Column: Ideological shortcuts

Published on August 12, 2014.

Sociologist Herbert Docena’s characteristically astute reply to last week’s column is too long to fit into the Letters page; I am happy to use this space to run it in full. My comments follow:

It is always an honor to be criticized by John Nery, one of our country’s most thoughtful and most gracious columnists.

Nery accused me of taking an “ideological shortcut” in making my argument that the real difference between President Aquino and the likes of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada is that he represents the more sophisticated, because more far-sighted, factions of our ruling classes: He uses public funds not so much to directly enrich himself or his family but to indirectly enrich his clique or his entire class (“What’s the difference?” Opinion, 7/18/14).

This is because, if I understand the gist of his critique correctly, Nery thinks that I have long prejudged the President (“his conclusion came first”) and that I have since consequently disregarded any subsequent evidence to reach my conclusion.

I’ll set aside for the moment questions regarding Nery’s use of the term “ideological” (as if there are cuts—shortcuts or “longcuts”—that can be “nonideological”) and use his apparent definition of it as “fallacious” or “erroneous,” and simply ask: Does the subsequent confirmation of a previously made conclusion necessarily make that subsequent confirmation “ideological”?

If, after observation at time 1, one concludes that x=y; and if one continued observing and at time 2, made the same conclusion that, based on one’s observation between time 1 and time 2, still x=y, does that necessarily make the conclusion at time 2 fallacious or illogical just because it is a mere reiteration of a conclusion previously made?

Such conclusion could only be shown to be problematic not by saying that it repeats a conclusion previously made but by showing that the evidence and the reasoning adduced to support it are questionable or erroneous. And that, unfortunately, is not what Nery did in his column.

Nery also accused me of making a “false equivalence” without discussing at all why he thinks the equivalence is “false.”

It is also not clear to me why he titled his column, “Is there corruption without personal gain?” If by this he meant to counter my question, “Is it corruption only if there is direct personal gain?” then I’m not sure the answer he implied counters my argument because I did not at any point state or imply that President Aquino’s form of corruption was “without personal gain.”

As for his argument that the administration’s definition of corruption is backed by most Filipinos and is enshrined in the laws, of course it is. Isn’t that precisely what ideological power is all about? The power to set definitions and shape how people see the world? The question is: Who wields that power and why do they prefer the definitions they impose?

Nery prefers to define corruption by distinguishing it from patronage as “benefiting from political influence,” both of which, he agrees, should have no place in society. Setting aside for the moment whether by this Nery is implying that President Aquino is guilty of patronage but not of “corruption,” one must raise the question: Do our ruling elite really just seek “political influence” for the sake of political influence and not ultimately for “personal gain”?

As a Marxist, I have been and will no doubt continue to be accused of being “ideological”—especially by those who believe that they are somehow “post ideological” or “nonideological” because they somehow think that their worldviews are natural and that their very insistence on being “post-ideological” or “nonideological” is not in itself eminently ideological.

But here’s when I think an “ideological shortcut” is being committed: It is committed, when despite accumulating evidence contradicting one’s previously-reached conclusions, one still refuses to review and abandon that conclusion.

* * *

Many key points; I can respond to only a few. On reflection, I can see that the column title I chose did not do full justice to his commentary. Titles are imperfect compression devices; I thought “Is there corruption without personal gain?” would help set the terms of the debate and cue readers in. I had hoped that my summary of Docena’s argument in the column itself would fairly describe its provocative core: the need to redefine “personal gain.” But I see now that I could have chosen a more accurate headline, perhaps something as neutral as “Corruption and personal gain.”

Secondly: I have never thought of myself as post-ideological or nonideological; as I have had occasion to write in this same space, as a journalist I believe in a very limited sense of objectivity. The journalist can never be fully objective; only the journalistic method, properly practiced, is. This is why I have striven to be transparent about my limits; why, for instance, I write about the candidates I vote for—it is not to endorse, but to be clear about my hopes and biases. (And voting for them is no guarantee I won’t write critically of them.) My use of “ideological” to describe Docena’s reasoning was based on the perception that his conclusion (made even before President Aquino could warm his seat in 2010, repeated in his most recent commentary in 2014) was the product of a deterministic framework. Deterministic in two senses: economically (I understand his idea of class liability to be an instrumentalist-Marxist view of state power) and logically (by which I mean, the conclusion that Mr. Aquino and the entire political class is corrupt was predetermined).

Lastly, the rhetorical question I ended last week’s column with is my real objection to Docena’s pox-on-both-houses view. “Who benefits from understanding ‘personal gain’ too broadly?” The answer, sadly, is actual plunderers and grafters.

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