+++ Barry Edelson: The Pursuit of Worldliness | The Fall and Rise of Imelda Marcos

by Barry Edelson


Does the Shoe Still Fit?

The Fall and Rise Imelda Marcos


It is a sight one did not want, nor expect, to ever see again: Imelda Marcos, one of the last century's leading poster children of corruption and self-indulgence, celebrating a victory in the Philippine elections last week. A person with even the tiniest shred of decency would have contented herself to live out her remaining days quietly and lavishly upon the millions stolen from the Philippine people by her husband, the late dictator of cursed memory. But if there is one thing missing from the Marcos family gene pool, which includes two of the shoe-queen's children who were also elected to office a few days ago, it is a sense of decency.

In a democracy, even one as young and fragile as that of the Philippines, it ought to be every citizen's right to rehabilitate her reputation and that of her family in the court of public opinion. It is another matter entirely to allow individuals who were convicted in open court of looting the public treasury to again hold public office, and that it is not simply illegal for such a thing to happen is regrettable, to put it mildly. It is hardly surprising that a woman with the boundless narcissism of Imelda Marcos would feel no constraint about seeking the congressional seat once held by her husband. But what is truly disheartening, if not exactly shocking, is the continuing adulation for the Marcos dynasty by many of her countrymen.

Why is it that some people are drawn to charming rogues like flies to a dreadful odor? It is a phenomenon that seems to afflict all societies, suggesting a human failing that transcends culture. It is not difficult to understand from the perspective of naked self-interest: if you attach yourself like a vassal to a certain politician, and that politician goes on to reach high office, then it stands to reason that you will gain personally from his grasp of power. For the average person in the street, on the other hand, who stands to gain little or nothing from the victory of one public person versus another, and whose country has perhaps been demonstrably harmed by the ascension of a favored despot, there is no conscious reason for anyone to feel a personal sense of satisfaction and even joy at the success of some self-serving bastard. Are the few crumbs scattered by the ruling classes for the hoi polloi really sufficient to sustain not only their loyalty, but also their love and admiration? Is attaching oneself psychologically to the fate of a powerful person any different, or any deeper, than being an undying fan of a sports franchise, whose success or failure is likewise of no intrinsic value? Perhaps we ought not to underestimate the enduring power of feudalism, which persists throughout human society even in this supposedly democratic era.

In his landmark book, "Making Democracy Work", Robert Putnam uses Italy as an example of how societies with historically feudal structures are nearly impossible to change. He demonstrated that the effectiveness of, and public regard for, the country's contemporary regional governments can be traced directly to pre-existing social conditions. When he overlaid the map of Italy's regions one thousand years ago on the map of Italy today, he found that it is almost exactly the same: in the northern regions, with a long history of city-states and active civic engagement, whose citizens formed guilds and other kinds of "horizontal" integration, modern government is most useful and most used by its citizens. In the south, with a very different history of central authority and "vertical" social integration, in which people were not citizens but subjects to kings and feudal lords, regional government is seen as irrelevant to daily life and is consequently more corrupt and ineffectual. Predictably, the center of the country once ruled by the Papal states is not just geographically but politically somewhere in between the two extremes.

Putnam's book, built on meticulously collected information, is a subtle warning about the likely success of nation building. Ordinary people the world over may share a desire to live without government interference, but unless their society affords them actual means of seeking their own paths, their aspirations are worthless. Entrenched social structures take generations to changes. Even violent revolutions are unable to shake a culture of its essence. Witness modern Russia, which endured the largest and most brutal experiment yet attempted to transform a civilization at every level, but which emerged, after 70 years, as quintessentially Russian as it was before the Bolsheviks got their blood-stained hands on it. Ironically, one of the features that survived intact was a predilection for authoritarian rule. As much as the beleaguered inheritors of the collapsed Soviet empire imagine they would like to live in a free nation, they no more possess the social values necessary to create a true democracy than they did in 1917.

What little most of us know of the culture of the Philippines, apart from our reading, comes from the testimony of ex-patriate nannies and housekeepers who work for family and friends, and from anodyne reports from organizations like Save the Children, which paint an unsurprisingly rosy picture of the progress they are making against poverty and ignorance. The mere fact that so many thousands of women from the Philippines are compelled to seek employment in the United States and elsewhere, and that nongovernmental organizations have such a strong presence there, is an indication that much of the population remains abysmally poor. The Philippines is also overwhelmingly Catholic, a faith which has a less than stellar track record in the realm of social progress. Poverty alone is not always a predictor of political or economic backwardness (consider the rapidly developing parts of modern India, for example), but poverty combined with a social system that hinders, rather than encourages, social mobility is often doomed to perpetuate its misery generation upon generation. It is no accident that tyrants go to extraordinary measures to keep their subjects ignorant and poorly educated, and that one of the first tasks of any self-respecting dictatorship is to seize control of all channels of communication.

For a literary example, read Heinrich Böll's story "The Balek Scales". It is about a poor boy in a rural village in Bohemia at the turn of the 20th century, one of "a race of long-suffering, cheerful people", who quite by accident discovers that the scales used by the local lord to weigh the flax by which most of the villagers make their living, as well as quantities of other plants collected by the peasants and bought by the manor, is rigged. The cheating goes back so many generations that the people are unable to calculate the full extent of the injustice committed against them. The heavy hand of the local gendarmes prevents the villagers from rising up, forces the boys' family into exile, and ensures that nothing of substance will change — except the peaceful, finely balanced relationship between the villagers and their masters, which is destroyed forever. The reader is left to ponder the uncomfortable question of whether knowledge in every case is truly superior to blissful ignorance. We are also led to understand that breaking the social forces that bind the people to their leaders is never a simple matter, and is seldom achieved without dislocation and violence.

Societies are not monolithic and can often demonstrate conflicting qualities, as evidenced by the strong presidential victory of Benigno Aquino III. It is surely a positive sign that, while Imelda's presumably conservative district sent her to the House of Representatives, the nation as a whole overwhelmingly chose the son of her family's nemesis, the new president's late mother and ex-president Corazón Aquino, to rule the country. For the last nine years the presidency has been held by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who appears to possess all the charm of a hydraulic drill, which may also be a positive sign that the Philippine people are not entirely susceptible to personality cults. But the re-emergence of the Marcos family in the public life of their country is also a warning that the struggle for good government is never-ending, and that the forces of reaction, however discredited, are never so deeply buried in any society that they cannot rear their ugly heads at any time.

May 16, 2010


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