Does The Philippines Have A Dick?

by Ben Kritz
31 October 2007

I guess I don't have quite the same sense of moral outrage that some other people have about corruption among government officials. I can't help it; I grew up in Chicago, where corruption is a form of government. My early years saw the benevolent dictatorship of The Honorable Richard J. Daley, a mean, ugly bastard who was so crooked he probably needed a corkscrew to get out of bed in the morning. Big Dick had his critics, but for the most part he was wildly adored by the common people of our fair city. That's because he never forgot that there were more of them than there were of his cabal of political appointees, shady union bosses, Mafiosos, and sleazy Aldermen, and he saw to it that the regular people would continue to see a reason to keep him in office. The streets got plowed promptly when the snow fell, the trash was picked up, and his largesse toward ordinary folks who needed a helping hand -- a job, help with medical bills, a little money to buy the kids proper shoes for school -- was legendary.

Of course it wasn't free; sometimes the return of favor was stated -- "Vote for Alderman So-and-So in the next election. And tell your friends." And if one actually believed their vote was secret and tried to go their own way, well.... Suffice to say they'd get an unpleasant visit from someone later on. Most of the time, though, the quid pro quo was just understood. Mayor Daley ran everything that way. The various Mafia families (Italian and Irish) got all the contracts for things like garbage pickup, street plowing, and most of the public works construction projects. In return, they were expected to get the work done, keep peace with one another, and keep the Spics, Coons, and other assorted petty criminals from making trouble. The police were permitted to handle things their own way as well, provided law and order (at least Hizzoner's definition of it, which most of the city agreed with anyway) was maintained. My father taught me the proper procedure for buying my way out of a traffic ticket (keep a $50 bill folded up behind your driver's license), a tradition that, despite protests to the country from officials with a guilty conscience, still exists. Mayor Daley had no problem with letting that sort of thing slide, but the police were expected to put the extra income incentive and the time they saved to work by doing important things, like catching robbers or busting the heads of disruptive protestors.

Richard J. Daley was mayor for 21 years, from 1955 to 1976. He only left office when he died. His son, Richard M. Daley, was elected mayor in 1989, after the city went through a couple experiments -- Mike Bilandic, Jane Byrne, and Harold Washington -- of "reform," with mixed results. By the time Little Dick's current term expires in 2011, he will have been mayor for slightly longer than his father. Old-timers say he's not quite what the Old Man was -- he doesn't yell as much, for one thing -- but on the face of things, it's the good old days all over again. Competitive bidding for contracts is an oxymoron; so is the term "civil rights" as far as the police are concerned. Once in a while a loud minority or some crusading investigative journalists will rail about some payoffs or other assorted irregularities in the way Little Dick's machine does business, and Daley handles it just the way he was taught: if he can't shut them up, some disposable functionary or embarrassing Alderman will be hung out to dry, and the controversy goes away.

And what is the result of all this? The city is cleaner and safer. The infamous public housing projects of Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, two suburbs of Hell Itself, are long gone, their residents largely integrated into the community. Little Dick was voted the Best Mayor of America's five largest cities by Time magazine in 2005, and Chicago is in the running to host the Olympic Games in 2016. The completely dysfunctional mockery of democracy that is the political system in Chicago found, in Father and Son, a way to work for most everyone's benefit. The only reason they could pull it off is because the Daleys are regular folks from the West Side, who people can relate to on a personal level, and who can understand what people expect from their government. Ordinary folks could give a rat's ass about the integrity of the system, so long as they feel safe in their neighborhood, there's food on the table, their kids can go to school, and the trains run on time.

So now I find myself in the Philippines, where, halfway around the world from where I started, I see the antithesis of the city I grew up in. Like Chicago, the "democratic system" of the Philippines is a complete farce: So broken it probably can't be fixed, and rotten at its very foundations because of the very nature of the electorate, who understandably have more immediate and personal things to worry about. And like Chicago, the Philippines is ruled by a leader and a class of people perverting the structure of government as they see fit, getting rich in the process and securing their positions for life. But unlike Chicago, there is no good result from all this. People go hungry, die from diseases eradicated in other parts of the world generations ago, choke on pollution clogging air, land, and water, send their children to decrepit schools to learn from 30-year-old textbooks, and hold on to the desperate hope that maybe they'll die soon and get to Heaven while they still have their looks, or if not, maybe one of their relatives will get a job mopping floor in Singapore.

The difference is not necessarily in the politicians, it is in the people. People in Chicago have always been willing to sacrifice democratic idealism, so long as they felt the corrupt despot they were putting into office was one of their own. People in the Philippines, by contrast, never champion one of their own. They put one movie star into the highest office in the land already, and almost did it again in 2004. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest they actually succeeded even then, but were only thwarted by the machinations of Gloria Arroyo and her backers.

Arroyo had the resume to be President, unlike her hapless opponent in 2004, but her chances of saving the Philippine people from themselves were doomed from the start. She was never "one of the regular folks"; the daughter of a political dynasty at the top of the social heap and educated overseas, the only people who can relate to her are the fortunate few in her own class. And having chosen a career path that did not involve dancing, singing, or making lollipop TV and movie dramas, poor Gloria never paved a bridge across the social divide with the hearts and minds of fans like others have done. So she remains the despised outsider to all but a small number of her countrymen. Unable, by dint of heredity, to understand how to keep the teeming millions happy and quiet, and otherwise unacceptable because she doesn't dance, sing, play basketball, or discuss her current romantic relationship on the evening news, all she's got is her turn in the big chair for a few years and a chance to make the most of it while it lasts.

There are two ways out of this mess. Either the country has a wholesale change of attitude towards its system of government and fills the Executive and Legislative branches with qualified, ethical, and committed public servants willing to work within the rules for the eventual common good. Or it finds itself a Pinoy version of Dick Daley -- someone who decides the immediate needs of 85 million souls are more important than the system and realizes that, if he gets them on his side in a way that really makes a lasting difference in their lives they'll probably be happy for him if he gets rich off it.

The chance of finding 275 Thomas Jeffersons that can convince the people to elect them in order to follow the first option seems pretty slim. A lot of countries who have been in the democracy game a lot longer than the Philippines haven't even come close to that ideal yet, and there's little reason to hope it can be realized here within the next few generations. So maybe it's time to stop trying to fix everything all at once, and start asking a different question: Does the Philippines have a Dick? If you're out there somewhere, stand up. Your country needs you.

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