Friday, February 24, 2012

EDSA I is not a revolution

We Filipinos love romance. We always love a story that ends well. That’s what EDSA I is to many of us, a revolution without bloodletting, and the ultimate triumph of spirit over evil in its most romantic sense.

We shudder at the thought of more than a million people gathered on one long street demanding the end to a despotic regime, and when we recall how they achieved their purpose without resistance from the government’s army, we shudder even more.

Twenty-six years have passed, yet we have not recovered from the euphoria of EDSA I. Every year we celebrate its anniversary, even much bigger than our Independence Day parade. To many Filipinos, EDSA I was the real thing.
Filipino People Power. Photo courtesy of manilamommy. Click link to view, "26th EDSA
People Power Anniversary Rally."
Never again, we tell ourselves, shall we allow one dictator to rule over us. As if this were the magic bullet that we need every time we face a crisis. Just gather about 2 million people and get them to march on the street. Let their voices be heard, that would be enough. That’s the miracle of EDSA I.

Why did we become so enslaved to this romantic notion that EDSA I and all its derivatives of display of people power would be enough, that it is the end-all to our problems?

Was EDSA I a revolution?

EDSA I was a popular protest of close too to 2 million Filipinos against authoritarianism, against almost 20 years of despotic rule, of wanton corruption, of abuse of power, of crony capitalism. Although the protest was staged only in Manila, it was considered a collective entreaty by the nation to the dictator to step down and let a new government take over. A new president was elected, and the people vowed not to tolerate any more cheating and fraud. It was a united plea for change. But even that idea of change was so vague and nebulous.

EDSA I represented a cleansing of the heavy cheating and fraud during the presidential elections held in 1986. It was the penultimate event to the declaration of the genuine winner, Mrs. Cory Aquino, who was catapulted to the role of a reluctant national leader after her husband Ninoy was assassinated. Cory Aquino was immediately embraced as the symbolic leader of a peaceful transition to genuine democratic reforms. But even the idea of democratic reform was alien to Cory Aquino’s state of mind, so she left everything to her advisers to chart the map towards building a new government that is supposed to be responsive to the people.

EDSA I meant the restoration of the old oligarchy that was removed and transplanted by Ferdinand Marcos with his own political cronies. It meant that Cory Aquino’s family would recover their old economic foothold, in the same way as it did for the oligarchs of the past.

EDSA I changed the leadership structure of government, but not the structure of society. The poor remain stuck in the quagmire of poverty. The new leaders and the new politicians are all members of family dynasties bred by the oligarchs. It was a replication of the old Marcos government, except that the people who ran the government are now allies of the restored oligarchy. Where did the poor and downtrodden masses figure in the new government after EDSA I? They became significant only during elections, when it was time to buy their votes. Their disenchantment toward their government continues to the present.

EDSA I was the culmination of the people’s revolt against 20 years of Marcos dictatorship. It didn’t happen just because Marcos cheated Cory Aquino during the snap presidential elections in 1986. It didn’t happen because the people were angry at Ferdinand Marcos for the assassination of Ninoy Aquino three years earlier. It happened because the timing was right. Marcos was frail and already dying. The disgruntled elements of the military seized that opportunity to rally their members who had long been dissatisfied with the military establishment, the Roman Catholic Church and its multitude of followers, and the disaffected business sector to come out to the streets and join the popular protest. Members of the leftist movement who were the most militant and who bore the brunt of repression of all groups in opposing the Marcos rule during the 20-year period, had no choice but to join the wave of protesters as well. EDSA I happened because the United States government supported the idea of disposing Marcos and replacing him with a new one.

EDSA I elevated the military to a hero’s status. After being sworn to office, instead of prosecuting those in the military for violation of human rights and the basic legal right to express a contrary opinion and for being responsible for the many who were extra-judicially killed and disappeared, Cory Aquino pardoned the perpetrators. No effort was made to establish the truth and seek reconciliation as other countries under similar circumstances had done after their political upheaval was over.

To the media and moderate Filipino intellectuals, EDSA I was a revolution. They were responsible in propagating this myth that people power had effectively spoken and that EDSA I was instrumental in restoring democracy in the Philippines. True, the dictator was deposed and forced to exile in Hawaii. But democratic institutions like popular elections, the free press, Congress and the judiciary were all in existence, albeit subject to the whims and caprices of the strongman Marcos.

