil societies around the globe is reining in at different levels abuses of power. For example, the Permanent People’s Tribunal in The Hague found guilty on March 25, 2007 Philippine President Arroyo together with US President George W. Bush of charges of human rights violations, among others; whereas Time magazine reported March 26, 2007 that student-activists at Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran have upstaged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and against hardliners, pragmatic Iranians are “tilting toward less confrontation, more negotiation” so as to “win political benefits from the West.”

The question remains: Can American political leadership ever be held accountable not to some utopian but universally acknowledged political and social values and principles such as the rule of international law, equal application of laws, government by the consent of the governed, right to self-determination, or simply the just punishment of crimes as understood by civilized societies?

Never mind for now the bygone policy of extermination of the American Indians, the colonization “to civilize” the “half-devil and half-child” in the Philippines, the napalm bombing of Vietnam, the mass killings in Indonesia, or the untold atrocities in Nicaragua which have documented an overwhelming record of “redefinition, falsification, and utopianism” by people who hold power. Or that Reagan in 1985, on the White House lawn, giving a positive definition (or spin) of a supposedly false logic to suit his jihad in Afghanistan, unabashedly introduced the Afghan mujahideens (the precursors of Al Qaeda) as “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.”

Let’s just take as example the ongoing “crusade” in Iraq - the rationale for it is still being re-defined or re-written to date - and vet it based on the following proposition of former US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was chief prosecutor for the US at the Nuremberg Trials: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Another Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz, now 87, whose works have influenced the body of international laws on war crimes, believes a “prima facie case can be made that the United States is guilty of the supreme crime against humanity, that being an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation.”

A summary of Ferencz’ position, using the UN Charter as the “measuring rod” is as follows:
The United Nations charter has a provision which was agreed to by the United States formulated by the United States in fact, after World War II. It says that from now on, no nation can use armed force without the permission of the U.N. Security Council. They can use force in connection with self-defense, but a country can’t use force in anticipation of self-defense. Regarding Iraq, the last Security Council resolution essentially said, ‘Look, send the weapons inspectors out to Iraq, have them come back and tell us what they’ve found -- then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do. The U.S. was impatient, and decided to invade Iraq -- which was all pre-arranged of course. So, the United States went to war, in violation of the charter.
Foremost American intellectual Noam Chomsky similarly invokes the “new regime of international law” as the relevant value measurement in the practice or conduct of international relations:
After World War II, a new regime of international law was instituted. Its provisions on laws of war are codified in the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg principles, adopted by the General Assembly. The Charter bars the threat or use of force unless authorized by the Security Council or, under Article 51, in self-defense against armed attack until the Security Council acts.
There is however a simpler antithesis to the rejection of moral equivalence: it is not tit for tat or an eye for an eye but the ancient Golden Rule that, unquestionably, involves “the most basic questions of morality and meaning” transcending the boundaries virtually of all cultures and religions. Jesus said it best: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. With this “utopia,” the human race can march together toward the common cause for global peace, human rights and justice.

Friday, March 16, 2007

PERC on dirty perks

PERC (Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, Ltd.) headquartered in Hong Kong issues to private firms and governments an annual report by which it examines graft and corruption in a dozen Asian countries. PERC’s method is by way of a corruption perception survey among regional executives of some 100 multinational banks and companies operating in Asia.

Last year, when Philippines got the better of Vietnam and Indonesia that were given the second worst and worst corruption rankings, respectively, PERC yet wrote an uncomplimentary analysis for the Philippines: “Nothing is happening that indicates the status quo with respect to corruption is about to change.”

If the PERC’s prediction was on target, it would have been a non-event or in fact spun favorably for the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government. In a scale of 0 to 10, zero being the best and ten the worst, Philippine was graded 9.4 this year from the 7.80 score it obtained in 2006. As a result, Philippines now has the unenviable distinction of being the most corrupt country in the region.

