There is nothing in the world that cannot easily be made to look good or bad by redescription, says Richard Rorty. Just as “any fool thing can be made to seem rational by being set in an appropriate context, surrounded by a set of beliefs and desires with which it coheres.”
The enterprise of Bunny German may be viewed as a business scheme or a vile scam depending upon the context in which we choose to locate it. It is clear that there is more than one vocabulary for describing what it is. The quality called moral imagination admonishes us not to be quick in condemning, counsels us to examine the context of our own initial reactions to events, and tells us to be prepared to reweave our own profoundest beliefs when faced with descriptions that call these into question.
But nothing perhaps is more difficult than to withhold judgment. “Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands,” writes Milan Kundera in “The Art of the Novel”. So too, we tend to imagine the worst in people we do not know, people different from us, people we do not like. Most of the time, our judgments are formed by our own intractable desires, even as we dress them up as objective facts.
The first reports on Bunny German paint her as a big-time swindler who preyed on ordinary people, including her closest friends and neighbors, by manipulating their trust and misrepresenting the nature of her business. Her business transactions are described as an elaborate pyramiding operation that eventually collapsed when she could no longer recruit new victims who would lend her the money with which to pay her old investors.
The first significant thing that media highlighted about Bunny is not that she ran away with the money of her investors, but that she is the wife of Reli German, close friend and associate of Joseph Estrada, who, in turn, is constantly referred to as the man who cannot seem to stay away from bad company. The second thing mentioned by her alleged victims, which media also dutifully reported, is that Bunny had actually dropped the name of the Vice President to assure them that their investments were safe. The unstated conclusion therefore is that both Reli German and Joseph Estrada must have at least known about Bunny’s racket, if they were not themselves its prime movers.
It is easy to buy this story especially if you do not like Joseph Estrada. But if it is greedy money lenders you do not particularly like, a different narration of events might sound more credible. This is the story of Bunny, a business-minded woman married to an impractical man. Like many wives in her situation, she engaged in buying and selling to feed the family and send the children to school while her husband indulged his passion for politics. Not having enough funds of her own, she asked some of her acquaintances who were loaded with cash to put in their money, paying them generous returns for short-term placements. With luck on her side, she was soon handling placements by the millions. Her satisfied investors kept rolling their earnings and enticed their own relatives and friends to let Bunny handle their money.
But all good things come to an end. Business slowed down after the July 1997 crisis. People started to pull out their money placements to cover losses in their own businesses. Others given to panic preferred to keep their cash at home. Bunny’s business was not immune to such fluctuations. In the last few months, she has had to borrow money from her regular investors at higher than the usual interest rates just to pay off maturing placements and avoid a default. Her own assets, accumulated over the years, also had to be sold to cover obligations.
Now she has to close shop. She can no longer pay her creditors. Her situation is not very different from that of Orient Bank that closed its doors because it could no longer return the money of its depositors. It is not different from that of the growing number of companies who, having been hit by the crisis, have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to place them on receivership so that an arrangement with their creditors may be worked out. But Bunny’s fair-weather coinvestors want her head. They just want her to produce the money and pay them every cent she owes them even if much of the debt may be accumulated compounded interest earnings. They should have known that high returns also come with high risk.
Bunny says she fled to Bangkok to face her own moment of truth, free from the nagging presence of creditors and the media. She has made clear that she intends to pay all her legitimate obligations but that she needs time to raise the money. But people who think the worst about her, her husband, and her husband’s friend Erap, have concluded that she ran away with the money. There are insinuations that Bunny’s business is part of a long-term electoral fund-raising scheme for the vice president.
“Truth,” as Nietzsche so well put it, “is a mobile army of metaphors.” It is all a matter of language, a matter of context, and a matter of describing events in a way congenial to our own unexamined beliefs and desires. In a political season, the quest for power shapes discourse in the most unimaginable ways, enlisting the services of society’s truth arbiters and countless investigators in the process. Institutions can get burned in this game, but, as human beings, we should all emerge from this distraction wiser if not kinder, more ironic about life’s twists and turnns, and more forgiving of others and of ourselves.
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