In this season of Lent, we may forgive Raymond Fortun, Joseph Estrada’s young lawyer, for suggesting that the willful prosecution of his client recalls Christ’s own persecution. At a recent press conference, he said: “Two thousand years ago, Christ was falsely accused, deprived of his right to defend himself, thrown to the mob and put to death…. I cannot claim any similarity between our Lord and my client. What I decry is the recurring thirst for blood in this new kind of crucifixion.”
He could have gone further and pursued the rich parallelisms that this script had to offer. That Christ was hounded for claiming He was the Son of God, while his client is now being hooted for claiming he is still president. That Christ came to earth to redeem the sins of humankind, while Erap went into politics to rescue the masses from poverty. That in both instances, the upper classes that felt threatened in their power got rid of these two charismatic men.
The analogy is however unsustainable, if not blasphemous, as peasant leader Rafael Mariano sharply retorted: “An unapologetic adulterer and an ousted president who was deposed because of corruption is like Christ? Definitely not. Christ did not sleep with several women, did not steal from public coffers, did not hide any loot under aliases, and did not build lavish mansions using plundered funds.”
Paeng Mariano is absolutely right. But in a culture where the passion of Christ is used as a framework for a variety of situations, the former president can play the role of innocent victim to enormous effect. The melodramatic Fortun prepared the stage for such a role when he asked plaintively in the same press conference: “Is it not possible that President Estrada might be innocent?” I think he was more or less saying: “If this man is guilty, let the innocent person cast the first stone.”
For indeed there is a sense in which Estrada’s actions may be accepted under the terms of our culture, so that if he is guilty, then the whole culture is guilty. He is certainly not Christ, but is he every Filipino? Let us revisit the terms of this cultural script, for it may give us a key to understanding the reserve of mass sympathy that Estrada seeks to tap as he campaigns for his own survival in this election.
He may have taken money from jueteng operators, but how many politicians have refused contributions from such sources? The flow of jueteng money, like so much illegal money during elections, has long been a given in Philippine politics. Some officials use it to augment their meager incomes, or to fuel their electoral campaigns, or to finance their welfare programs. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. To pin Estrada down on this charge alone would be the height of hypocrisy.
Does he have undeclared wealth and did he hide it under fictitious bank accounts? True, this may be a violation of law, but the public also believes that, in general, all wealthy people actually conceal a good part of their wealth for any number of reasons – to avoid paying taxes or being the target of kidnappers. What was Erap’s fault then? From the standpoint of the community to which he belongs, none except being caught.
Is he an adulterer? But how many Filipino men are paragons of monogamy? The greater sin, Erap will say, is creating families you cannot provide for. On that score, he would be seen as a virtuous man, generous to a fault to all his families and women. If he built mansions for them, he would claim that not a single centavo of public money went into the construction of these homes. Strictly speaking, he is probably telling the truth. These were built by cronies to whom he had previously extended favors.
In Estrada’s ethical universe, there is nothing wrong in favoring friends who have been useful to him. Reciprocity is a value he cherishes. It would matter very little to him if these cronies delivered sub-standard goods or services in order to maximize their profits from government contracts. He would surely not raise a howl if the government paid an excessive price for land belonging to a friend in need.
Erap operated in a world in which “dilihensiya” is the measure of a clever man. Because he used his power to facilitate the sale of a huge company like PLDT, he felt entitled to a large share of the broker’s fee. This was his “dilihensiya”, part of a day’s work. If he was able to get the SSS and the GSIS to invest pension funds to purchase shares of stocks in a crony company like Belle Corp., that too, in his mind, deserved fair compensation. In Erap, the art of the Pinoy “dilihensiya” attained its perfection.
The one thing he will deny is that he ever knowingly took public funds. To him, that is already corruption. This narrow definition of what is wrong permitted him to engage in a broad range of morally and legally questionable activities without feeling that he had betrayed his oath of office or injured public interest. Of the cases filed against him, the one about the tobacco excise taxes confronts him with a deed that, even by his own definition, constitutes corruption. Naturally, he will deny it in the strongest terms, and, if cornered, blame it entirely on Atong Ang.
Erap can look straight into the eyes of his adoring fans while professing innocence, not only because he is a seasoned actor but also because in his mind he truly believes he has done nothing that other high officials before him have not done.
The Calvary script will not serve Erap. Christ accepted His fate with courage; He showed us how to live. Erap exploited the weaknesses of his culture but denies all responsibility; he shows us how not to live.
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