The Binays and crude class analysis

Like many other politicians, Vice President Jejomar Binay trumpets his rise from poverty to wealth. It is a trope that ethically-challenged, and therefore also creatively-challenged, public relations people use with knee-jerk consistency.  

It is such a go-to tactic, that even the best ad agencies did not think it wrong to exaggerate a former presidential candidate's humble beginnings. He was made to look like he came from an abjectly poor background when, actually, he came from just a poor one. Or, in the case of an Erap (pal) whose slogan is that he is para sa mahirap (for the poor), he was managed to look like he was one of the masa. Erap's mistakes and boorishness were made to look charming, like the adorable naiveté of the poor cousin looked down upon by the hoity-toity rich. In truth, Erap was the errant son of a doctor who did not take advantage of his upper middle class opportunities.

Elite electoral politics

It speaks to the fact that the majority of our people are still poor and need to see something in the candidate they are voting for that relates to them. What should relate to them are programs and platforms that are pro-poor, regardless of the candidate's background. But all political parties claim to be pro-poor. There is very little emphasis and education among voters about issues and platforms. Politics in the country remains personalistic. Vote-buying and other shenanigans remain the rule of the day. Thus, people hang on to the empty hope that if the candidate does come from the poor, he will know what it is like and have their best interest at heart.

Time and again this has been proven wrong. Today's case in point, VP Binay. Binay's rags-to-riches story has been no assurance that he has not enriched himself at the expense of the poor. I can cite an endless number of additional examples. But two will do: Janet Napoles and Imelda Marcos.

Poverty and relative deprivation

Without excusing their rapaciousness, one can understand why being poor can lead to a fear of deprivation that billions of pesos, expensive jewelry, art masterpieces and large estates, cannot assuage. If the initial poverty is also coupled with a sense of relative lack (that is, the relatively rich is in your face, whether because you aspire so much to be like them or you are indeed a poor cousin being treated poorly) this can explain the caricature-like pretensions of trying to outdo the Queen of England with your own Kew Gardens.

If one of her biographies is to be believed, this is precisely what happened to Imelda. Born into the poorer side of the patrician Romualdez family, she had to live close to them as the poor relative who was dependent on their charity.

I do not know enough of VP Binay's nor Janet Napoles' life stories to know whether the toxic mix of poverty and relative deprivation marked them early in life. Perhaps their sense of relative deprivation came from watching too many movies and TV programs about the life of the rich and famous. 

Moral development

We have enough counter-examples to know that poverty need not lead to such horrible moral development. The award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” depicts a child growing up in poverty far more severe than that experienced by Imelda Marcos and Janet Napoles. But because everyone in the neighborhood was poor, this did not lead to such an extreme sense of lack. 

Even more remarkably, there are real life stories of those who grew up in both relative deprivation and poverty who still really manage to end up with a strong sense of self-worth and altruism. The way our political system works, they are less likely to be rich nor in politics.

We also have enough counter-examples to know that people who grew up in relative privilege can end up disgusted with class inequity. In politics they are the ones who are able to use their educational advantages towards pro-poor social policies.

Which leads me back to the story of Jejomar Binay. His wife Elenita Binay is a doctor. Strangely enough for a public person, I couldn't find her biodata or short biography on the Internet. So I need to assume the common profile of those who are able to go to medical school. She is likely to have grown up middle class at the very least. If one believes the allegations of the Senate investigation as I do, I cannot but be truly astounded by her. There is no reason for it. It cannot be explained in my mind, other than by a failure in moral development.

Crude class analysis

This is not a treatise against what the communists call, “class analysis.” The poor indeed have very different interests from the wealthy and need to organize in order to fight for their well-being in a system skewed towards the privileges of the elite. It is however a criticism of crude applications of political theory that end up in a populism co-opted by corrupt politicians and unscrupulous public relations practitioners. 

It does little service for the poor if their aspirations for empowerment are harnessed by these cheap attempts at self-aggrandizement. At least in my book, the next time I see yet another politician appeal to my pro-poor sympathies by his or her rags-to-riches story, I will take it with a large dose of cynicism. I will remind myself of that joke that many self-made men and women often fall completely in love with their maker.

In the meantime, I suggest that the Binays' evocation of their class origins doesn't speak well of him or his family. It speaks instead of class betrayal in the case of the Vice President. Or, in the case of his wife, sheer, inexplicable greed. -