Column: The limits of outrage

Published on December 4, 2007

Not content with the damage Antonio Trillanes et al. caused last Thursday, Malacañang issued orders to detain some (but, crucially, not all) of the journalists who covered the caper. The resulting controversy was like ramming a tank into the country’s various newsrooms; it invited public outrage and international condemnation, at the exact moment the administration found itself in a position to claim an unusual, because unalloyed, victory.

But the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo overreacted in cuffing journalists and imposing a curfew — forcing the President, on the eve of her departure for Europe, to remind her alter egos “not [to] unnecessarily rile the media at this point in time.”

To be sure, there is logic to the paranoia. The administration is testing the limits of the people’s capacity for resistance. It is essential that we push back.

* * *

I was guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Manila on the day Trillanes decided to play (ineptly) for all the marbles. Naturally, the possibility of popular support for Trillanes and company was a topic of discussion.

As it happens, I had decided to speak on “the limits of outrage,” in an attempt to read current public opinion on corruption. I wanted to know the answer to a question I thought was all too often assumed in political scenario-building: Will public disgust over corruption unseat President Arroyo? In other words: Will outrage lead to ouster?

* * *

I have been tracking what I then called the “outrage gap” since the “Hello, Garci” scandal exploded. My first post in my Newsstand blog, written on July 4, 2005, raises a question about the relationship between public outrage as measured by surveys, and protests in the streets.

* * *

At the Rotary Club of Manila forum, I studied three surveys. It was important, of course, to start right, with something that approaches Cartesian certitude. I started with the hypothesis that the public today shares the sense that “corruption is at its worst.” I began with anecdotal evidence: the sense that, especially since the disclosure of the distribution of “cash gifts” in Malacañang, public forums and private conversations have been shaped by growing disgust over all-pervading corruption.

And then I looked to the surveys for confirmation. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy 2007 survey (admittedly requiring a leap back in time) shows the Philippines faring the worst among 13 economies. This is the survey (again, admittedly of a very select public: expatriates doing business in Asia) that, taken somewhat out of context, gave the opposition a rallying cry in the last election. But why was it such an effective rallying point? Because it captured so-called conventional wisdom. The June 2007 survey by the poll group Social Weather Stations (SWS) also showed that, on the issue of graft and corruption, an almost-majority of voting-age Filipinos said they were dissatisfied with the Arroyo administration’s performance. Only a bare third said they were satisfied.

* * *

These numbers, if we equate public dissatisfaction with public outrage, will give pause to any politician with a weak stomach or weaker appetite. But as it turns out, the numbers are not as damning over the longer term. The same SWS survey shows that the net satisfaction rating on the administration’s handling of graft and corruption (-18 in June 2007) was actually worse in September 2006 (-30). In other words, there has been a cooling in public opinion (or at least the results allow us to say that).

In fact, the cooling pattern is some 20 years old. SWS reports that public opinion on government’s handling of graft and corruption traditionally begins at a (relatively) high level with every administration, and then declines over the administration’s term.

That brings us to the present. In its October 2007 survey, the poll group Pulse Asia found that a majority of voting-age Filipinos identified various graft and corruption issues as reason enough for a president to resign. (I have a little problem with this part of the survey, but I think the main thrust is indisputable.) When asked what action they were willing to take to force the resignation of a president linked to graft and corruption, however, only a quarter said they were willing to take to the streets. About the same number said they were willing to do something beyond street protests.

There, as that little Shakes-scene taught us to say, is the rub. Outrage over corruption is not what brings people to the streets. It prepares the public, and it leads to defeat of the incumbent at the ballot box. But EDSA People Power I in 1986 was not so much about corruption as about election fraud; EDSA People Power II in 2001 was about the hijacking of the impeachment process.

Rotarian Nick Locsin summarized my point succinctly: We are not insensitive to corruption, but we are used to it. The lesson for regime-changers: Corruption scandals do not prematurely bring down an administration, but proof of something else entirely — brazen fraud, gross impunity, lewd dancing in the halls of the Senate.

* * *

Allow me to remember a friend who died a most unexpected death last month. Emoy Gorgonia was a poet of possibility, with a gift for locating the positive in any situation. He was also the most gifted, among all the people I know, at the art of romance; he knew the stagecraft of courtship, of wooing, intimately. Indeed, some of his “gimmicks” are legend to his students and mine, back when we were teaching in Xavier University. That these were as collaborative as plays, that they depended on other people for their style and wit, is a tribute to his talent for working with people, and imbuing them with, yes, the sense of possibility.



