“SHOW-NA”: or what the Filipino love affair with power, glamor, money and politics of folksy honesty and intimidation could be telling the Church
“The difference between good and bad emperors is that the good love freedom; the bad, slavery”—St. Ambrose of Milan
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with…hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”—H.L. Mencken, “Women as Outlaws,” The Smart Set, December 1921
First came the May 13, 2019 elections. The ruling party, it seemed, was about to face a matchup against a well-tuned opposition. Then money and influence flew massively, if often dizzyingly, around the country. Those with more of this combo came away with more victories. The mammoth number of candidates for various offices was dwarfed only by the overwhelming vote-making and triumph-inducing properties of heavily moneyed influence from the high corridors of power. In the Philippines this is a surefire formula for victory. Alas, this is also fraught with political arm-twistings and compromises; worse (for the spiritually woke), this also represents fertile ground for the cultivation of politically astute but morally bankrupt decisions and actions.
Like running for an office with little preparation or qualification except ambition and “an assurance of making it” from the one on the throne. Like obliterating all opposition, no matter how more worthy, by simply buying more votes with more money. Message One: Filipino politics’ greatest influence is—unsurprisingly—not simply money or simply power but a combination of both, especially if coming from sources with links to the “one on the throne”. The basic tragedy here is that moral-spiritual principles are often sidelined. It can certainly be argued that this is also the case anywhere in truly democratic societies. This, however, is of little consolation for the Church, considering the almost 500 years of the coming of the Gospel into the Philippines. The Gospel has indeed come to our shores; but the actual political-social soil we give it is, at best, the “thorny ground” and, at worst, the “rocky road”.
Then came the tense drama of political manoeuvring for the speakership of the House of Representatives. Obviously egged on by personal ambitions, the lawmakers who engaged in a tense and potentially divisive competition for the speakership came from among the various elements of the broad coalition of elected administration politicians. They made known their unabashed interest in the most coveted office of power in the lower house of the legislature. It all seemed to be headed for an inevitable clash. But, again, the “one on the throne” settled the issue by dividing power between the speakership rivals through term-sharing and distributing the less powerful yet still juicy positions to the other battling politicians. Message Two: Highly powerful positions are potent attractions—we might even say ‘social aphrodisiacs’—for Filipinos in general and for Filipino politicians in particular; hence, the seemingly endless infighting even among allies. But when pushed from the top to behave or to give up ambition for a high office on a promise of other “rewards” (lower but juicy), they just as easily yield their ground. Better a political crumb than none.
The trouble with this political culture is that it often blurs the politician’s view of the common good in favor of personal or party interests. What matters for him/her is being in a ‘significant’ position of power and staying there or moving up higher. Even granting that the thirst for a significant position of power is motivated by a desire to serve or contribute more to social amelioration, the present political culture constantly threatens a politician’s hold on power and the approval of his constituents. In effect, while he/she may be long on rhetoric about justice and peace, he/she will be short on action just to stay in power. Even proud products of Catholic university education have been known to sell their spiritual birthright for a mess of political pottage.
Then there is also the media hype on the sensational glamor surrounding what lawmakers wear on the State of the Nation Address (SONA). Both administration and opposition figures display various shades of color and style in regard to their external attire, many drawing people to signs that point to their advocacies or eccentricities. Message Three: Even the mostly mundane world of politics has something in common with the sacramental nature of the Church. Rather than roundly condemn the lawmakers’ penchant for the glamorous—sometimes with uncooperative physical or personality attributes—still, the Church must recognize here a link between the politicians and the sacramentality of the Church. The Church has sacraments which basic theology teaches ordinary Catholics to be visible signs of invisible grace (such as the visible sign of water in Baptism that points to the invisible saving action of Jesus Christ washing the baptized of sin and initiating them to God’s life). Could not the Church be challenged by the Filipino love of glamor to raise our political leaders’ greater awareness of their basic mission to become visible signs of the invisible realities of God’s Kingdom, such as truth, freedom, justice, reconciliation and peace?
And who would ignore the most trusted leader’s narrative of the way things are in the country and why is his way the best option that serves the country’s interests for now? Except that one also notes how his folksy honesty, brutally frank at times, and even directly threatening (“Perform or I will kill you!”) relies much too heavily on intimidation rather than reason to address some of the nation’s pressing concerns, like the ever present reality of systemic corruption, the illegal drug menace, the West Philippine Sea debacle, and so on. Message Four: It appears that most Filipinos prefer their leaders to speak directly to them in a language they understand and in a manner they can respond to. With a wealth of former sweet-talking leaders of the land from the elite classes who did little to address the basic hungers, fears and anxieties of the masses, Filipinos have now made it clear that the “tough-and-action-now” leader is their most approved preference, never mind that this kind of leader also thrives on ruling through fear, rather than through rule of law or through broad consultation with his constituents to arrive at other reasonable options.
The Church does best when she, as Mother and Teacher, constantly reminds her children who happen to be political leaders to “combat injustice and oppression, arbitrary domination and intolerance by individuals or political parties, and they must do so with integrity and wisdom. They must dedicate themselves to the welfare of all in a spirit of sincerity and fairness, of love and of the courage demanded by political life” (Church in the Modern World, no. 75).
In the words of St. Augustine: “Leaders are happy (and make others happy, if I may add) if they rule justly…If justice is taken away, then what are kingdoms but great robberies?”