Military as shadow government

Nothing very dramatic or revolutionary happened after EDSA I. It simply installed a new leader, someone who did not meet the basic requisites of a national leader but symbolic enough to lead the country from dictatorship. This is the singular achievement of EDSA I, the proclamation of Cory Aquino and the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos, the passing of the baton from a dictator to someone more moderate and compassionate.

Cory Aquino’s lack of political experience was tested early by malcontents in the military. Staging a series of coups against the government, the military kept reminding the new president that they were a crucial and integral force in the new balance of power. So Cory had to assuage a more serious military opposition to her administration. The military had become the shadow government, and the eternal threat to succeeding presidents like Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and now, Noynoy Aquino, the son who also rises.

Restoring the old oligarchy which Marcos destroyed was also a priority for Mrs. Aquino, who herself hailed from a landed class with a vast array of economic and financial interests that were held back by the old Marcos regime. Together with the old oligarchy, the new power-holders cemented their firm grasp of political power. To those with the economic means and resources goes the concentration of political power. They bred and continue to multiply political dynasties who control different positions in national and local governments. Politicians and their relatives have controlled political power since the time of Marcos, and Cory Aquino made sure this arrangement would remain. An emerging breed of politicians such as movie, TV and sports celebrities was encouraged to relieve the growing discontent of the masses so these favourite celluloid heroes were added into the mix.

Same same

This was the very same oligarchy that the American colonial period ushered in from the landed elites in the 19th century. The development of these families as the new oligarchy was important to the American colonisers, and these families were able to dominate the country’s political and administrative apparatus and shape it to serve their own ends.

So EDSA I ensured the continuation of an oligarchy that would always remain in control of the levers of the economy and the powers of government. What revolution are the media and moderate darlings of the Philippine intelligentsia talking about?

A revolution is always followed by fundamental changes in socio-political institutions after the struggle for state power. A revolution does not have to be violent. It could be extra-constitutional and in the form of a popular but peaceful upheaval like the Dandi Salt March led by the pioneer of nonviolent resistance Mahatma Gandhi in 1930. EDSA I did not alter the socio-political landscape after Marcos was deposed. In fact, EDSA I reinforced the oligarchy and its control of the economy and politics of the country.

If the exercise of people power is to be considered relevant, then we should expect some profound changes after all the public fuss is over. We should wait for something more drastic than a mere change in leaders, like prosperity for all, for example.

With Filipino people power as in the case of EDSA I, you could almost expect everyone to join with or without a cause. To be meaningful, a real mass movement must have an unmistakable expression of resentment and desperation. That’s why the call for a new people power or revival of EDSA I to oust Corona as Chief Justice will easily fall on deaf ears, except for the few who are the clear beneficiaries of such public uproar.

The Filipino masses are in a desperate condition all right, but unfortunately there is no sign that they feel the slightest resentment against the Chief Justice. Probably, they would just sit this one at home and blame the President for his penchant for playing political games.

Eventually, however, change of some sort must be made. Not through another EDSA I or a similar expression of people power. That won’t cut. New forms of structure need to be set up, and old forms must be destroyed. This is the critical moment which is properly called revolution.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mob rule in disguise

In the February 15th issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, columnist Conrado de Quiros outrightly dismissed as frivolous the growing trepidation that the ongoing Corona impeachment trial in the Senate might bring about a constitutional crisis. “What crisis?” de Quiros wrote.

His argument is very simple. Public opinion cannot be ignored, de Quiros said, because it’s the people who are the foundation of government. The people “are the air the three branches of government breathe.” He concluded his column by saying that “there is no constitutional crisis where there is People Power.”

