Friday, August 07, 2009

The Case for the Basics: CITIZENSHIP

Forgive me for exchanging my makeup kit for a soapbox right now, but I must.

It has been a week since the death of Corazon Aquino, and two days since we finally laid her to rest. We have cried the tears, and wiped them dry (to paraphrase the words of Anne Murray), and some of us are still devastated for losing such a gracious woman.

The questions are still inevitable: What next, then? What's the best way to honor the Aquino legacy?

For inspiration, I have to hand it to another former Head of State - Mr. Jimmy Carter, in the opening remarks of his Farewell Address to the American people in 1981 - to voice this opinion better than I can.
...I will lay down my official responsibilities in this office -- to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of president, the title of citizen.

Now, a few of you here - regardless of where you are in the world - will be reading this and thinking that there are powerful ways, honest ways, of exercising your citizenship. Some of you are probably thinking about taking the streets like we Filipinos did during the original EDSA Revolution in 1986. Some of you believe in becoming the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, by thinking that raising your voice will bring about the change you want and deserve in this lifetime.

You know what? That is very well and good. That is your opinion, and for as long as this blog remains unblocked and uncensored, I will not prevent you from exercising your right to do so. That does not mean, however, that yours is the only choice.

For the rest of us who are not yet called to act as squeaky wheels, I have a very simple but honest solution.


Voting isn't sexy, and it certainly is never fun. Voting in a national election is never going to be as exciting as voting for your next American Idol. Voting, however, does make you a smarter person for choosing your own leaders, as part of your own right to freedom under your citizenship.

"But Meimei," you tell me, "I don't want to vote! Nobody I like ever wins, and everyone who's running is so meh to me! It's all rigged anyway, and everyone cheats!"

Well, let me tell you a thing or two about civic duty.

I may have been a child back in 1986 - heck, I was only in kindergarten when Ninoy Aquino's assassination interrupted my after-school cartoons - but that didn't mean I knew nothing about what was happening around me. I didn't like what the creepy old guy with lupus and his weaselly minions were doing to my innocence, and everyone else's; it wasn't that hard to see how other people's daddies weren't coming home, knowing that bad things happened to people who disagreed with the government.

I didn't know from policy, and I certainly didn't end up marching on the streets... but my siblings and I already knew that our hope was with the little lady in the yellow dress, the widow of the white-suited man who died on the tarmac. Reconciliation, democracy, peace: those were the big words of the day in 1986, and we took it all to heart.

Say what you will about the Aquino years, but at least we, as a nation, were able to breathe - able to speak our minds and hold our leaders accountable to their words and actions, after so many years of martial law. We, the people, had a president who trusted our judgment, without insulting our intelligence. For once, we had dignity.

Flash forward twelve years later, to the sight of an increasingly jaded Meimei, now an adult in Honolulu. Nothing at this point was going to comfort me - not the budget cuts made by our Republican governor, nor the growing economic crisis in the midst, nor the endless chatter from both sides of the proverbial aisle. It was dawning on me that there were one too many dead soldiers in the news, one too many companies going out of business, one too many warnings about the environment.

(I could go on and on, but my blood pressure is rising... so let's just say that anyone who knew me during this period of my life - the ones who really knew me - would know the real depth of my anger here. This is a wound that, sadly, has yet to heal.)

Again, I was not in a position of power, since I was not an American citizen. And I'm obviously not one of those people who thinks that Barack Obama can do no wrong, because there are times when I do disagree with him.

That did not stop me from feeling so much pride and joy for my fellow kama`aina, and the people who turned out in droves to support his journey to the White House.

Suddenly even the most apolitical and disenfranchised among my friends were registering to vote and following the news. Suddenly there were bigger discussions about history and precedence, and what it truly means to be a citizen of one's country. Suddenly those memories of the 2000 election - which Scribey and I watched in a drunken stupor years before - had become too painful, too uncomfortable.

In the fall of 2008, I found myself witnessing - again - a revolution of sorts, waged not with guns and threats and intimidation, but with ballots and Twitters and cold reckoning. It certainly felt like 1986 again, or at least it did to me.

And I, for one, was truly glad.

Of all the lessons that I had learned between 1986 and 2008, this stuck out to me the most: You cannot challenge an election that had none of your participation.

I may not have voted during those times, but I felt that I had to do something about my world - and writing my little letters-to-TPTB meant nothing if I only had my opinion to back me up. I may have been a "citizen of the world," but the Obama campaign taught me that real citizenship and civic duty meant taking responsibility for any decision that leads to change. My vote, after all, was my leverage as a citizen - leverage that I can wield, not just to support my leader, but to hold my own government accountable for any mistakes made in leadership... regardless of who wins, or whoever rises to power eventually.

I already know, moving back to the Philippines, that corruption is widespread. I already know that, if the presidential election does take place in 2010, there will be a lot of cloak-and-dagger machinations that will prevent me from electing my choice of leaders. That is why I decided, after so many years, to finally register myself as an honest-to-goodness Voter, starting with this coming presidential election. Now that I am a Philippine resident once again, I now must use my right and my leverage, as a citizen of the Republic, to make this election happen - not just for me, but for my whole country.

You think the government will cancel the elections? The heck they will - if there are not enough voters who have registered in the first place. You think that your candidate will never win? Guess again: Whoever ends up being in charge will STILL remain accountable to ordinary people like you and me.

And here's another thing: our taxes, after all, are what still pays for their plans, good or bad. I don't care who you vote, or how you go about it... but you do want to know where your money goes after the taxman comes to get it, right? Really, if we all voted with our wallets alone, we would all be charged with tax evasion in some form or another by now. Fact, plain and simple.

So please, for the love of sweet mangoes, don't ever, EVER think for a minute that your vote will never count, even if - and especially if - somebody else ends up choosing your leaders for you. By refusing to exercise your own capacity for democracy, you are committing the ultimate act of elitism, selfishness, vanity, and greed.

Philippine citizens, your last day for voter registration is on December 15, 2009, and voters for the US primaries in 2010 should be registered by May of that very year; everyone else with elections forthcoming should start consulting your local government offices ASAP. Don't even think for a moment that living overseas will keep you away from the ballot box, either - that's what absentee voting is for, and you must contact your nearest embassy or consulate for details on how to do just that.

Think about it, read about it, pray about it - do what you can, because I can't make your mind up for you. But whatever you do, don't ever think that you will never count at all as a citizen.

Whatever you need to do, do it now - because there won't be a revolution without you.

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