Column: The iconoclastic Gloria A.

Published on January 19, 2010.

This is not an essay in religious psychology, but only a look—via Fr. Joaquin Bernas’ precise theses, John Rawls’ “overlapping consensus” and the underlying philosophy of TV’s “CSI”—at what may well be Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s true legacy.

* * *

I thought yesterday’s column by Father Bernas put paid to the debate over whether President Arroyo should name Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s successor. In 19 succinctly stated points (which he all but apologized for, saying he was forced to “write in telegraphic style” because “there are so many issues involved”), the foremost constitutionalist answered virtually all concerns raised in the debate. For instance: “The only instance I can think of where the presence of the chief justice might be indispensable is when the President is on trial on impeachment. But I cannot see that coming any time soon.”

Like many other political journalists, I am a layman forced to wrestle with legal and constitutional implications on a regular basis. Father Bernas’ theses-style approach, therefore, is useful for cutting through the clutter. For instance, an Inquirer editorial a few days ago took a few paragraphs to assert that Rep. Matias Defensor’s seeming desperation contrasted with the Constitution’s “massive calm.” Father Bernas disposed of Defensor’s panic in two sentences: “The original period proposed for filling vacancies in the Supreme Court was 60 days; it was extended to 90 days without debate … Thus even the Constitution believes that the vacancy can wait 90 days.”
* * *

The theses reminded me of John Rawls’ numbered disquisitions. They have the same linear momentum, by which I mean the logical sequence was clear. And they have the same astringent quality, by which I mean the points were clear, freshly scrubbed and squeaky-clean.

Rawls, I believe, is as vital to understanding the prospects of our democratic experiment as Rizal. (They belong in the same public square where we find, among others, Montesquieu and Mabini, Jefferson and Jacinto, Lincoln and Del Pilar.)

In particular, Rawls’ notion of “overlapping consensus” shows us the means to manage a “post-Catholic,” that is to say a civic-secular, pluralist society. (One, I make haste to add, that tracks the country’s Catholic roots.)

“The fact of reasonable pluralism implies that there is no … doctrine, whether fully or partially comprehensive, on which all citizens do or can agree to settle the fundamental questions of political justice. Rather, we say that in a well-ordered society the political conception is affirmed by what we refer to as a reasonable overlapping consensus.”

* * *

The “CSI” shows on TV reflect a kind of consensus. Sleek, impressively produced, they seem to offer overwhelming proof that technology is the key to solving many of society’s problems. At the very least, they assert that the latest gee-whizzery can solve the knottiest crime.

But in fact the “CSI” shows traffic in false certainty. A few months ago, I watched several episodes of the three different shows—the iconic “CSI,” based in Las Vegas; “CSI: Miami”; and “CSI: New York”—in one sitting. Aside from the editorialized special effects, the three shows had one thing in common: Their plots depended on confessions. I did not take note of the exact number of episodes that ended with the guilty party succumbing to the (glamorized) presentation of evidence, but they were very many. They were, if I remember right, the majority of the episodes.
The most implausible confession involved traces of a father’s tears that were found on his daughter’s coat left hanging in her closet. The “evidence” prompted the father to confess that he had been hiding in the closet at the crucial time—a “twist” that proves only that, in the “CSI culture,” technological fetish can trump human nature. Which suspect, in his right mind, would confess to a crime on such a flimsy basis?

My point: The popular “CSI” franchise peddles false certainty. In this sense, its exact opposite is the equally long-running program called the Arroyo presidency.

* * *

The true legacy of the Arroyo years may lie in the fabricated uncertainties that litter the road to Malacañang.

The entire debate over the appointment of the next chief justice, for instance, is only the latest manufactured crisis: What will happen to the Supreme Court if Puno’s successor is not immediately named? As the Court’s own history proves, the real answer is clear: nothing that can rise to the level of a crisis.

All this brings us back to Rawls, who wrote: “We start from the conviction that a constitutional democratic regime is reasonably just and workable, and worth defending. But given the fact of reasonable pluralism, we try to design our defense of it so as to gain the allegiance of reasonable people and to win wide support.”

President Arroyo’s machinations to ensure her political survival have had the effect, and perhaps were so designed, to create political or even constitutional uncertainty where there was none. This conduct is the exact opposite of Rawls’ ideal, “to gain the allegiance of reasonable people and to win wide support.”

Quite recently, a close adviser to the President described her as having turned “iconoclastic.” This initially puzzled me, but now I think I am beginning to understand. She has turned to breaking idols, to attacking cherished beliefs—including those that make democracy possible in the first place.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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