Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Six degrees of separation


Once upon a time during the tumultuous seventies in the Philippines, a year or two before the declaration of martial law, I walked with Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, now the country’s vice-president, in one of the violent student demonstrations against the popular object of protest at the time: U.S. imperialism. Jojo Binay then was an aspiring young lawyer. Also marching with us as the huge wave of demonstrators pushed us toward the U.S. Embassy on Roxas Blvd. were Edel Garcellano, a writer and currently a professor of literature at the University of the Philippines, Leandro “Mark” Marcos, a fraternity brother who now works as a Methodist pastor in Pasadena, California, Babes Calixto, a student activist who later on was killed in a military ambush somewhere in Panay, and the young and comely Imelda Nicolas, presently the Chairperson of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) under the Office of the President with the rank of cabinet secretary.
A typical rally of workers and students in front of the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Click link to view Empire or
Humanity: What the Classroon Didn't Teach Me About the American Empire by
Howard Zinn. Narrated by Viggo Mortensen. Photo courtesy of jackstephens.
Except for my brod Mark and friend Edel, probably no one else among those with us that night would probably recall when and how the rioting started. When the sound of gunfire from the riot police finally receded, three or more students were reported killed, the exact toll I can’t remember now. Edel would write a vivid account of that night in the Weekly Graphic, telling how we ended up buried in thick mud up to our knees in a dark squatter area close to the Pamantasan ng Maynila as gunfire was ricocheting above our heads. Instinctively it was Mark who kept imploring divine intervention to save us from harm, a clear sign early on that in his heart he was destined to the shores of Southern California to minister to the faithful. Edel never gave up his flirtation with Marxist literary theory which continues to inspire his writings and essays on literary criticism. As for myself, the unbearable political conditions in the country pushed me to search for a fresh start in Toronto where I would study and practise law.
As fate would turn out, Jojo Binay was the most successful in that group; in politics, of course. As former mayor of Makati City, he carved a political career on his passion for helping the poor and ordinary folk, introducing programs that would help them in their lives. He built a university for poor children who can’t afford higher education, a hospital to care for the sick and the needy, and parks to improve City of Makati’s urbanscape. But when his term limits expired, he passed on the mayorship to his wife Elenita for one term, then back to him, as their children grew older and became eligible to run for office. His son Jejomar Jr. was elected councillor and succeeded his father as current mayor of Makati City. A daughter, Abby, was elected as Makati’s representative in Congress and has now set her sights to become a senator. As for his next political career, Jojo Binay is never shy about his ambition to succeed President Noynoy Aquino, himself a beneficiary of his parents’ political legacy and popularity.
My acquaintance with Babes Calixto was interrupted as I have said when he died in a military encounter about three years after that rally. His older sister Lirio became a close friend of our family. Imelda Nicolas was only known to me as a campus personality at that time. It was Jojo Binay who most probably brought her along to that fateful rally. Imelda is the younger sister of Loida Nicolas Lewis, a well-known Filipino-American philanthropist and civic leader. Loida was married to Reginald F. Lewis, TLC Beatrice’s first chairman and CEO. TLC Beatrice was the successor to the international operations of Beatrice Foods. When her husband died, Loida assumed the leadership of Beatrice until the company was sold. Loida Nicolas is also the co-convenor of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (US4GG), a group that actively supports President Noynoy Aquino and more particularly, the Philippine government’s claim over the Spratly Islands and a number of land formations in the South China Sea.
Loida Nicolas happens to be a bosom friend of Mila Magno from Toronto who helps the US4GG in mobilizing Filipinos in the Metro Toronto area whenever they decide to picket the Chinese Consulate in Toronto. Both Mila and Loida went to high school at St. Agnes Academy in Legazpi City, the same school that produced Dina Bonnevie and Janelle Manahan, two popular but controversial Filipino actresses. Mila is married to Filipino lawyer Oswald Magno, a friend and also my fraternity brother from university, who is currently mixed up in a running feud with Tess Cusipag, editor of Balita, a Filipino community newspaper in Toronto, and Romy Marquez, Balita’s associate editor, regarding allegations of financial irregularity in the beauty contests ran by Rosemer Enverga during her stint with Philippine Independence Day Celebration (PIDC). Rosemer is married to Tobias “Jun” Enverga, former PIDC president and now the first Filipino senator in the Canadian Parliament after being appointed by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Senator Enverga, who has become the foil for ridicule by critics in the Toronto Filipino community press, also hails from a notable political family in the province of Quezon in the Philippines. Incidentally, the Envergas were my clients, so self-effacing and generous to kababayans in those days before they became the power couple among Filipinos here in Toronto.
