The Long View: Pulped fictions


Pulped fictions


Public opinion killed Ramon Ang’s plans to cover the Pasig River in toll-producing concrete. Or, to be precise, enough groups expressed themselves to turn it into a losing proposition. The latest surveys by reputable survey firms on Charter change may be enough to derail the latest Cha-cha effort, but it is worth examining the difference between the two. Public opinion was unable to stop Ang’s previous effort much as it erased historical Paco from the map; the middle-class demand for mobility cheered it on. Ironically, the success of his previous tollways may have reduced the Pasig River scheme to a tollway too far.

The visuals provided in support of the Pasig River tollway may have been the instrument of its eventual mercy killing. It showed enough to terrify its eventual critics but not enough to rally its supporters. But it was definitely enough to spark debate, with both sides claiming to have a clear picture of what was potentially at stake.

The most recent surveys, on the other hand, are the latest in a 30-plus-year series of snapshots that have remained fundamentally, and shockingly, unchanged over the same period. Each snapshot is of a profoundly ignorant population, one which is equally fundamentally incompetent to answer the question repeatedly asked of it: Do you support or oppose proposals to amend the Constitution?

In every snapshot, that is, in every survey, when asked about how much they know about the Constitution, the answer is, across the board whether based on age or affluence or education, what the public knows is at best next to nothing and in the main, too little to count as anything but overall ignorance. Therefore, rich or poor, male or female, urbanite or rural dweller, educated or not, what the Filipino feels is hostility to any proposal to change—what they neither understand nor have an informed opinion about.

Neither the schools nor the media, neither the politicians who claim to lead nor civil society which claims to act on discernment, have had any measurable impact on the pervasive picture of national ignorance. A debate that comes and goes with ferocious regularity then has obviously created much heat and little light; in other words, the effects of the sincere debating both sides of each question and the resources lavished by the insincere who simply wanted to win by pulling one over the gullible eyes of the public, have barely dented our ignoramus national condition, for that is what it is.

Considering the powers that be have gotten as far as they have, without the benefit of public support, it says a lot that when reputable survey firms have revealed more of the same (public hostility born of ignorance), a loss of nerve seems to be the result. When congressmen point to less (if not totally dis-) reputable surveys to try to blunt the effect of the reputable ones, you know panic has set in. And yet the reputable surveys, in the form they’ve been released to the public anyway, do not answer the logical next question to ask. You may oppose any and all proposals for Cha-cha, but what are you prepared to do about it? Will you, say, rally in the streets? Will you vote “no” in a plebiscite?

That’s the real question and one that could only be asked in the present, post-people power era, after the extinction of the event removing the Aquinos’ position of guarantor and guardian of our once-upon-a-time newly restored democracy. As Rodrigo Duterte discovered last February in Cebu (and early on in his presidency with the collapse into a parody of his so-called Duterte Youth), once you banish people power you cannot revive it, it won’t even come back as a zombie of its former living self. If there can’t be a parliament of the streets to deliver a no-confidence vote on incumbent administrations, what is to stop incumbent administrations from demonstrating “political will”?

The ghostly rebuke of public opinion, it seems. The machine is willing but the spirit has been proven weak. As a plebiscitary democracy, the ultimate survey is, of course, an election, but in the absence of one, the surveys remain king though not every survey is born equal. We still trust the familiar, the long-lived—the ones with some sort of track record. Most of all, we prefer the familiarity of that which we neither fully know nor understand to attempt to do otherwise.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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