Gridlock culture

Political observers in this season of impeachment and popular mobilizations cannot but see the Iglesia ni Cristo’s massive gathering at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila the other day as a “show of force.” But, if the INC crowd indeed carried a message other than a religious one, what might it be and who was its addressee? The speculation is that the target is the Aquino administraton. And its message supposedly is: “We are strong and we are still around. We helped you in the last election. Do not take us for granted.”

INC general evangelist and spokesperson Bienvenido Santiago was quick to deny any political significance to the gathering, billed by the church as the launching of its “Grand Evangelical Mission.” “This is for us a proclamation,” he said, stressing the purely religious character of the event. “This is not for anybody else but to praise God for the salvation of all men, to express the faith for the salvation of all men who believe in our teachings of God.”

The political spin nevertheless persists because it is not without basis. The religious affiliation of INC stalwart Serafin Cuevas, the embattled Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona’s lead counsel, has been in the public mind from the start of the trial. Also, a few weeks ago, a small placard-bearing crowd rallied in front of the Supreme Court to express its support for Corona. Media reported that the demonstrators were members of the INC. The INC neither denied sending in the demonstrators, nor did it take the opportunity to distance itself from the impeachment. Finally, what is one supposed to make of the presence at the prayer rally of Supreme Court spokesperson Midas Marquez, a vocal partisan for Corona? He is not an INC member, and neither is he known as an advocate of prayer assemblies.

More than these, it is the circumstances surrounding the event that have triggered all kinds of speculations. The INC seldom holds prayer services outside its own neo-Gothic churches. Those who planned last Tuesday’s gigantic “evangelical” gathering at the Quirino Grandstand, a favored site for important political events, could not have been oblivious of the disruption it would cause to the city’s weekday routine. A frazzled public forced by the standstill traffic to alight from their buses and jeepneys and walk in the afternoon sun might have understood what this event was about if it were held on July 27, the day Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo set aside as “Iglesia ni Cristo Day.”

But whatever it is that prompted the usually reserved INC to troop to Luneta to show its mobilizing capacity, the impact it created reminds us of the power of crowds to paralyze the city.  I got a good glimpse of this last Tuesday morning. I was on my way to a lunch meeting at the Ramon Magsaysay Building on Roxas Boulevard, having left the UP campus in Quezon City at 9:30 a.m. Armed with the MMDA Metro Manila Traffic Navigator app, our driver avoided Edsa and C-5, picking his way through Makati’s side streets until we could rejoin the crawling traffic on Quirino Avenue. Jeeps and buses that had ferried INC members into the city were parked on both sides of this busy highway. Roxas Boulevard itself was transformed into one long parking lot. I made it to my meeting at 11:45. But, the meeting could not start because almost everyone was at least one or two hours late. Some failed to make it.

The return trip to Quezon City was even more formidable. Every intersection we came into, without exception, was gridlocked. Traffic lights were working, but were willfully ignored. There were no traffic enforcers in sight.  Everyone stewed in his vehicle until one heroic person got off his cage and disentangled the web. Traffic flowed, but only for a few minutes. Then the gridlock formed again, trapping stupid creatures that could not see beyond their narrow lenses. It is a metaphor for our national troubles.

The customary modes of cooperation that normally compel us to be mindful of the needs of others have no force in the complex environment of the city. Such forms of solidarity are rooted in a sense of duty to people with whom we share personal space. But this kind of society is long gone. In the anonymous setting of the modern city, we no longer feel so obligated. Civic virtue is not strong enough to counter unrestrained individualism.

We thus find ourselves locked in primal “zero-sum” games where one’s gain is the other’s loss. We have yet to learn the counter-intuitive lesson of “positive-sum games”—that our personal advantage need not be secured at the expense of others, and that we are ultimately better served by choices that bring benefits to others. Gridlock dramatically shows that the common pursuit of selfish advantage typically results in a common loss for everyone. Strangely enough, we seem not to mind being in this situation so long as we know no one is able to get ahead of us.

Steven Pinker, an expert on visual cognition and language, thinks that people can change their world by making their interactions nonzero-sum. In so doing, he says, they can bring about valuable outcomes “like safety, harmony, or prosperity—without their having to become virtuous or noble.” His examples speak to our times. “Squabbling colleagues or relatives agree to swallow their pride, take their losses, or lump it to enjoy the resulting comity rather than absorbing the costs of continual bickering in hopes of prevailing in a battle of wills…. Divorcing spouses realize they can reframe their negotiations: from each trying to get the better of the other while enriching the lawyers to trying to keep as much money as possible for the two of them…”