In 2003, when the perception of corruption in the Philippines came down to a healthier score of 7.67 from a high of 9.00 in 2001 - the year President Arroyo took over from former President Joseph Estrada - and then 8.00 in 2002, Arroyo was upbeat about the PERC report. This year she reportedly dismissed the PERC findings as based on “old data” and “unfair.”

PERC’s 2006 analysis sounded hackneyed, nay, practically a trite rant from some anti-Arroyo bloggers: “The problem of vested political and business interests is even more entrenched in the Philippines, where anti-corruption campaigns seem to be designed more as a tactic in political brinksmanship than as a serious attempt to actually tackle the problem at is core. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2001 when her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was swept from office on charges of corruption. Now Mrs. Arroyo herself is facing allegations of corruption and poll cheating.”

“People are just growing tired of the inaction and insincerity of leading officials when they promise to fight corruption,” PERC stated this year about the Philippines.

ABS-CBN Interactive reported that Trade Secretary Peter Favila, taken by surprise by the PERC 2007 report, has claimed that the survey respondents ignored various government initiatives to fight corruption.

“This is precisely the reason why the President issued Executive Order 558 creating the Anti-Red Tape Task Force to curb corruption brought about by long tedious process and lack of transparency in dealing with frontline agencies,” Favila is said to have stated.

On the other hand, Manila Times columnist and Arroyo protector Tony Lopez criticized the report as no more than “a damning generalization” of “so-called analysts” who really “don’t know the country that well.” Writing a column piece after hastening to the Palace where he obtained Arroyo’s reaction to the report, Lopez underscored how Arroyo “blamed ‘opposition people’ in a foreign group monitoring corruption across the globe for the negative perception.”

But PERC in its 2006 finding seemed to have well anticipated the angry blowbacks: “In our previous reports on corruption, the Philippines is usually the only country where we regularly receive complaints from people in the private and public sector that we are too harsh in our assessment of corruption.”

And this brings us to the twirl and whirl of Alex Magno, another Arroyo apologist, which appears to make some sense this time if not for the maladroit sleight in tautology, a style he is beginning to be noted for: “But the real gains against corruption are won on a less dramatic terrain. It involves reengineering the way we do things so that there is little margin for corruption to happen. It is about changing processes so that the opportunities for corrupt practices are limited.”

No more “tactic in political brinkmanship,” PERC put it more simply. Just “a serious attempt to actually tackle the problem at its core.”

One proposition by Magno, apparently to deal with the problem at the core, is “getting government off the backs of business” instead, for instance, of focusing efforts to fight corruption largely by “getting the big fish.”

I have once reflected on the problem of graft and corruption in the Philippines when on a technicality the government first lost a tax-evasion case* involving some 28 billion pesos against one big fish, then the Philippines’ richest guy, taipan Lucio Tan:
In Third-World countries like the Philippines, “graft and corruption” has served as a distorted form of social welfare or wealth distribution that usually reaches a high point during elections. It comes in many varieties such as vote-buying schemes and gimmicks, election dole-outs or campaign monies diverted somewhere—all coming from the same chest that escapes taxation. The cycle is so vicious, so inexorably enduring it is casually accepted as part of the institution.

However, even from that standard Philippine fact of life (or the further fact that 95% of business establishments in the Philippines are violating some tax laws), the botched tax evasion case against Lucio Tan is a deviation that is simply revolting to conscience. The tax Lucio Tan escaped from paying, according to some estimates given by well-meaning critics, is enough to rehabilitate war-torn Mindanao that has already wasted more than a hundred thousand human lives and displaced about a million more.
Former President Fidel V. Ramos has once summed up the monstrous malady: “The Philippine state is still too weak to prevent politically influential personages, families and clans from using their privileged access to the machinery of government to bend public policy and implementation to their purposes.”

What is bent is distorted. And distortion is corruption. There’s the problem at its core.

*13 years after the case was first initiated by the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and then elevated to the appellate court and the Supreme Court, a lower court ultimately dismissed the case in October 2006 for “insufficiency of evidence.”

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Beyond the American model

mlq3’s prodigious insights are truly valuable for anyone desirous to gain a deeper understanding of the current Philippine political landscape.

