Friday, March 21, 2008

All the President's Men

By Ryan Maboloc
Ateneo de Davao University

The continuing saga of the ZTE controversy reveals something not so extra-ordinary in Philippine political culture and that is, that the lives of poor Filipinos are controlled by “a few good men.” Sad to say, but this sin against democracy is embedded in our culture, beginning in the early 19th century, with many of its victims now enshrined as national heroes, i.e. Andres Bonifacio, the GOMBURZA, Ninoy Aquino, etc. Democracy is supposed to be about “the governed governing themselves”. Alas, right now it simply is about being governed by the chosen few. There’s a boss, and he has his men. This reminds me of “The Godfather”. Michael, Vito Corleone’s son, after ascending to the throne, is keen about eliminating one savvy enemy in the business. The “family” lawyer, playing it safe, says that it would be very difficult. Michael now turns to the consigliere, who quips, “difficult, but not impossible.” Whatever the boss wishes, he gets!


Filipinos need to grow up. What is happening now is all about the idea that “all is in the family.” Whether it’s the most powerful of all nations, the church, a city, or any decent institution - there is a small circle who decides for the governed. A former student of mine, as a feedback to the stuff I have been writing, calls them aptly, “the powers that be”. “The family” is the greatest threat to liberal equality. This is the one and single reason why the poor remains poor, the destitute remains voiceless, and the worker still suffers from a kind of confusion, “whether his life is about his career or whether his career is his life”. Because of the president’s men, he neither has one. As Thomas Nagel says, “we do not live in a just world.”

Democratic institutions seek to establish social cooperation in the name of justice. This should mean that each individual, a child, the poor, the garbage collector, the baker, the rich, and the butcher in a free society, in pursuit of a life plan must be allowed to profit from the same. The butcher and the baker remind me of Adam Smith, who argues that we deal business with these people only because we have due regard for their interest. But a government is not some form of business, nor is a church, an NGO, or a school. If we allow these institutions to become one, the result is clear. Those who are close to the big boss, they are the ones who gets the biggest slice of the pie.

I think what is happening is akin to “the structure of scientific revolutions.” An anomaly leads to a crisis, and when the crisis becomes so unbearable, the establishment, just like any brilliant theory, collapses. What has happened now is that one of the president’s men has been put on the spot and so he has no choice but to savor his moment in history, i.e., by becoming a star witness to a big corruption scandal. Of course, he will be tormented. There’s just one defense – “that he is no angel”. But who says that this is about being “angels and demons”? “If men were angels”, writes James Madison, 4th US President in the Federalist Papers, “no government would be necessary.” We need not be hypocritical. This is plain and simple politics.

Being a young man, I am still hopeful. But I don't like the idea that some people pretend to be heroes. Some of them are in the halls of the Senate, inside the church, the streets, in plush buildings. Andres Bonifacio is a hero. Ninoy Aquino is a hero. Parents who sacrifice for their children are heroes. Teachers who receive meager salaries are real heroes. None so far among these pretenders qualify in being called a hero. Being a hero means sacrificing oneself. It is not about redeeming oneself for past misdeeds. Of course, the day will come when our country shall be free. My intuition though tells me this – regimes will fall if they must, however powerful. No one, not even God’s first cousin, if he is in power and whoever he is, will live forever.