Filed under Newsstand: Column

5 responses to “Column: The limits of outrage

  1. JOHN:Warning from the past!

    “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”Joseph Goebbels

  2. We are not insensitive to corruption, but we are used to it –> how sad..

  3. reacting to this post

    first of all, what’s the point of the CPR if the Arroyo did not think the administration’s in danger of being toppled via people power at the peak of the Hello Garci scandal in 2005?

    you mistake the admin’s successful implementation of CPR and media intimidation (they were scared into NOT playing the tapes on tv) to the people not willing to use people power vs. Arroyo. so if we follow your logic, then the people of burma never really supported the monks because they allowed the beatings and military’s extreme crowd control measures to happen. Which means if we don’t see anymore protest rallies vs. Burma any time soon, it only shows the burmese silent majority would rather be governed by the junta, yes?

    for something similar, check out what happened to belarus too and their attempts at PP.

    and NO, ZTE is not in the same league as Hello gArci, no matter what some people think about it. heck, even the confident arroyo allowed it’s officials to testify on ZTE (in order to throw abalos under the bus). Sa hello garci, it’s EO 464 since 2005.

    second, you said:

    “The lesson for regime-changers: Corruption scandals do not prematurely bring down an administration, but proof of something else entirely — brazen fraud, gross impunity, lewd dancing in the halls of the Senate.”

    if we look at the surveys, majority of the people did not want erap to step down when juetengate surfaced, if you look at the polls back in 2000.

    but the middle class were, and they were united then. + the church. and i was also surprised that the 2000 surveys indicate erap was still more popular than all the opposition leaders, in spite of juetengate.

    so what the surveys (since 2000) really tell us is this. many of those who participated in edsa dos and wanted erap gone did so NOT because erap was corrupt or abusive, but because frankly–THEY DON’T LIKE HIM. these are the SAME PEOPLE who defend arroyo even though her administration IS more corrupt, IS more abusive, and the COMELEC and MILITARY are MORE politicized than the previous one.

    to simplify, “we don’t like erap. but we like arroyo. she’s one of us.”

    third. you are right na the opposition made a mistake in suspending and deprioritizing the ZTE investigation.

    i put the blame mostly on Villar’s feckless and compromised leadership in the senate.

  4. A question that seems to be on everybody’s mind these days turns out to be: Is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo the worst President in recent history?

    (A recent informal, unscientific poll of this blog’s viewers found that 80% of votes cast for “Worst President” rate the current presidency as a very serious contender for the dubious title.)

    But how do you judge? Is she really the most morally disgusting? Have we as a people forgotten and/or forgiven the terrible transgressions of some of her recent predecessors in the Presidential seat in Malacanang?

    Objectively, isn’t Ferdinand Marcos the most worthy candidate for worst President? Maybe the young have no memory of the brutal years of martial law regime, his silencing the free press, his dictatorial control, the imprisonment, torture, murder and disappearance of thousands and his shameless plunder of the nation’s treasury.

    Don’t we at least remember Marcos’ partner in the “Conjugal Dictatorship”? Maybe her pathetic look these days is deemed by our people good enough punishment for a woman whose beauty was legendary decades ago.

    How about Gloria’s most recent presidential predecessor? Isn’t Erap, our unlucky 13th president, another more worthy candidate for the worst President? Just three months ago, the Sandiganbayan finally gave its decision, finding Joseph guilty of plunder “beyond reasonable doubt” and sentenced to “Reclusión perpetua.”

    Maybe our people think that he has already been punished enough. After all, he served more than six years in detention — six years and six months to be exact. First in an air-conditioned suite at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City, and then at his own well-appointed rest house in Tanay town, outside Manila. (Of course, Erap was quickly pardoned by Gloria.)

    This brings us to Gloria. It’s still too early to tell, but if the current signs mean anything, she has got a lot to answer for.

    How could so many scandals of an elected (?) president and her cadre remain unexplained, unchallenged, and unpunished? When? Probably never.

    We’re not talking mistakes, here. We’re not talking poor judgment or failed policies. We’re not talking politics as usual, with its underhanded array of pork and perks. But we are talking about very serious violations of the public trust, and very possibly the law, perpetrated by the elected (?) leader of this nation and her handlers.

    Even more amazingly, we are talking about the shameful reality that not a single one of these offenses has been investigated by a truly independent, non-political, neutral commission, armed with subpoena powers and adequate funding, and answerable ONLY to the people of Philippines. Not a single one.

    What ever happened to the investigation of?

    * The National Power Corp. (Napocor) -CPK-Kalayaan rehabilitation project.
    * The race horse importation fiasco.
    * The overpriced Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard exposé.
    * Misuse of the fertilizer funds.
    * The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. scandals.
    * The jueteng scandals.
    * The ZTE-NBN scandal (“Buck off!”).
    * The Bribery of Governors and Congressmen in Malacanang.
    * The MOTHER of ALL SCANDALS: THE HELLO GARCI Mega Scandal that influenced the last Presidential elections.
    * The Extra-Judicial Killings of Activists as reported by the United Nations special raporteur on human rights.

    * And many more…

    One of the criteria for being worst is how much lasting damage the President did. The dictator Ferdinand Marcos for instance, did more than words can convey. With Gloria, the historical reckoning is yet to be made.
    Let history judge her.

  5. A question that seems to be on everybody’s mind these days turns out to be: Is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo the worst President in recent history?

    A recent informal, unscientific poll of The EQualizer’s blog’s viewers found that 80% of votes cast for “Worst President” rate the current presidency as a very serious contender for the dubious title.

    Poll Results:

    Marcos:11 votes(13%)

    Ramos:18 votes (21%)

    Estrada:8 votes(9%)

    Arroyo:67 votes (80%)

    total Votes:83

    Note:voters allowed multiple answers.

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