Where is this story headed to?
Obviously, this only shows how we are interconnected to each other, that we are only a few steps away from the other person. As originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy, there are only six degrees of separation between us and the other person; that a chain of a friend of a friend, like our Facebook friends, can be made to link two people in a maximum of six steps. As John Guare, who attributed the value of “six” to Marconi, wrote in his 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation, any two individuals are connected by at most five others.
Six Degrees of Separation. Photo courtesy of lukezhang. Click link to view, A Documentary on Networks,
Social and Otherwise.
This is probably true of social networks. The Facebook era and rise of social networks has meant today that people are more closely connected than ever before, with four degrees of separation having become the norm. Other recent studies (e.g., Stanley Milgram’s “small world study”) would also show that people could be connected by approximately three friendship links on average. The popular phrase “six degrees of separation,” however, continues to be often used as a synonym for the idea of the “small world” phenomenon.
A “degree of separation” is a measure of social distance between people. You are one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everyone they know, and so on.
But the Filipino concept of family dynasty, based on degrees of consanguinity, easily beats out this counter-intuitive notion of “six” or “three” degrees of separation. If you calculate beginning from the source, i.e., the first family member in political office, the possibility of perpetuity is enormous. Holding elective office is not only like rotation by musical chairs among family members but it could also be handed down to generations like a bequest or inheritance, thus there is no foreseeable end to it. While perpetuity is not allowed in estate law, politics is something else because elections must continue to be held although they could be rigged in favour of the family dynasty member.
Rotating elective office among Filipino family members is presently at best limited by practice up to the third degree of consanguinity, i.e., from the person holding office to parents, children and siblings. When all these family members hold elective office at the same time, whether as members of Congress or provincial or city local officials (like the Marcos family), a political dynasty is installed and entrenched when the cycle of rotation goes on and on.
As family members rotate holding elective offices with the exclusion of others because of term limits, it creates an obnoxious anomaly that could only happen in a dictatorship or a society without free elections. For example, senators can stay in office for two six-year terms (12 years), representatives for three 3-year terms (or 9 years) and local government officials, for three 3-year terms (9 years). In 12 or 9 years, these officials have established their names, reputation and influence, and amassed a great amount of wealth to assure their next of kin to succeed them while they wait again for another chance to run for the same offices.
Why then do we have to hold free and democratic elections when everybody knows the results have already been predetermined? Wealth and power decide who wins in an election, and only family dynasties have this enormous advantage over others.
Blood is thicker than water between members of the Filipino nuclear family; relations are so strong and deep-seated that they can’t just be broken easily. Even if members of the same family would break away and run for office against another family member, it is still the same family dynasty that wins.
It’s about time to break this ugly stranglehold of the family dynasty on Philippine politics. We can’t wait for a law to implement the constitutional prohibition against political dynasties because Congress will not act as it is against this ruling class’s self-interests. The people can enact legislation by initiative or referendum according to the Constitution, but this may also take an inordinate time granting it will be allowed. What the Filipino electorate can immediately accomplish is to reject in this coming May 2013 elections all candidates who are related to these political dynasties. This will send a clear and strong message that the people have had enough, that they want to put an end to political dynasties now.
To paraphrase A.C. Grayling, it could be good news to hear that almost everyone in the islands, whose great-grandparents were born here, is almost certainly related to almost everyone else in the whole of the islands. That we could claim our humanity from a single female—an “ur-great-grandmother” in the long evolutionary history of the human species.
But Filipino family dynasties will never consider us as kindred. They are an exclusive, elite group capable only of looking after themselves and their next-of-kin’s interests. Our citizenship or membership in the body politic matters only because we elect them to be our supposed leaders or representatives. To them, we are nobodies who can only vote, who cannot win if we run for office. But with our vote this coming May, we can prove them wrong. Let us show them power still belongs to us—the people. With the power of our vote we can elect them or unseat them if we so choose.

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