Friday, November 6, 2009

Devil in the details

There is an American men’s fashion magazine called Details. It is not an investigative journalism magazine but one about image, specifically lifestyle image, concerned with shaping a reputation on the surface of one’s person. And where it has investigative reports, their details are no more in-depth than those you’d find in Playboy albeit also no less than those you’d read in Harper’s. In short, it (“Details”) is just a name on the banner. Oh, and like most American magazines, it features artistas (showbiz stars) on its covers.
     My neighbor, Mang Simeon the motorized tricycle operator, hates artistas. He’s always huffing and puffing about whenever someone or the TV mentions cinema actors Edu Manzano’s and Vilma Santos’ names as potential boosters to a presidential candidate’s ticket to counter the effect showbiz entertainment personalities Kris Aquino and Boy Abunda are making on Kris’ brother, presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino. My neighbor never liked either former actor and later President Joseph Estrada or the current president’s son, actor-congressman Mikey Arroyo. But what he, my neighbor, doesn’t realize is that all the candidates in all the Philippine national elections have always been artistas.
     I’m not being sardonic, trying to make a blanket statement about politicians and candidates as all just pretending to be heroes during their campaign sorties, for some of them may have actually filled the hero’s shoes at one time or another, in one instance or another. What I’m referencing, rather, as their noteworthy pretense are not the ones in their respective quiet beings, intrinsic to these beings, but the ones in our people’s dictate upon their beings, the extrinsic influence. After all, candidates only pretend to be heroes according to how the people want them as, pretty much the same way one says the things others want to hear. Now, the matrix of this cultural exchange may be complex, but suffice to say that even though a candidate may wish he were in a position where he does not have to pretend to be optimistic but rather honestly lecturing away to an audience about reasons to be initially pessimistic, the average Filipino voter would however want him to pretend to be a hero now, already, because of their emotional need to have one—a need not unlike the hunger for a sports icon trying to win against a perceived Goliath of an opponent.
     My friend, the over-achiever in the painting field Marcel Antonio, recently posted on Facebook a line from the movie Seven, which says, “let me tell you, people don’t want a champion. They want to eat cheeseburgers, play the lottery and watch television.” True, too. The reason perhaps why, when people are given the right to decide whom they want positioned in office and feel obliged to use that right, they yet treat it like it’s no different from choosing a TV basketball team to bet on.
     Of course, it has been frustrating to watch our countrymen disheartened every three long years, again going back to the habit of looking for a hero to replace the disappointing, previously-perceived-as-a-hero figure on the Senate floor. But the average Filipino voter goes through this process every election because, religion being also “cosmic entertainment” (according to Frank O’Hara), an election entertains like a religious event. The average voter doesn’t want to be bored out of his newfound religion or faith and, by virtue of this adrenalin, demands that his candidate play along. It is by this behavior that the PR campaign managers, instead of being bored with the market, acquiesce and fit their very selves into the culture and exploit it to the hilt with song and dance routines and music videos and Adboard-condoned dramatic ads.
     For what does the average Filipino voter lean on to qualify his religious judgment on a potential good leader of some near future, contenting thus his day? It is … Faith. If one can believe a candidate to be someone who can (or will) be a hero, a certain good leader, one who’ll effect change or stability, that will be enough. That belief or faith will empower one’s day with the needed fervent hopes. So deep goes the faith that it doesn’t matter what the other camp will say henceforth—there will be that parallel belief in the pure malice of that other camp. One believes in one’s candidate’s goodness and the opponent’s evil, and that is enough.
     Now, what makes one believe? Well, a face, firstly. A fragment of an act. A figment of a statement. Some only need a coin to toss. That is often enough.
     And from the candidates’ side of the arrangement, a philosophy would be the last thing needed. The invaluable requisite is only the PR firm, that one that will spin the right ad, the right song, conceptualize the right shirt, hire the right singers and dancers, the right poll survey outfit, the right watchers from the center, left, or military right. Spin doctors busy themselves thereafter, enjoying too the game.
     Now, by this absence of depth I do not mean to demean the uneducated Filipino. For lawyers too betray a similar faith in their candidates. One lawyer-intellectual would argue that competence is key, and therefore one with a master’s degree from Harvard is what the presidency needs. Another believes in a clean record, devoid of any accusation by anybody over this record, to be the top requirement, as if having no enemies is a sign of cleanliness. Meanwhile, others from this educated class will wave the flag of a cause behind a candidate, one espousing—let’s say—the environmentalist label complete with its set of jargon. But that flag’s waving in the air, too, is considered enough.
     Many a brilliant intellectual have pawned his brains for the comfort of crazily believing in the cliché that wealthy candidates would not anymore think of acquiring more possessions in office, being already wealthy enough as they are—as if the wealthiest corporations aren’t still thinking of acquisitions and mergers as we speak, dumbing our intellectual friends for some luxury faith. Recently, Tarlac mayors declared their confusion over whether to support Noynoy Aquino (the presidential candidate from Tarlac) or Gibo Teodoro (another presidential candidate from Tarlac). For it cannot be an and but an or, they said with humor in their mouths. Tough choice, eh? As if Imelda Marcos of Leyte protected in her time the people of Leyte from the burgeoning national debt. Dumb non-choice.
     You see, the difference between the educated class’ approach and the poor man’s approach to a candidate does not exist, except perhaps in degree terms. Whereas the ill- or under-informed relies on a fragment to judge a candidate (a role in a movie, a charity work covered by primetime or lunchtime TV), the educated lawyer relies on a figment of an arguable philosophy (“qualification,” or “trustworthiness”) to be able to ride on the faith of a new candidate’s religion.
     In lieu of a rounded political belief, then, the Filipino’s political insight is excited by new slogans and abstracted positions, which he’d like to believe are enough to please him, slogans and positions pounding on his heart like hymns of hope. And, like a religious doctrine, he swallows one whole set of these slogans with the accompanying abstracted position as his newfound faith. He then readies himself by this for a new season of cheering for his new faith’s Christ (or Isis).