De Quiros further wrote: “What makes the omission, or exclusion, of the people from all this talk of a constitutional crisis particularly glaring is that we are at the heart of the People Power months. Edsa II took place in January and Edsa I in February. February 25 particularly blazes forth like a huge neon sign in that respect, the date that most embodies or symbolizes People Power. It’s time we flocked once again to the Edsa Shrine, or to Padre Faura, or to the Senate Building, and made our sentiments known. And made our will known. And made our power known.”
Catholic nuns dare soldiers to lay down arms, EDSA Revolution 1986.
Reposted  from Le Montage Photo Courtesy of  princesse_laya.
While de Quiros is right about the people being the true source of political power, he forgot, however, to mention that we also now live in a so-called representative democracy, where the people have transferred their right or power to those they elected through the electoral process. That in making their decisions, our representatives must follow the letter of the law and obey the Constitution, without of course disregarding the weight of public opinion. So if our elected leaders follow the law, then they are presumed to be acting on behalf of the people. And if they don’t, a constitutional crisis is triggered that could lead to a public rebuke of the incumbent government or stir up some militant segments of society to break the impasse by violent means. This is all possible, but de Quiros is invoking people power as the ultimate and only solution, which is messy and chaotic.

What has people power, Philippine-style, really accomplished?

EDSA I brought down a dictatorship and re-installed democratic institutions of government, including the three branches of government we have now, and of course the continuation of oligarchic control of government. EDSA II deposed a corrupt president, but replaced him with a more corrupt one, and of course, perpetuated the rule of oligarchs.

The lives of Filipinos did not change much after both EDSA I and EDSA II. The poor remain stuck in poverty, the economy as whole did not take off and catch up with the economies around us, and corrupt politicians continued to run amuck.

And what will another EDSA People Power accomplish as envisioned by de Quiros? It will destroy the democratic institutions of government that were restored by EDSA I, resulting to the return of authoritarianism where the executive branch or the President and his cabal of advisers will yield uncontested political power. In short, President Noynoy Aquino will tear down everything his mother Cory helped build.

We all know what happened during the martial law regime—civil and political liberties were suppressed, and the oligarchy consolidated its grip on political power and control of the economy. Conrado de Quiros understands this fully well. As a young and brilliant writer, he was a member of the Malacanang think-tank that propped up the New Society under Ferdinand Marcos. He was one of those aspiring writers and artists shepherded by Malacanang to serve the aims of the Marcos repressive government.

Now, de Quiros is at the service of a dictator in the making. In calling for another EDSA uprising, de Quiros is invoking the mob to get out on the streets and push the country into the precipice of another black period in its history.
Tanks roll in during EDSA 1986. Reposted from Le Montage .Photo Courtesy of
princesse_laya. Click link to view "The 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution
is a Big Hoax,"
Read the following transcript of a conversation recorded on the Internet on February 2010, before the presidential election that catapulted Noynoy Aquino to the presidency (loosely translated from Pilipino):

“You might be eating your own words later. Conrado de Quiros vehemently criticized the Aquinos after the Hacienda incident (referring to the Hacienda Luisita massacre in 2004). But after Cory's death, he was the first to support Noynoy. That’s because it’s easy to criticize even though you lack information. The problem is, you don’t even know the entire story.” [Reply to Prison Break]

“Who knows what Noynoy promised de Quiros when they talked to each other. Maybe he would become press secretary when Noynoy is elected president. You find out the truth in your story which has no value. There’s nothing free anymore today, there is an exchange for de Quiros’ support. It appears you never learned anything.” [Reply to Ellen (Tordesillas) is a moron].

Does it still surprise you why de Quiros is now an avid Noynoy Aquino supporter?

One-hundred-and-seventy-five years ago, in 1837 to be exact, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, in his address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, strongly expressed his opposition to mob rule, over the issue of the perpetuation of American institutions.

In his speech, Lincoln reminded his audience that if there was any danger to the established institutions, it would not come from abroad. Lincoln said, “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

But Lincoln was more worried about the prevailing disregard for law in the country during that time. He was referring to the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse-than-savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice.” Lincoln, of course, was referring to accounts of outrages committed by mobs from New England to Louisiana which were spreading like wildfire throughout the land.

To dramatize the danger of mobs in many of the states, Lincoln said “the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation.”

Because of the growing strength of the mobs, Lincoln admonished that “the strongest bulwark of any government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the people.”

How do we fortify against the rule of the mob? Lincoln’s answer is simple.

He said: “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of ’76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and laws let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honour. Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay of all sexes and tongues and colours and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”

Abraham Lincoln was echoing the genuine voice of the people, not the foolish idea of a mobocracy as Conrado de Quiros seems to evoke by challenging us to revive the spirit of EDSA I and EDSA II as their anniversaries are bearing upon us.

