Corruption Began With The Elite

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

A Chinese philosopher once said, “Men cannot see their reflections in running water, only in still water.”

In the English dictionary, there is an idiom that goes, “Running around like a headless chicken.”

And Carl Rogers, an influential American psychologist of the 20th century admitted, “The curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am, I can change.”

There are countless more sayings from men and women wiser that most of us are, from saints and gurus, from masters and teachers, and most of all, from our own elders, especially parents who turn grandparents, sayings trying to say the same thing.

The issue is change. The challenge is how to.

It seems that the usual flavor of Philippine society, at least among those who try to be heard, is about how bad things are and that there should be change. Change, invariably, is political in nature. When the issue is what is wrong about governance, when the issue is about corruption, when the issue is about abuse of power, or even about the stupidity of those in high positions and the laziness or inefficiency of the bureaucracy, those who make critical commentaries mostly have no qualifications themselves, not from expertise nor from track record.

There was a time when news was news, but it is hard to remember when.

Journalism was a noble profession, the gathering and editing of information for presentation through media. The nobility was both in the intent and the execution. Somehow, news was then believed to have the higher purpose of informing different public audiences and, consequently, give them better basis for understanding and decision-making. And in the presentation of news, truth, factuality or objectivity was primordial.

But then, again, news was accepted as public service first and foremost. Its professional practitioners could earn if their publications or broadcasting companies were stable financially, but it was never a profession that could make those involved in it rich. Oh, yes, there were exceptions, but they were clearly exceptions.

Profit and public service, though, are strange bedfellows that usually and quickly become estranged. Profit is not primarily concerned with public service, it is concerned with itself as the bottom line. In other words, when public service is not profitable as a business, the business collapses, or the public service is subordinated to the requirements of profit. The priority between profit and public service dictates what will never be sacrificed in case conflict of interest arises.

So it is with the issue of change. When changed is demanded in the political field, whether it relates to corruption or the mismanagement of power, the nature is clearly collective. Many miss that fact that in a situation of extended wrongdoing in democratic or representative governments, change takes on a collective nature. Even though specific personalities can be targeted, the higher in the totem pole they are, they could not have practiced their corruption or abuse without an environment primed to collaborate. Janet Napoles is a prime example. She could never have succeeded if the culture of corruption had not been there before her, and quite dominant at that.

Corruption cannot become a defining feature of Philippine society if Filipinos, those who count by influence or are dominant numerically, had not tolerated it, or even aided and abetted it. Corruption does not become a social cancer unless it is societal in scope. The acceptance of corruption has to be high before it can become a subculture. And I wish to point out that corruption has had to be initiated by the ruling class, largely tolerated by the noncorrupt in the ruling class, before it can trickle down to those who have less influence and value in a society with severe gaps between the few rich and the many poor.

If we can take a few moments of quiet and reflect on the noise out there, it is not coming from the majority poor; and it is not coming from the youth either. The finger-pointing, the belligerent rhetoric, the holier-than-though posture of critics, all these come from the higher echelon of society. The growth of the Internet, especially the entry into it by OFWs and their families, has great impact in allowing those who used to be poor and quiet to express themselves as well. However, they are in social media but keep mostly to family and social interests.

In other words, where corruption began and grew until most of Philippine society became infected by it is also where the most noisy recrimination against corruption is coming from.

It is the elite against the elite, whether they know it or not, because corruption by definition is the immoral abuse of power for personal gain. Power here means formal power, the kind that only governments can give to its officers and agents.

It is not surprising to me that the primacy of corruption as a political issue over more than six decades of Filipinos running government has not resulted in the elimination of corruption, not even in its obvious mitigation. It has been a lot of sound and fury, but really empty. It has something to do with hypocrisy or selective honesty, but maybe more about a lack of intelligence in the game of societal change.

If the sector that began corruption cannot admit it had done so, and then sustained it over these past decades, then its correction will be misdirected to those whom they influenced. Still waters mean absolute honesty to oneself and not looking at the others meanwhile. Only when we accept ourselves as we really are can there be change.

But, of course, we still have our favorite option, to run around like headless chickens, making lots of noise and doing lots of things, going nowhere, achieving nothing.


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