Thursday, November 20, 2014

Who’s to blame for vote-buying?

Most Filipinos, especially the educated ones, have always blamed the poor for the kind of leaders they elect. To them, that we have corrupt leaders is the fault of those who willingly sell their votes to elect these people. As if bribery and vote-buying were legitimate while the poor who accept money in exchange for their votes are guilty as hell.
Thus, the dumbing of the electorate, majority of whom are poor, is the voters’ fault and not the handiwork of powerful and rich politicians. Why this upside-down view of reality?

Vote-buying in the Philippines. Photo by Photoville International.

We need to review our political history as a nation to fully understand why we have this skewed perspective of who we are.
In 1902, then U.S. Governor General of the Philippines William Howard Taft wrote a book, Political Parties in the Philippines, where he examined the historical development of Philippine political parties and analyzed the level of political maturity of Filipinos. Taft wrote that Filipino politicians have yet to learn the idea of individual liberty and the practical elements of a popular government. He recommended the establishment of a popular assembly, to be composed of affluent Filipino politicians, to serve as a training ground for self-government. This assembly became the Congress of the Philippines, and the Jones Act of 1916 created the Senate replacing the Philippine Commission.
The membership of the Philippine Congress then was oligarchic at the time, which makes the present-day Congress not that all different. A representative democracy that draws upon all classes in society did not develop and it was partly the fault of the American colonial rulers. The Americans did not change the Filipino social structure. They merely imposed a political system that allowed the existing social structure to gain political power. Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute Congress resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuated their hold on political offices.
An oligarchic and elitist social structure was allowed to flourish by the American colonial rulers. In an article, “The Philippine Muddle,” for Harper’s Magazine in 1926, William Howard Gardiner, who also worked as a consultant to the U.S. Navy and State Departments, wrote that mostly Chinese and Spanish mestizos were able to absorb the new emphasis on English, academics and American political history in the school curriculum at the time. The great masses, the common tao, who were children of peasants, virtually were left out uneducated and uninstructed in anything that would help them live their peasant lives more effectively.
The mestizo politicos, otherwise known as ilustrados, would eventually lord over the wretched millions of ordinary people who were ruthlessly exploited and forced to be absolutely subservient. Assisted by politically-appointed justices of the peace and fiscals, or magistrates and prosecuting attorneys, these mestizo politicos would hold the common folk in servile bondage, while the chief politico in each barrio would tell them how to vote. While it was the result of natural mestizo cupidity, Gardiner wrote that “it has been possible only because of the political incapacity of the tao millions and because of American neglect and ignorance of Philippine conditions. But as the power to prevent or to correct is ours, we Americans and not the natives, whether politicos or taos, are at fault.” Instead of presiding over the evolution of a sound popular self-government, American colonial rule established the foundation for patronage politics which engendered the formation of oligarchic elites.
Now, to blame the poor or the “taos” for the corruption, bribery and vote-buying we have at present does not comport well with our political history. It is the elitist contempt of the uneducated poor that the self-denying educated classes propagate whenever they blame the masses for their political and economic misery, as if this condition is self-inflicted and there is no one to blame but themselves. On the balance of power, the perpetrator of corruption or the one who bribes and buys votes has all the necessary means to exploit the poor. The poor never get elected and the corrupt politicians maintain their stranglehold of power, which in turn they abuse to recoup the money spent for their election and to amass their illegal wealth.
Corruption in politics is not endemic to the Philippines. On a much larger scale, corruption is also prevalent in the U.S., the Philippines’ role model for governance since colonial times. It is even more worrisome in the U.S. because its Supreme Court has ruled that corporations in Citizens United are also people and have a right to free speech. This led one American writer to comment that “the Supreme Court has defined democracy as a branch of capitalism, right up to the point of actual vote-buying. And actual vote-buying is a pretty low-rent form of corruption anyway.”

The justices who decided the Citizens United Supreme Court case.