Whatever the outcome of the Corona impeachment trial, the Filipino people should respect the decision of the senator-judges. Should the Senate finally come to grips with reality that the ongoing impeachment trial is useless and will not bring any good to the nation and decide to put a stop to the charade, so be it. Let no one, including President Noynoy Aquino flaunt the threat of another EDSA revolt every time he senses defeat of his needless assault on the constitutional foundations of our government.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Extremely annoying and incredibly juvenile

My apologies to Jonathan Safran Foer for putting the pun on his book title.

William Howard Taft—yes, that same person for whom a long stretch of avenue in Manila was named for—was appointed Governor-General of the Philippines in 1900 by U.S. President William McKinley. Taft was elected U.S. President himself in 1909.
William Howard Taft, first U.S. Governor General of the Philippines and 27th US
President. Photo courtesy of  Life.Liberty. Taft told President McKinley that "our
little brown brothers" would need "fifty or one hundred years" of close supervision
 "to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills."

In 1902, Taft wrote a book, Political Parties in the Philippines, where he examined the historical development of Philippine political parties and analyzed the level of political maturity of the Filipinos. In his book, Taft said that Filipino politicians have yet to learn the idea of individual liberty and the practical elements of a popular government.

The Philippine Commission during Taft’s time in the Philippines, which was the precursor of the Philippine Senate, recommended the establishment of a popular assembly, to be composed of affluent Filipino politicians, to serve as a training ground for self-government. This assembly became the Congress of the Philippines and the Jones Act of 1916 created the Senate replacing the Philippine Commission.

As oligarchic as the membership of Congress was in its early years, today’s Congress is not that all different. While learning the rudiments of self-government from American tutelage which the country had to master well during the years of independence until now, one would expect that a representative democracy would have flourished, that the country is now able to draw upon all classes in Philippine society in forming the country’s legislative body. Nothing has changed.

It was partly the fault of the American colonial rulers. The Americans did not change the Filipino social structure. They merely imposed a political system that allowed the existing social structure to gain political power. Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute Congress resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuate their hold on political offices.

Brian Fegan, an American anthropologist described the Filipino family in his book An Anarchy of Families, as the most enduring political unit in Philippine society. The transfer of power among family members is considered normal and natural in order to preserve political continuity. Political competition is seen as a rivalry between families, whose members invest a permanent right to political office once they have claimed it.

Just look at the composition of today’s Philippine Congress. You see father and son, or mother and daughter, one a senator and the other a member of the lower house. Or siblings sitting together as senators. Or children of their once-famous or infamous father or mother who also sat in Congress before them. Point a finger to an individual member of Congress and you can trace his or her family connections: the Aquino-Cojuangco family, the Macapagal-Arroyos, the Ponce Enriles, the Rectos, the Osmenas, the Marcoses, the Cayetanos, the Angaras—almost everyone is related to each other, whether as a sibling, a parent or a distant relative.
Current members of the Philippne Senate sitting as a trial court for the impeachment
of  Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona. Please click link to view "Pulitikos:  The
Philippine Oligarchy System,"
Whatever happened to Taft’s prescription one century later—did we mature as a country or have we gone bananas? We should blame him for the oligarchic system of government we have now.

The current impeachment trial of the Supreme Court Chief Justice before the Senate doesn’t speak well about our development and maturity as a government. We have a Constitution which grants the Senate the power to try government officials for high crimes and misdemeanours. Acting as a trial court, the Senate is higher than the Supreme Court but the law is quite clear on what are impeachable offences. Some pundits or columnists of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and other media subservient to Malacanang, or even independent bloggers, they all don’t know what they’re writing about. It’s not about how sharp your pen is or how good you string a couple of sentences into beautiful paragraphs. Impeachment, although a political process, is equally about what the law is. No amount of spin and counter-spin in the realm of public opinion can change the law and the legal nature of the impeachment process.

But there is value and purpose in the impeachment process as a constitutional device for as long as it is not regarded as purely ad hominem in nature. Unlike what is happening in the Philippine Senate today when a person like the Supreme Court Justice is being vilified both by his prosecutors and by those in the public media.

