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The Long View

The end of an era

Yesterday morning, passing by the new Unimart suddenly reminded me of President Marcos’ dismissive description of Edgar Jopson as “only the son of a grocer.” It struck me as an unusual thing to say, considering how Marcos was a product of the University of the Philippines back when it embraced not just the professional, but the lower-middle classes as the backbone of the nation. Or, put another way, the comment made in presidential adulthood suggests a social divide in Marcos’ mind that must have been keenly felt by him as far back as his student years, though his own contemporaries were more likely the sons of grocers than products of other rival schools.

John Nery’s interesting column fostered another realization on my part: Marcos was the first dynastic national leader in our modern national life, with the possible exception of Emilio Aguinaldo or Jose P. Laurel (but the modern presidency owes little to nothing to either Aguinaldo or his era; Laurel was unelected, and his influence was more crucial to providing the intellectual basis for strongman rule). All his predecessors from 1935 to 1961 were self-made men, or men molded in the professional image of public education, or both; a line that ended with Diosdado Macapagal, himself a self-made man. Marcos in contrast was not, nor did he see himself as a self-made man. He was, if anything, supremely conscious of, and touchy about, his status as a second-generation politician (in a manner, for example, Laurel never was, despite having a father who’d served in the Malolos Congress), the son of a man who in turn Marcos would increasingly (and fancifully) assert had legendary ancestors.

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Yet Marcos’ successors have been more like him: scions. Cory Aquino was married to a politician, came from a family with its fair share of politicians, was the granddaughter of Juan Sumulong, and Luisita provided a sense of near-absolute rule over a domain virtually unparalleled in our society—a sense of security that allowed her, as her contemporaries more than once described it, to view clinging on to power not merely with contempt, but distaste.

Fidel Ramos was the son of a prominent prewar politician and is famously supposed to have treated his father’s attempts to wield influence over him after martial law with as much indifference as his father had treated his political opinions before it.

Joseph Estrada was self-made in terms of his public appeal, but thoroughly traditional in his tastes and his instinctive and deep-set desire to be accepted by the upper class with which his family had always counted themselves accepted. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would prove herself the closest to Marcos in her approach to power, her uniquely personal twist on things best encapsulated in the saying “nice guys finish last”—it was what Marcos had done to her father; it was what she would do, in a period of rule that is only second to his in duration. The second (and last) Aquino presidency, too, carried with it many of the strengths and weaknesses of second-generation leadership, ironically skeptical of Ramos yet adhering most closely to it in many of its objectives, if not methods.

I’ve written elsewhere on the little-understood self-consciousness, the aggressive inferiority complex, which motivated Marcos to not only acquire power, but wield it in a manner designed to settle grudges dating back to his student days, when he rubbed shoulders with other sons and daughters of the elite who poked fun at him for being crude and “provincial.” Suffice it to say that his self-identification as far more pedigreed than his peers would acknowledge was at the heart of his premodern nostalgia, a characteristic that definitively set him apart not only from his contemporaries but his predecessors in the presidency. His assumption of office marked the end of the nation-building era and the beginning of something else, entirely. What that something is, and how to properly describe it, has been best described by Randy David as our country’s “crisis of modernity.”

Which brings us to President Duterte who has come more closely to Marcos’ instincts of supplanting what came before with a new, grasping gang, while lacking the strategic patience or ability to attract and protect itself with a veneer of technocratic modernity. But in a sense the uninhibited incumbent brings the antimodernistic era of Marcos to an end, in that our President will likely be the last to have him as a contemporary influence.

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TAGS: Cory Aquino, Edgar Jopson, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., fidel v. ramos, john Nery, Joseph Estrada, Manuel L. Quezon III, Philippine presidents, The Long View
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