It is by this culture of political contentment that we breed a hatred for details.
     A query as to how, say, Loren Legarda would practice her environmentalism as a vice president in office is a query that would only irk the populace, whether it’s taxi drivers you’re talking to or lawyers. Either they would think you a Loren-hater or a devout Loren opponent’s supporter or both. Those who know you to be a Loren supporter will despise you for asking questions like that about their candidate, as if you were a devout Marian legionnaire who is nonetheless asking too many a question about the Pope or Mary Herself. To taunt voters and supporters into an examination of certain paradigms, as for instance Loren’s connection to Mark Cojuangco, the vocal supporter of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant’s resuscitation, is to go too far. You haven’t even asked the question yet as to why the Nationalist People’s Coalition machine would even bother to finance a vice-presidential candidate in her sans a presidential driver, unless that VP is to be promised an energy secretary post in the new president’s cabinet, the point man or woman for entertaining contracts for a new wind energy program/industry or a slow revitalization of a mothballed nuclear power plant. But we might glimpse an answer to that question when we hear who the NPC is endorsing for president; perhaps talks are yet ongoing.
     Incidentally, that Westinghouse-built plant, once lawyered for by now-senator Edgardo Angara (that politician who peddled in his election campaign the promised representation of the hunger for education and knowledge), we continue to pay for. That’s thanks, too, to—along with then-finance secretary Jaime Ongpin—the former Asian Development Bank executive director for the Philippines and now-Senator Joker Arroyo’s failure to advise Corazon Aquino when he was her executive secretary against some lobby for the Philippines’ honoring even Ferdinand Marcos’ fraudulent loans, that despite the loud protestations of the Freedom from Debt Coalition to his disinterested face. We all know Joker Arroyo to be that man constantly being sold during elections as the human rights lawyer who’d fight for you, the common man, never mind being the Development Bank of the Philippines chairman supposed to fight for the Philippines' ability to pay against credits loaned out by such banks as the ADB (where he was concurrent chairman, too, of the Philippine section of it). Gimme a break.