If we follow American impeachment proceedings as our guide, such proceedings often start as a general inquiry and develop into impeachment as soon as the facts are disclosed which would then generate public demand for stronger action. In the case of Corona’s impeachment, the articles of impeachment were hastily drafted and the prosecution soon fast-tracked into a fishing expedition for evidence to prove the allegations against the Chief Justice, such as issuing subpoenas right and left even for persons who should not be there, like the accused’s fellow justices or financial and bank records that are protected from disclosure by law.

The motive for Corona’s impeachment is suspect. We have a president stimulated by vendetta against an earlier Supreme Court decision that was detrimental to his family’s feudal claims to lands that didn’t belong to them. Or, perhaps because the Chief Justice refused to go along with a sharing arrangement of the high court’s leadership with another fellow justice. Arguably, while some of the alleged offences by the Chief Justice could be against the law if only they could be proved, they are most likely not in the nature of impeachable crimes as envisaged under the Constitution.

Prof. Raoul Berger , a conservative Harvard legal historian and Supreme Court scholar, wrote in the 1974 issue of Harper’s Magazine an article entitled “Impeachment: An Instrument of Regeneration,” where he argued that Americans were too restrained about the use of the impeachment process. In Berger’s view, impeachment was an essential Constitutional safeguard – an instrument for regeneration for protection of our liberties and our constitutional system.

During the waning years of the Bush administration, there were talks that went around Washington about the possibility of impeaching President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney for serious transgressions of the Constitution. Bush, Cheney and the Justice Department were the focus of complaints about their abuse of authority with respect to the war in Iraq, the treatment of war prisoners, the use of torture, and the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2007 known as the “Gonzales Eight.” The political condition would have been ripe for impeachment as an institutional remedy as Prof. Berger had foreseen. But impeachment was taken off the table as many Americans believed it would be viewed as overzealous partisanship, and they could strike havoc at the polls whoever was running as president for either the Republican or Democratic Party. Such was a situation ideal for impeachment as an institutional remedy, as it would make a clear statement about abuse of power.

Does the Corona impeachment fall under Berger’s argument that its proper use is as a constitutional restorative? Obviously not. But the failure to use impeachment, however, could also have deleterious consequences. It could mean acceptance of the alleged felonies of the Chief Justice as permissible by any means, legally or by any form of justification.

On the contrary, however, the current Corona impeachment is destroying the delicate and careful balance between legislature, executive and judiciary as envisaged in our Constitution. We have a sitting president who appears to be interested in undoing this system of checks and balance. By the looks of it, the executive could possibly triumph as the paramount power, if this whole charade is allowed to play out. Impeachment may be a painful process, but we should consider whether our Constitution and the legal order are worth saving.

The Corona impeachment is stalling the more important legislative agenda of the Senate, and of the lower house, too, if all the 188 members who signed the articles of impeachment have nothing to do but watch the progress of the trial. It has reached a point of being a nuisance, a clumsy betrayal of our childishness and immaturity as a nation who’s refusing to grow up. Merely because we have a president who appears to be more interested in playing duck games rather than facing the serious tasks of his office.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Canada #1 in education: For what?

Education has been regarded by many as a great equalizer. The sad thing, however, is that not many have access to tertiary or college/university education after high school.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance 2011 recently stated that the countries with the most highly educated citizens are also some of the wealthiest in the world. Not surprisingly, most of the countries in the top 10 list of most educated countries in the world have also the largest GDPs.

Finland, which is considered the envy of the world today in educating its nation’s children, is number 10 while Canada is at the topmost of the list. The United States is at number 4 while two Asian countries, South Korea and Japan, also crack the Top 10 list.

According to the OECD report, 50 per cent of Canada’s population have attained postsecondary education. Canada has an average annual growth rate of 2.3%, the 5th lowest and with a GDP per capita of $39,070, the 10th highest in the world. Tertiary education spending accounts for 41% of total education spending in the country. Nearly 25 per cent of university students in Canada come from an immigration background.
Students at computers. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Comstock Images.
Canada was ranked number one by OECD report among the Top 10 most
educated countries in the world.
Canada selects new immigrants on a points-system and awards applicants with higher education with more points. Since the adoption of this system of selecting immigrants, newcomers to Canada by and large possess at a minimum a baccalaureate degree from university. Some of them have also completed masteral and doctoral degrees. With highly educated parents, it is no wonder that children of immigrants have also picked up from their parents’ motivation to go to university after finishing high school.