Those same insights also confirm the perception by many, myself included, that Philippine politics remains a copycat of American politics, an awful copy however. Let me explain.

While Republicans have a more market-oriented philosophy than Democrats who favor government regulation of the economy, there are many instances where Republicans and Democrats echo each other’s platform. The reason for this is that Americans are either estranged ideologically or they find themselves at the Center, in which case the personalities of the individual candidates matter. Nevertheless, voters are at least presented with some threshold policy alternatives.

In the Philippines, major political parties are still highly ideologically identical; hence, electoral debates are mainly focused on the candidates’ personalities, stage histrionics or forensic skills rather than on substantively differentiating public issues framed by party ideology.

To illustrate, comparison can be drawn from the forthcoming presidential elections in France this April where the issues are being framed not merely along the usual Left/Right spectrum but between the “social democratic model” of Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party and the “Anglo-Saxon model” of Nicolas Sarkozy of the ruling Gaullist Union for a People’s Party, indeed still a choice between two opposing political telos.

Commenter cvj has once reflected on the same phenomenon in the context of Latin American politics that has brought to power Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Brazil’s da Silva, Nicaragua’s Ortega, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Argentina’s Kirchner, and more recently Equador’s Correa, not to mention the close call from Mexico’s Obrador and Peru’s Humala. Perceiving that the discourses of the National Democrats and Akbayan are bordering close to tedium, there’s been seen the need for them to go through some sort of repackaging in the Latin American brand. Indeed, this indicates the economic policy options of the Philippine government may not be as “limited,” the “globalized world” notwithstanding.

Not as the end goal, but as a means to attaining the common good, I believe business leader and philanthropist Washington Sycip is espousing Confucian authoritarianism even as national artist and social thinker F. Sionil Jose has once advocated the staging of a revolution to address the problems of the country, foremost of which is mass poverty. Neither of them is known to be a communist ideologue, it should be pointed out.

On the other hand, I have seen the political statements of strong 2010 presidential timber Mar Roxas as a potential trigger for the emergence of a sharper ideological realignment along the government and market discourse over the control of the so-called commanding heights that in British politics defines more or less the laissez-faire agenda of the Conservative Party and the social welfare program of the Labor Party.

I have noted that Mar Roxas has evinced his state-interventionist bent as a congressman at least as regards the Retail Trade Liberalization law in which he was accused of inserting protectionist clauses. As DTI secretary, Mar threatened to withdraw Philippine membership from WTO upon the contention that Philippine tuna has been subjected to tariff discrimination by the US in favor of the Latin American package. It was a gutsy move by a former Wall Street investment banker, I thought, which may bear out a capability of tinkering with some “grand economic policy.”

The ideological debate was boldly taken further by CBCP in its pastoral letter of July 10, 2005. “The people mistrust our economic institutions” the letter said, “which place them under the tyranny of market forces whose lack of moral compass produces for our people a life of grinding dehumanizing poverty.”

I believe the political envelope can be pushed beyond the “limited” enclosure that the Washington Consensus has imposed upon our class of political “midgets,” to borrow a popular tag overused in Philippine blogosphere, to allow considerations of even grander politico-economic policies.

Here’s what I am thinking, if I may. Aside from the Latin American route, there appear three others by which to attain a thorough makeover of Philippine political economy: 1) the Sycip model (or the China, or in some respects the Hamiltonian model) which places economic modernization and efficiency as the condition sine qua non for meaningful political reforms, and where political and bureaucratic structures adapt to economic imperatives; 2) the DJB model (or the First Iraq or the photocopy model), the liberal developmentalism installed by the Americans in the Philippines at the turn of the last century through the cloning of the American system as the normative state, or the imposition or transplantation of the rich nations’ political habits, practices and institutions such as the American constitutional government and the so-called rule of law; and 3) the People Power model (or the French revolutionary model) which is bottom up or people-powered transformation where reforms are written on a slate free of bias toward the so-called normative model.