We are the ones we have been waiting for

July 7, 2019

 

 Saipan — When it comes to politics and the government, many us believe that what’s happening now should be the worst thing ever. Not a lot of us care for history, and what we can’t Google probably never happened anyway.  

 

In the NMI’s case, some of us believe that its history consisted of Spaniards hundreds of years ago; a war 75 years ago; garment factories and Jack Abramoff in the 1990s followed by the website Saipan Sucks created by a disgruntled former assistant attorney general after leaving the island.

 

And that’s “NMI history.” Not surprisingly, at a U.S. Senate committee hearing held two years ago, a U.S. senator talked about the NMI as if it was still in the 1990s.

 

Today, the NMI is experiencing a problem it has experienced before — a sputtering economy that is not providing enough government revenue for the government’s many obligations. And so we’re, once again, hearing “solutions” that have also been proposed before: “transparency”; “honest leadership”; a government-of-the-people-for-the-people-by-the-people.”

 

What they exactly mean depends on the person saying them. Based on my experience, when someone tells an elected official that he/she needs to be transparent, it usually means, “Admit that you’ve done something wrong; repent; resign.” “Honest leadership” refers to “the politicians I support until they get elected and disappoint me.” And “government-of-the-people-for-the-people-by-the-people” is “government led by politicians I support and who will eventually disappoint me.”

 

In politics, many of us are, more or less, Platonists. Terms like “democracy,” “government” or “leadership” are imperfect representations of a perfection that existed somewhere at one point in human history, and can be willed into existence again if we only try while saying “Change!” again and again.

We compare our idealized mental images of “government” and “politicians” with our actual government and politicians, and we, not surprisingly, are dissatisfied.

Then and now, we believe that we should expect more from government officials and politicians — that they should be who we are not, who we can’t be, or who we don’t want to be because it’s hard work.

Today, the NMI is experiencing a problem it has experienced before — a sputtering economy that is not providing enough government revenue for the government’s many obligations. And so we’re, once again, hearing “solutions” that have also been proposed before: “transparency”; “honest leadership”; a government-of-the-people-for-the-people-by-the-people.”

    I consider the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a pioneer politician. He persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit not because he was silver tongued; but because he told her what she wanted to hear. And that is what running for office is all about. Telling voters what they want to hear. Lower prices. Higher wages. Safer streets. Better hospitals. Better schools. Higher tax rates as long as they don’t apply to us — especially if they don’t apply to us.

    In other words, so much more for so much less. For many of us, “true leadership” and/or “government of the people” means ignoring if not defying basic arithmetic.

     

    But there is nothing new to all this.

     

    In 1939, a Pulitzer Prize-winner journalist, HJ Haskell, published “The New Deal in Old Rome” which mentioned, among other things, the exploits of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman lawyer, writer and philosopher. When he decided to run for public office, his younger brother Quintus supposedly wrote a “Handbook of Politics” for Cicero. First of all, Quintus told his brother, “every voter is entitled to the satisfaction of being personally solicited for his vote.” He added, “One has great need of a flattering manner, which, wrong and discreditable though it may be in other walks of life, is indispensable in seeking office.”  

     

    Moreover, a candidate for office “must be lavish in his promises to people who asked him for favors that he could grant if elected. ‘Human nature being what it is,’ said Quintus, ‘all men prefer a false promise to a flat refusal. At the worst the man to whom you have lied may be angry. That risk, if you make a promise, is uncertain and deferred, and it affects only a few. But if you refuse you are sure to offend many, and that at once.’”

     

    Rival candidates, of course, could resort to bribing voters. When that happens, Quintus said, “contrive, if possible, to get some new scandal started against your rivals for crime or immorality or corruption, according to their characters.”

     

    Haskell said that “this last suggestion appealed to [Cicero] as quite practical. As his rival, Catiline, was resorting to vote-buying, Cicero…charged him with murder, adultery, marriage with a daughter whom an adulterous mistress had borne him, attempted incest, and attempted massacre — in short, with every crime he could lay his sharp tongue to.” Cicero won the election. Over 2,000 years ago.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Zaldy Dandan is editor of Marianas Variety, the NMI’s oldest newspaper.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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