However, Canada’s emphasis on high education for its immigrants is not necessarily correlated to job marketability. Many highly educated immigrants end up taking odd jobs that are below their educational training and skills because the market or employers usually demand Canadian work experience. It is not surprising to see people with PhDs driving taxis or cleaning buildings, jobs that are far asymmetrical to their qualifications.

Take for example the corps of live-in caregivers that Canada brings in every year.

Most Filipino caregivers possess a college degree and are proficient in English as a conversational language. These caregivers have sacrificed pursuing their original dreams after finishing college in order to come to Canada for a better life. Some of them are teachers, accountants, and nurses, and had they stayed home in the Philippines, would not be earning as much as they earn from domestic work in Canada. When they complete their domestic work contracts, they become eligible to explore the open market for jobs and apply for permanent residence.

Brain drain is an unfortunate result for the Philippines. But what can a poor economy like that of the Philippines do to prevent its graduates and professionals from leaving when there are no jobs at home? In Finland, where schools score consistently at the top of world rankings, teaching is a prestigious career. Finnish teachers are highly valued, and it is more difficult to get into teacher education than law or medicine.

In the Philippines, I could still recall that during the martial law period under Ferdinand Marcos, Metro aides—street sweepers and cleaners employed by city governments to ensure that local surroundings are kept clean and immaculate, especially for visiting tourists—were well paid, with salaries higher than what teachers got paid for. It’s therefore easy to understand why Filipino teachers would rather work as housemaids and nannies in Canada than teach in Philippine schools.

However, selecting immigrants with very high education is not necessarily a positive or practical measure in ensuring a constant supply of workers if their skills and training do not directly match industry demand.

The federal government has to implement more effective and equitable programs of accreditation of foreign credentials if it must justify continuing to place more weight on higher education rather than actual work skills that the job market demands. Otherwise, the top ranking of Canada among the most educated countries in world would be deceptive, since a big slice of its population with tertiary education are actually immigrants who are underemployed in jobs beneath their training and education.

New immigrants are not the only ones having a problem accessing jobs equivalent to their training and skills. A far more serious problem relates to the crisis among First Nations children who are unable to complete even high school education. On the average, native students receive about $3,000 less in education funding than non-natives.
A residential school for First Nations children in Manitoba, Canada. Photo courtesy
 of Wikipedia. Please click link to view "Aboriginal Education: Solutions for the Future,"
Aboriginal leaders have expressed their complaint to the federal government that only 40 per cent of youths living on reserves finish high school. Some First Nations adolescents have to leave their families to attend school off-reserve because their remote communities don’t have schools. According to a Toronto Star report, seven kids in Thunder Bay, Ontario, have died in the last 10 years while living on their own seeking an education.

Professor Cindy Blackstock of the University Alberta, who is also the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, filed a human rights complaint in 2007 accusing the government of wilfully underfunding First Nations children services. “It is discriminatory not to give First Nations kids the same chances as other Canadian children,” Blackstock said.

Canada on top of the list of most educated countries in the world is an empty recognition when the reality on the ground tells otherwise.

When you have new immigrants who cannot find decent work despite their training credentials, this indicates something is wrong with the country’s selection system. When you have native children deprived of basic high school education, Canada should not feel proud and worthy of recognition as being the top-ranked most educated country in the world.

Higher education, in another sense, could be a barrier to equal opportunities for success if Canadian universities continue to keep the emphasis solely on high marks. Acceptance to a Canadian university, depending on the academic program one chooses, is becoming very difficult because students need to have lots of A’s in their high school marks in order to qualify. This emphasis on marks as best indicators of post-secondary success has its limitations. Grades are not the only indicators of a student’s potential after high school. Involvement in community activities and other volunteer work, and leadership skills may also provide more objective information on an applicant’s personal profile that is necessary to predict success in a university or college program.

It is uncontested wisdom that education today prepares the students for life and work in an advanced economy. Skilled and motivated workers are required by modern economies, and they can profit from these job opportunities if they are equipped to respond to labour demands.

But this kind of thinking sometimes becomes problematic because the connection between education and work, for example, is made too simple and direct. It distorts the purpose of schooling, i.e., the development of individuals as ends in themselves, and not merely as instruments in the economic process.

