PH politics and the evanescence of shame

PH politics and the evanescence of shame Featured

They, of all the people, know the true nature of scandal. Many of them have faced it; many have emerged unscathed. Some have gone into hiding, only to come back famous. Some have been accused, and even convicted, of the most vicious crimes, only to return to the highest echelons of power. The people, fickle as the Paris mob during the French Revolution, have spurned them, only to eventually welcome them with open arms.

The tenacity with which our politicians have survived and thrived speaks not merely of their character but also of ourselves as a nation. Ours is the power of the vote, but why is it that Election Days never become days of reckoning for our politicians, the days when we call them to account for alleged misdeeds and past (mis)conduct? If our political scandals are as riveting and entertaining as thriller movies, how come we never demand that we watch the ending?

Consider the case of Juan Ponce Enrile. One of Ferdinand Marcos’ top henchmen, he by his own admission participated in a fake ambush that served as one of the pretexts for the declaration of martial law. For many years he was minister of defense, and it was only when support for the dictatorship was eroding that he finally disavowed his being among the privileged “Rolex 12” and went on to become an “Edsa hero.” By the time Cory Aquino was inaugurated president, many Filipinos had forgiven—and forgotten—his role in the atrocities that necessitated the Edsa Revolution in the first place.

But it was just the first act in Enrile’s long political life. Barely a year after the restoration of democracy, he began to figure in a series of coup attempts against Cory Aquino that hobbled the nation’s attempts to crawl back from political and economic instability. Years later, he would be among the senators who blocked the release of the second envelope during President Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial, and by May 2001, he had become so unpopular that he couldn’t even win a Senate seat.

But three years later he was back in the Senate, and he would even go to become a Senate president—an admired elder wearing the robes of a presiding officer in Chief Justice Renato Corona’s own impeachment trial. Today, amid fresh allegations of corruption, his political life continues to unfold, his advanced age his surest defense against further incarceration. Like his role in martial law, his involvement in the many coup attempts and scandals would likely remain an unsolved mystery.

Of course, we have the example of the Marcoses themselves. When Bongbong ran for the Senate in 1995, he decisively lost, placing 16th in a field led by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—then the darling of the public. Neither could fifth-placer Imelda win as president in 1992. Indeed, when the memories of martial law were still fresh, the Marcoses couldn’t win in the national elections. But by 2010, Bongbong had become a victor, winning an impressive 13 million votes to land him in the Senate, like his father before him. In his bid for the vice presidency, he would gain an even greater following, and today he is viewed as a leading contender in the next presidential election.

Their alleged misdeeds have been forgotten, and like the proverbial masamang damo, our politicians themselves have survived, often as bedfellows of the people who persecuted them, sometimes as the persecutors of their bedfellows past. Longevity, as it turns out, is better than righteousness.

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Today we are rightfully interested in Sen. Leila de Lima and Edgar Matobato, but we seem to have forgotten Janet Lim Napoles and Joc-Joc Bolante. The Ampatuan massacre, one of the most atrocious crimes to ever have happened in our country, is now a distant memory. We debate over who are destabilizing the country at the moment, but we have forgotten those who destabilized us in the past; we have even rewarded some of our most notorious putschists with Senate seats. When we see Joseph Estrada, we no longer see President Erap alias Jose Velarde, plunder convict, but the jolly mayor who contemplates how best to solve Manila’s traffic woes. When we see GMA, we no longer greet her with “Hello, Garci!” but address her as Madame Deputy Speaker.

Some of them may well be innocent of some, if not all, of the things of which they were accused; we must not underestimate the efficacy of “black propaganda.” But we will never know because investigations are never concluded; they merely fade away into oblivion. Probably because they were never true, to begin with. Or probably because they were true—and hence there was an effort to hide them. We will never know.

We will never know, because we are no longer interested to know. We will never know because we have forgotten why we wanted—and needed—to know. And because an eternity has passed between then and now, it is too late to know what truly happened. Like the fragments of a dinosaur bone that can never definitively settle the question of whether the prehistoric animal had feathers, what remains of the truth of the past, if at all it is excavated, is subject to interpretation and debate, a matter of opinion, contingent on today’s prevailing knowledge.

And this explains, at least in part, why our politicians can get away with anything and everything. They know the electorate too well. In a nation without memory, they understand—and take full advantage of—some of the principles that govern our political processes: the evanescence of shame, the frailty of truth, and the virtue of power.

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Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.


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