In our culture, to taunt the Filipino voter into examining a candidate’s closeness to corporate moguls and taipans like, say, the Lopezes with their Lopez Group of Companies or the Ayalas and Roxases and Zobels with their Ayala Group of Companies or the John Gokongweis or Lucio Tans or Enrique Razon Jr.s or Manny Pangilinans or possibly, latently, Danding Cojuangcos, is to push it too far and to be suspicious. To encourage examination of global connections would be doubly suspicious. The suspicious is discredited in the game of Philippine elections, an election to the Filipino voter being no more than an entertaining game of basketball with foul rules. It is no surprise, then, that many a Filipino have died from asking too many questions. So that I, being a coward, will not myself hasten to ask these very questions here.
     But, still, what are our candidates really all about? If US presidential candidate Barack Obama was transparent about his being a champion of health care reform, debating with fellow US Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton on the details of attaining success, the Filipino presidential candidate is opaque and elusive. That, thanks to our hatred for details.
     Now, the state of Filipino political contentment is sad given the fact that late-20th century governments are mostly governments of corporations, a fact the Filipino voter continues to deny—this late in the new century’s transition period—as reality. Or accepts as reality but to continues to deny as verily significant.
     Good or bad, but inspired perhaps by an earlier century’s East India Company, corporate “support” or sponsorship of a government’s election in our era is a fact, a reality involving companies and brands propelling governments into actions and decisions that make the world go round.
     Let's start with the bad. A George W. Bush/Dick Cheney American government was as much about the company Halliburton’s Afghan pipeline’s (and the Bradley tank manufacturer United Defense’s) welfare as it was about coal plants in Pennsylvania or the failed privatization of the Social Security System, among others, including the protection of health insurance companies and hedge-fund investors/brokers.
     Of course, there are the flukes. The people-powered Obama campaign, albeit supported likewise by billionaire Waren Buffett’s and other moguls’ contributions, is being motored at the White House today not by a large corporate interest but by a large institutional interest. Instead of a health insurance lobby, which has chosen the Republican Party Right as its patron since decades past, there is now the “lobby” of a moderate liberal niche. And although liberalism is such a fragmented institution, with Obama as its strongest though not-so-liberal representative at the center of things, it is an institution currently at the helm of the US government’s new direction.
     In the Philippines, however, there are no such institutional labels as a liberal position and a conservative position. Even the Liberal Party’s position is iffy, to be generous. There are only the institutions of “a hope for change” and “a hope for maintaining the status quo.” But the problem with these Filipino local institutions is that they are slippery abstractions devoid of details.
     Details! Details!

Filipino voters deny the presence of corporate interests, even as they are aware of open corporate support for a candidate or candidates (e.g. Danding Cojuangco for Chiz Escudero and/or Loren Legarda, and maybe Manny Villar [of Cojuangco’s friend Ferdinand Marcos’ Nacionalista Party] should he host Legarda to be his VP candidate, and maybe Gibo Teodoro, Cojuangco’s nephew, or Erap, a Cojuangco friend). Thus they might not notice that this could just be the most Danding Cojuangco-ridden presidential contest ever, with almost no one decrying his presence, not even Noynoy Aquino’s ship (whose corporate backers have yet to be determined). Many of us might even refuse to remember an Erap-Chinoy business groups connection, or the Erap-Lopez in-law filial connection for that matter. (Does ABS-CBN’s intermittent airing of pro-Erap passages from, say, Pinky Webb or Anthony Taberna—whose subtle criticisms of current government anomalies are nonetheless admirable—have anything to do with this latter connection?) If Filipino voters can deny these local realities, how much more entertain the possibility of international connections, as with—say—Manny Villar, whose path to big wealth derived from a World Bank loan after a period of trying to sell WB loans to others?
     This denial is sad because it can lead to other denials. One may deny that such contributions or “power brokerage” will influence a candidate’s future decisions, for example, should that candidate win. And—as a way of extending the faith—deny the possibility of a campaign sponsor corporation’s later establishment of little front corporations to corner government contracts. It is no wonder that even after reports of that sort come out in the papers later, the nation continues to be divided into divergent political faiths, some within it treating the papers’ reportage as told-you-so bible stuff, while the others in it sneer about the papers’ supposed fiction.
     The problem virus my neighbor Mang Simeon, the tricycle operator, will face in the next dispensation (his hatred for artistas notwithstanding), after all the campaign and election hoopla dies down, will be his own little devil. This devil will be with him as he survives the next administration’s problems. But it is, in fact, our collective devil. It inhabits all our continuing fears of the details. It is the dopamine that keeps us nervously laughing as a nation. And the corporate moguls laugh along with us. [END]

Photo of Details magazine cover from:
Photo of presidential candidates from:


  1. There is so much that is correct about what you’ve written that I find it hard to counter, despite certain gut-based objections. To make things worse, I’m sure I’ll have to lapse into just the sort of abstractions that you rightfully point out have no place in popular political discussion in order to say what I have to say. Well, I offer thanks every day that I’m not a politician—if I were, I’d be in big trouble because I’d want to talk about the real life-and-death issues that the voters, as you say, would be too bored to listen to. But your title is my best advocate, because the devil is indeed in the details.

    First, I want to express my warm admiration for your trusty neighbor, Mang Simeon. He is a wise and perceptive man. I too hate and distrust the artistas who crawl out onto the political stage every election year.