Aristotle once said that we educate ourselves in order to make noble use of our leisure, which is diametrically opposed to the contemporary view that we go to school so we can a get a job. A better way to arrive at a compromise is by distinguishing education from training. By training, we mean the process we undertake to prepare ourselves for a job.

Since we start out in school at an early age, we need to be trained in basic numeracy skills—how to add, subtract, multiply or divide, and learn simple literacy skills like reading, spelling and writing. Exactly like an athlete who trains his body to react and adapt to the rigors of his sport. When we have acquired these fundamental skills, we move to the next and higher step, which is education proper. At this stage, we learn how to think and to know how to find and use information, in other words, the process of judgment and evaluation.

The same can be said about the standards we use to select new immigrants, the ways we can help disadvantaged children like those from the First Nations so that they are not left behind, and how we provide universal access to university education.

In the final analysis, the development of the human potential is the most paramount of all. To be worthy of being part of an advanced society, we should not be content with raising individuals as mere tools in achieving social or economic progress. That people are allowed to be the best that they can be should be on top of the Canadian leadership’s agenda.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cutting the waist

It all started with stopping the gravy train, the centrepiece of his election campaign to become mayor of Toronto. He wanted the city government shrunk to as little involvement in the lives of the people as possible. If this were an American city, Toronto could have been every Republican Party or Tea Party stalwart’s favourite target – big government and too much government spending.

Upon his election as Toronto mayor, Rob Ford began his crusade against wasteful spending. With his brother Doug Ford on his side as a city councillor representing his old bailiwick, they trained their magnifying glass on every bit of public spending that could be reduced, cut, or eliminated. From privatizing garbage disposal to cutting public library hours, the Ford brothers never relented on their zeal to cut waste.
Toronto's twin mayor Rob Ford and his brother councillor Doug Ford launch their
battle of the bulge. Photo courtesy of Andrew Francis Wallace of theToronto Star.
Click link to view "Toronto mayor steps on the scale."
Not everything went smoothly according to the Ford brothers’ script. Naturally, there was widespread disenchantment. What could you expect from Toronto, we also had our own version of Occupy Wall Street last October 2011.

Eventually, Toronto mayor Rob Ford came out with his first city budget this year. Not only did he cut waste, he also produced a big surplus. Everyone was not surprised or delighted by the budget surplus. Instead, the budget was criticized as being irresponsible. For how can the city cut library hours or reduce streetcar schedules if there was to be surplus money in the end? Was his worship simply interested in cutting waste as he sees fit just to look good in the end with a big surplus?

But it wasn’t the mayor’s efforts to cut waste that really raised the hackles of the city folks. The mayor is a big man, weighs over 300 pounds. His twin evil brother, councillor Doug Ford who is not that far behind in bulk and size, weighs about 229 pounds.

So when the brothers Ford jointly announced they will cut the waist, meaning their waistlines, they were warmly applauded not just by weight-watchers and dieters, but by almost everyone who thought there should be more concrete measures from government to tackle the obesity issue among children and adults. This time, everybody was unanimous in saying this is a waist-reduction program that deserves to be supported. In fact, reducing their waistlines could have a greater impact on the city more than their appetite to look for fat and gravy in the government that they could cut and eliminate. If successful, the Ford brothers might be mostly remembered in the history of Toronto’s city politics for cutting the waist rather than their vicious agenda of cutting waste.

Obesity today is largely considered an epidemic of rising proportions in America. From over-indulging in junk and comfort foods to lack of physical exercise, the number of people being overweight and becoming obese has ballooned to raise serious concern from family doctors, educators, and policy makers. Virtual reality TV has taken advantage of obesity as a social problem as programs like “The Biggest Loser” poke fun at men and women competing against each other in trying to reduce their weight. Talk shows featuring exercise gurus, diet doctors and heart specialists have joined the commercialization of the overweight issue and its impact on a person’s health and well-being. Over time, products and treatments offering the easiest and fastest way to shed pounds have experienced a sales boom.

Obesity has also been recognized as a leading cause of death, mostly prevalent among adults and children. Public health authorities view obesity as one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century.
The obesity epidemic. Photo courtesy of flickr. Click link to view "Obesity in
While it has stigmatized others, obesity was widely perceived as symbolic of wealth and fertility at other times in history. U.S. President William Howard Taft was often ridiculed for being overweight. The popular wise-cracking governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, could have been a shoo-in for the Republican Party presidential primary but for his incredible hulk.

