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There’s the Rub

Family bonds

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Way back at the start of the last decade, there was this interesting commercial by PLDT. A young man, who is studying in Manila, calls up his father in his clinic in Iloilo and nervously says he has something to tell him, he hopes he will understand. The father asks if he has a problem. No, he answers, he just wants to shift to Fine Arts. But why?—his father expostulates. He figures he’s not cut out to be a doctor, he replies.

The father pauses for a while, then heaves a long sigh. Well, it’s your life, he says. Whatever you decide on, I’ll support you. “Suportahan  taka”—that line became mildly famous in its time.

It became so because it struck a chord with its audience. And it did so because it was a familiar situation with them. That’s the situation of many parents, professionals most of all. They want their children, particularly the father with his oldest son, to follow in their footsteps, the better for them to inherit the practice—the clinic, the law firm, the engineering company. And they are devastated when that son, or indeed the brood itself, chooses to embark on quite another course in life.

The PLDT ad ended on a happy note. Life doesn’t.

I remembered this in the light of the ongoing debate about political dynasties, with many observers and candidates asking, “What’s so wrong about political dynasties?” In fact that is the wrong question. The right one is: What’s so strange about political dynasties?

We agree perfectly that it’s all right for parents who are doctors to want their children to be doctors too. For parents who are lawyers to want their kids to be lawyers too. We do not just agree with it, we extol it. Why shouldn’t we agree that congressmen and senators would want their kids to be like them, if not indeed president?

Unless of course you disagree with the premise, which I did when I wrote about the PLDT ad a long time ago. It’s all very well, I said, for the father to relent and promise to support his son whatever decision he takes. But why did he conscript him into becoming a doctor to begin with? Which is really how it goes with most of us, the kids really have no choice, we want them to become like us. In fact we want them to be clones of us. You see that in very Filipino habit, or fetish—it happens too in other countries but not to the extent it does here—of naming the male children after the father up to the V or VI. I don’t know that we’ve quite reached something comparable to a Louis XVII, but I do know some of us really push it.

All this is to say that the problem really lies in the culture itself. And what beats at the heart of that culture that sustains and nourishes dynasties is: the Family.

That is the one element, institution, justification, around which everything Filipino revolves.

Every time I hear the Filipino extolled for his deep family values—next only to his religious ones—I feel hugely ambivalent. That’s so because the family has been both the boon and bane of this country. At its best it’s heartwarming to see ordinary Filipinos breaking their backs to keep the family’s body and soul together, particularly the OFWs who get to do that only at the cost of breaking the family up, often permanently as when one of the spouses, or both, get to have other families from the enforced separation. At its worst, the family has also been one of the biggest obstacles to nationhood. Our fiercest loyalties do not go to nation, if we have them at all, they go to family, or its natural extensions: clan, tribe and village.

As Alfred McCoy posits in his book “An Anarchy of Families,” it’s really just a few families that account for this country’s wealth and power. Who have shaped its past, who are determining its present, who are charting its future.

You see that in families running corporations, with all their interlocking directorates. Marcos did not invent the concept, though he pushed it to mind-boggling extremes. Yet you do not see a law that forbids the children of the tycoons from holding positions in the same corporation their parents own and run. You see that in the various means that are employed to keep the wealth and power within families or system of families, not least of them marriages. Indeed not least of them marriages between not very distant relatives, which probably, and not completely facetiously, explains the cretinism of our elite.

If family ties run riot in this country, rule this country, define pretty much this country, how can you possibly rule them out in politics, particularly elections which beat even   jueteng  as this country’s favorite betting game?

The call to end dynasties has been there for a long time, which has succeeded only in having the same effect as bidding the waves hold still. The Constitutional Convention of 1971 was meant to be a particularly serious effort in that direction. But it did not augur well for that agenda that the Con-Con delegates themselves, despite the ban on people related to a certain degree of consanguinity to incumbent officials running, were part of the extended family system of those officials. They could be expected only—as Marcos did expect, and as the delegates showed themselves predisposed to—to favor not change but the status quo. Martial law in any case made all that academic: It didn’t just keep the status quo, it made life regress.

The lesson is simple: We want to stop dynasty, we need to change the culture and not the law. Culture will not yield to law, law will yield to culture. So long as the underside, or unsavory aspects, of Family continue to dominate our lives, so long will dynasty, political or otherwise, proliferate. Family does bind, which, true enough, is one of our strengths.

But it also puts us in one hell of a bind.


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