    Just to demonstrate my non-political stance, I’m going to refer a couple of times to the wonderful world of lexicography—there can hardly be anything less political than that. You see, when it comes to candidates, there is a lack of discrimination here between the word “famous” and the word “notorious.” That difference, of course, comes from the manner in which the candidate in question came to be well known.

    Now, in the field of lexicography, I tend more to the descriptivist side than the proscriptiveist. However, I must wax proscriptive when it comes to the word “hero.” The word “idol,” I believe, better describes the phenomenon you refer to. Now as every reader of the Bible knows, the worship of idols is nothing new. And I can safely say that there is nothing inherently Pinoy about it—it’s a human universal. It’s just a lot easier to worship a thing you can see and touch than it is to worship the unseen or the abstract. One biblical prophet makes fun of people who take a piece of wood and carve themselves a god to bow down and worship—taking, meanwhile the shavings and left-over wood and using it to cook supper. The efficacy of idols is somewhat suspect.

    It’s fortunate for me that you chose to introduce the idea of religion-as-entertainment in your blog—otherwise, I’d have been forced to come up with some such idea on my own. Actually, it’s a very useful analogy, very useful in your politics-as-entertainment argument. Now you know I work in a church. Week after week I hear members of the congregation delivering opinions about the Sunday message as though they were a flock of theatre critics. They praise the content, but find fault with the delivery, or they rate the delivery as superb but find the content rather shallow, they may not approve of the costumes, the music may be too loud—and on and on. But consider the weekly quandary of the preacher: if he just does a good job of entertaining his flock, he becomes popular, but knows only too well that he is ill-serving his people.

    A preacher must, from time to time, deliver unpleasant and unpopular messages. There are many people who attend services who are fond of promiscuous sex or drunkenness, or of lying, cheating and stealing (yes, some of them may even be politicians). Part of the preacher’s role is to discourage these things, and none of us likes to hear that one or more of our favorite behaviors needs to be modified. And yet, there are preachers who are quite popular with, and even beyond, their congregations. How can that be?

    I believe it is because a good preacher can not only inform people that they need to change, but also encourages then (imbues them with courage) that they are capable of change. Keeping to your analogy, what about a politician who not only speaks of grandiose change in the nation, but is also capable of building up in voters a belief they can be the very instruments of change? Does that sound impossible?

  2. Now I grant that the popularity contests the nation has been holding every three years have significantly lowered the bar when it comes to campaign skills, but the fact that the nation is full of unskilled campaigners in no way says that a skilful one may not arise at any time. As for the people, although the theory you’ve propounded in your blog is generally descriptive of past actions, I’m not at all sure it has an equal degree of predictive power.

    I’m going to remove myself even farther from the realm of political viability here and write briefly about the philosophy of science. In science, there are clear-cut between facts, laws and theories. Facts, which are—well, facts, laws, which summarize the regularities of the facts, and theories, which explain the laws. What you have propounded in “Devil in the Details” is a theory. Now theories are generally categorized as either weak or robust. And they are subject to change. A weak theory may explain certain cases but fall apart when it comes to others. A robust theory has what is called a high predictive value—it not only explains things that have already happened, it can also correctly predict what is yet to be discovered.

    In “Details” I must admit you have propounded a pretty robust theory. It accounts well for itself in most cases of past behavior, which gives one confidence in its predictive value for future behavior. But the devil is in the details.

    Newton’s theories served very well (and still do in special cases), but they turned out to be nothing more or less than a special case of Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the case of Newton’s theories, there were details that didn’t quite fit. Einstein came along with a larger theory (that encompassed more of the known laws) and was able to show why those details were off.

    People Power and EDSA-1 (the real EDSA) are where the devil’s details reside with regard to your otherwise excellent theory. And just as nothing in Einstein’s theories disproved, or rendered “wrong” the theories of Newton, so I believe it will come to be with the conditions you have described. You are almost assuredly right—but I don’t think you’re right enough. The ultimate problem is not whether or not the government can change—it’s whether the people can change. (I admit here that according to your two deft categories “hoping for change” and “hoping for status quo,” I’m one of the “hoping for change” people.)

    But change is difficult. And negative reinforcement is not enough. Many people will always prefer the devil they know over the unknown. No, there must also be positive reinforcement. People need to be encouraged. People need to feel (as they felt at EDSA, back when) that they are strong, that they do matter and do make a difference. That their ballot is worth far more as an instrument of change than it is as a cash payment that will be quickly spent. But that can only be if there is a candidate telling them and encouraging them that that is so. They have absolutely no reason to expect it to spontaneously arise from a candidate who has offered them nothing more than the same old song and dance. If no one speaks, how will the voters hear?