In the realm of art, women were portrayed in the past with heavy and plump bodies but nobody raised objections to whatever negative connotations these implied. Perhaps, in the subjective sense, big and beautiful women were considered pretty during those times. Venus of Urbino, for instance, had been depicted with lightly wider hips and an enlarged midriff suggesting pregnancy, hence fertility and sexual allure. Rubens' notoriously corpulent nudes were women of ample figures that very well symbolized wealth and beauty, as well as fertility. Only today’s fat fetishists would regard such images as beautiful and more desirable.

Not to be accused of having an obsession for fat women, the neo-figurative Colombian artist Fernando Botero has been successful in capitalizing on inflated and flabby images of his subjects. His paintings depict exaggerated proportions and corpulence of human and animal figures. Critics have often thought that Botero was satirizing fat people, which was far from Botero’s intention. According to him, “an artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it."

Be that as it may, today’s standards have changed and society now seems to attach not only the ideal of beauty to a slim figure but more of a health desideratum. However, there is growing criticism that some might have gone to the extreme and even regard fat people as the enemy. Two Canadian studies have shown that we shouldn’t consider just how big someone is but also how well someone takes care of himself or herself. There are morbidly obese people who stay in pretty good shape even if they don’t look like it.

As Dr. Arya Sharma of the University of Alberta observed: “They eat healthily. They’re physically fit. They feel good about themselves. They don’t have high blood pressure. They don’t have high cholesterol levels. They don’t have diabetes. They have none of those health problems and so the question is: Why would you treat these people? Why don’t you ask them to just stay as healthy as they are?”

But this type observation may be criticized as often rooted on a strong culture of individualism, that private behaviour such as overeating or improper food consumption should be off-limits to governmental interference. How many times have we heard that the government should stay out of personal choices we make?

Although governments have long relied upon the liberty of individuals to regulate their private behaviour such as overeating or improper food consumption, experience drawn from consumption of alcohol, illegal drugs, tobacco and even sex indicates the willingness of governments to intervene in citizens’ private habits that might have disastrous consequences. While obesity arises largely from private behaviour, its harmful consequences can easily tip off the balance unless the government takes a proactive role in fighting obesity as a public policy.

Social disapproval is a positive step to winning the war on obesity, just like when the temperance movements of the early nineteenth century stirred up public condemnations of the disruptive effects of alcoholism. Private activities like illegal drugs and smoking have already been controlled due to public disapprobation. With medical evidence proving obesity may be harmful to health and to life in particular, social disapproval could be turned into political regulation.

Of course, there are still doubters. For example, if sanctions were to be placed against the food industry for catering unhealthy food choices as a start, we would expect howls of protests from libertarians and the food industry itself. The last thing we hate to see is far more government regulation of fatty foods.

Perhaps, Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s Body Mass Index (BMI) may not be the most accurate way of determining someone’s fitness. The mayor is a fit man and can throw a nasty spiral, even if his middle belies excessive body fat. This is not to say we shouldn’t endorse healthy eating and regular physical exercise. What seems befuddling is why there are still so many among us, including the Toronto mayor, who are bodily flawed yet can still function as normal and healthy human beings. Maybe, this suggests that health and girth are two very different things.

While the Ford brothers of Toronto might have struck a sensitive chord among health conscious citizens, other groups are not buying into their charity-weight loss campaign. Toronto’s citizenry is much more interested in policies and programs that would take the best interests and needs of the people at heart rather than a public campaign to boost the mayor and his brother’s egos – or their desire to look more masculine and fit.

The Toronto mayor said he plans to walk more, jog, hit the gym, and cut out the late-night ice cream he loves. Eventually, he said, he wants to lose 105 pounds. That’s a tall order for a big man who also loves to talk big every time. Whether he achieves his target the next time he steps on the the scale, he should console himself that this might be the only goal he could achieve during his tenure as mayor without assistance from his growingly recalcitrant council. And if the mayor really wants to be the poster boy against obesity, he should re-channel his charity campaign into a more effective public policy that ties in weight reduction to alternative healthier lifestyles.