Citizens United struck down certain restrictions on political spending by corporations, which according to the U.S. Supreme Court, more particularly Justice Anthony Kennedy, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. What this means is that corporations are no longer restrained in spending millions in supporting the election of their candidates and their political programs as they are only exercising corporate speech which ought not to be censored.
In effect, Citizens United amounts to massive vote-buying, measured in millions of dollars spent by corporations in television advertisements and political contributions with the end in view of influencing the results of the elections. This gives corporations a very big right of speech while giving others a very small right. As a result, it damages equal citizenship, making corporations more equal than others. Worse, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, this is democracy at work.
Vote-buying in the Philippines thus pales in comparison to the limitless ability of American corporations to influence the electoral process. What has been made legal by a court decision, the other one is blameable to the poor for accepting the bribe. Both ways, they make a mockery of democracy.
Since accepting a bribe in exchange for a vote is illegal under Philippine law, it is interesting to find out how many have been actually charged and prosecuted in court. The height of hypocrisy is when there is a bigger number of people charged for accepting bribes than those politicians and their followers for bribing voters.
The common denominator between Citizens United and vote-buying in the Philippines is who has the money, the most amount of wealth that can be used to influence the election.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United affirms that those who have economic power, i.e., large private corporations, will always have the upper hand over the small citizen whose right of free speech is no match to that of the corporation in determining the result of the election. On the other hand, the oligarchy and wealthy families have more access to political power in the Philippines because they have the means to buy votes or even rig the electoral process in their favour. The poor have been made the scapegoat of the rich for the election of corrupt leaders as if they have a choice, their lack of discernment equated to their class status and lack of education.
Filipinos need to put a stop to this blaming game. It’s not the poor who are responsible for vote-buying and corruption. We need to build a foundation for a strong idea of democratic citizenship, one that is not just based on who has the money or wealth to buy votes to influence the elections. Otherwise, we will always get the kind of democracy we pay for, which is not much democracy at all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Power writes history

We never learn from history. Or we tend to remember only events and personalities that appeal to our baser instincts. We recall only those we would like to hear.
Take, for example, a recent conversation I had, or perhaps more of a disagreement with someone on her interpretation of the Marcos dictatorship and the insignificant role of a certain fraternity from the University of the Philippines in the struggle against the oppressive regime. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll call her Ms. D. Inglesera for her self-declared impeccable grasp of the English language. By insignificant (my word, not hers), I mean from the point of view of the overall Marcos protest movement, which takes into account the greater and more direct role played by nationalist, student, labour, and civil society organizations, more particularly the hundreds of thousands of nameless ordinary people who braved the sun and rain and bullets and brutality of the military and police riot squads during those tumultuous years.

Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos declares martial law on
September 21, 1972.
Fast forward to the present, more than 28 years after Marcos was driven out of MalacaƱang, this aforementioned Ms. Inglesera would only remember the more famous among the members of that UP fraternity whom she claimed bravely stood up to their fellow fraternity brother who hijacked the presidency of the country for more than twenty years. As if their participation which is highly suspect was the turning point in the people’s ultimate rejection of the Marcos regime, thus leading to the restoration of democratic rights, albeit in their most basic form.
It is common for the powerful to write history, according to American author and cultural critic Greil Marcus. He said that “events that do not change into power or that take place outside of the normal circuits in which power is exchanged, outside of the institutional distribution and control of social goods – such events, in certain ways, do not make history at all. They are resistant to history, because history does not know how to account for them, and history resists them, because it can get away with it.”
This is true in the case of traditional and bourgeois interpretation of history, or of Philippine history, for that matter. Accounts of the 1896 Philippine revolution and the ensuing Filipino-American War from 1899 to 1902 focused on the exploits of so-called leaders and less on the contributions of ordinary folks and soldiers who had remained both faceless and nameless throughout the armed conflict that resulted in more than 20,000 Filipino deaths. The name of Emilio Aguinaldo was mentioned in most of these accounts perhaps by well above a significant number of times than Andres Bonifacio who was acclaimed the leader of the Philippine revolution. Naturally so because in the context of power and social status, Bonifacio was illiterate and was born to a poor family. Whereas Aguinaldo was educated and a member of the landed gentry.
During the resistance against Japan, General Douglas MacArthur and the US military were remembered as the significant personalities in the liberation of the Philippines, with little highlight given to the Hukbalahap and Filipino guerrilla movement. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Filipinos died during the Japanese occupation, yet written history glossed over this fact and focused most entirely on the return of General MacArthur during the liberation period as a bigger than life hero.
The same is true with the expulsion of the dictator Marcos in 1986. After the downfall of the dictatorship, glowing accounts were written about the martyrdom of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. and some members of his UP fraternity, singling out their supposed objection to the repressive rule of their fraternity brother. Except for the assassination of Senator Aquino who was Marcos’s formidable political opponent at that time, the alleged contributions of the rest or other members of their college fraternity in disposing Marcos were overrated and perhaps simply the handiwork of the Philippine media which they had great influence over.
The German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin spoke of such events as an attempt to “seize hold of memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” Because such moments do not turn into history, they lose their shape, and turn into stupid self-parodies, legends, nonsense or old stories told by cranks.
The re-election of Marcos to the presidency in 1969 signaled the stirrings of a dictatorship in the making, which became apparently clear when he declared martial law three years to his second term, thus paving the way to his unchallenged stranglehold of political power. Our friend Ms. Inglesera who sang praises to the dictator’s fraternity brothers failed to mention that the said fraternity or its more famous members she singled out never led, planned, or conspired a robust and widespread challenge, whether on the streets or the illegal underground. It was left to national democratic organizations which were declared subversive and illegal associations at the time to plant the seeds of resistance that culminated in the 1987 EDSA Revolution. Here again was another historical anomaly – the people’s success in driving the dictator out of the country was snatched by the powerful oligarchs and their friends in big business and newly-minted allies in the military establishment.
In writing about the history of the people’s resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, ignorance of things past seems to be the easier tendency, thus sustaining the earlier argument made by Marcus that power writes history. That is exactly what Ms. Inglesera did, by cherry-picking on better-known personalities of the time who incidentally were members of a leading UP fraternity and intentionally ignoring the nameless but true heroes of the revolution.

Leaders of the Marcos opposition stage a protest march in October 1984.
I had very close friends who were killed in the prime of their youth during the oppressive years of the Marcos dictatorship, two former companions in the struggle who were recently detained in peace time by the military for sticking to their political convictions, and met hundreds of thousands of nameless fellow marchers in street rallies against Marcos, but alas they will be continually ignored and forgotten as mere part of the landscape of protests and demonstrations.
So unlike Ms. Inglesera’s favourite names from the past whom she would display in her pedestal of fame: the fateful fraternity brothers of the dictator who did nothing close to the sacrifices of the faceless genuine makers of history. Since she assumes that she is entitled to her own opinions, she can choose or name people she believes made or are making history. 
American writer and former editor of Harper’s Magazine Lewis H. Lapham wrote: “History is a work in progress, a constant writing and rewriting as opposed to museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble.” Every era changes its interpretation of the past to fit the present context. It is the task of the historian to find the facts that will prove the truths of his or her interpretation.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in On the Use and Abuse of History that while we need the services of history, we must also accept that an excess measure of history will do harm to the living. This is particularly true when talking about distortions or misunderstanding of history, in the sense of being restrained by the past in current action, which has a limiting effect on the intellect.
By deftly cataloguing her sources to puff up the deeds of the band of fraternity brothers Ms. Inglesera has chosen to pay homage to, she has fallen to the similar ploy taken by others who simply regurgitate the events of the past and nothing more. Old news, as someone would be apt to say. How we define the past, not to simply glorify a particular few we personally like and want to be on our side, is a matter of importance because it points to the future we are trying to construct.