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There’s the Rub

Heaven help them

I’ve followed the incident at Commonwealth with much interest. For those who haven’t heard about it (who must have been in another planet), it has to do with this guy, Robert Blair Carabuena, a Philip Morris officer, who mauled a traffic enforcer after the latter flagged him for making a wrong turn.

This is a strange and magic-realist country, not least because of the mauler’s name. The irony of it would have been obvious of course if his name were Autobuena, which means good, or benign, car, but Carabuena isn’t that far behind in a pidgin sort of way. Carabuena was anything but good or benign. Someone caught him on camera flailing away at the hapless enforcer, Saturnino Fabros.

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Fabros, who says he’s never experienced anything like this in his 27 years as traffic enforcer, has filed charges against Carabuena, with the full backing of the MMDA. Philip Morris has distanced itself from Carabuena, putting him on suspension, probably fearing that people might start believing tobacco addles the brain quite apart from causing cancer.

But those are nothing compared to the fury with which netizens have descended on Carabuena, giving him to experience the very thing he did to Fabros. Or worse. Far, far worse. Fabros’ grief was brief, and he has only a puffed cheek or two to show for it. Carabuena’s is prolonged, and he has more than the deflation of a puffed-up ego to fear. Fabros stands to gain a promotion not without reason, Carabuena stands to lose everything with every reason in the world.

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Malacañang was all praises for social media’s reaction. “We commend our vigilant citizens who actively seek accountability from individuals in both the public and private sectors…. Public engagement is the bedrock of democracy. It is at its most potent and powerful when the constant scrutiny of the citizenry serves as a deterrent to the illicit and unlawful.”

Two things struck me by this.

One was the immense, and still growing, power of social media to affect and direct life. When this happened, I had just written a column on the two athletes who had been expelled from the Olympics after their racist tweets met with a deluge of violent reactions from fellow tweeters and other users of social media. It drove home to me the reality of a brave new world with its more utopian rather than dystopian possibilities. I had of course already begun to appreciate the awesome power of social media when the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes fell last year, no small thanks to Facebook and Twitter, allowing as it did the vast public to register its sentiment and indeed join the revolution without having to dodge bullets or brave tanks. It was democratizing in a heady sort of way.

If it can topple tyrants in their mighty fortresses, it can certainly topple petty tyrants in the streets.

Of course as with everything democratizing, and this one in particular threatens to raze every barrier to it—not even China and Burma have been able to suppress it—social media has its share of good and bad. Public participation can also produce as much the kind of trash you find in many comments as the gems of wisdom you find in some blogs. But it has been positive on the whole. Public scrutiny tends to be so.

In this country particularly, which has been called the text capital of the world—you’d be surprised how Metro Manila is far more “wired” than many other capitals of the world despite our communications infrastructure being as bad as our roads—the possibilities for the public weighing in and decrying iniquity are immense. As Carabuena’s case shows. People Power does not always have to take the form of people massing in the streets to oust a despot, it can always take the form of people being incensed enough at a patent abuse to direct their anger at it.

Which brings me to my second point. That is to wonder why, if we can be incensed enough about someone abusing a traffic enforcer such that we are ready to lynch him, we can’t be incensed enough about public officials robbing us we’d like nothing better than to hang them from the nearest tree. Which is really to wonder why we can’t wield the same weapon against corruption.

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But then you realize the difference between the two. Carabuena’s iniquity is patent, corruption is not. Carabuena’s iniquity has a face and an action widely seen as reprehensible. Corruption does not.

It is not that we do not find thieves and stealing reprehensible. It is that we see stealing only at the level of pickpocketing, snatching and hold-upping. A snatcher who snatches a woman’s handbag gets beaten up black and blue after an irate mob catches up with him, and he is not going to get any sympathy from the public. He will get the message, “Serves you right!” The same fury is not there about corruption. The only explanation for it is that we do not really see corruption as stealing. Taxes are not our money anyway, so how can taking it be stealing?

I do think we can train the power of public participation, public scrutiny and public vigilance that social media has made possible against corruption. But first we have to see corruption as the reprehensible act it is. First we have to see that taxes are our money, corruption is stealing from us, no more or no less than someone lifting our cell phones from our pockets is stealing from us. Corruption is oppressing us, no more and no less than a congressman who tries to cut a swath in traffic with an escort blaring out wang-wangs oppresses us. Corruption is beating us up black and blue no more and no less than what Carabuena did to Fabros.

We get to do this, and we can get public fury to bear on corruption. We get to do this, and we get social media to bear on corruption. We get to do this, and as Carabuena now knows only too well, heaven help the abusive.

Heaven help the corrupt.

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TAGS: MMDA, people, Robert Blair Carabuena, Saturnino Fabros, traffic
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