Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
SPOT.ph’s resident curmudgeon waxes existentialist.
(SPOT.ph) That we have lying, thieving morons still in our midst and noble, dedicated, decent men tragically snatched away from us seems like proof of an absurd universe. And that the only way to deal with such senselessness is suicide, so said some smart French writer who died-tragically, as well-in a car crash. A few days after Robredo's confirmed death, the national consciousness was gripped with one question: "Lord, Bakit siya pa? Bakit hindi na lang si (INSERT NAME OF MOST HATED POLITICIAN)?" We all have a list of names that we'd like to see get involved in ghastly vehicular mishaps. Except that we seem to have already resigned ourselves in the belief that the assholes of this world live eternally.
"Masamang damo, matagal mamatay," so the saying goes. If this is true, then Philippine politics- populated by murderous warlords and kleptomaniacal fornicators-is a goddamn African savanna. An even scarier thought: they have money to pay for stem-cell therapy. That means money can now buy youth and vigor. Once upon a time, death was an inevitability, especially for powerful men who live swinishly excessive lives. Now, there's a chance to effectively shoo away the Man with the Scythe -by visiting a few clinics in Germany or Switzerland where they are injected with embyronic matter from sheep. Once upon a time, God's natural punishment was depriving them of erections. Now they can buy those little blue pills to stiffen their wrinkly little sex pistols. Is there no God?
"Why Robredo? Why not any one of the Ampatuans?" Or better yet: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Such frightening questions, especially in a religious society that worships a God who does not believe in condoms and birth-control pills. Or the Depeche-Mode God who has a sick sense of humor, whose merriment we expect upon our demise. But "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is one of theology's most damning questions. Which is why most atheists say that the concept of reward/punishment in the "afterlife" was necessary to justify such seeming injustice. The thought of an indifferent universe is the most frightening of all. What, then, would be the use of all that sacrifice, the repression of the most basic appetities, the denial of profound pleasures? Often, Christian theologists would seek succor in the Book of Job. As the website www.gotquestions.org answers: "This is one of the most difficult questions in all of theology. God is eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Why should human beings (not eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent) expect to be able to fully understand God's ways?"
Whoever said "The evil that men do lives after them" has obviously never been to the Philippines, where evil is rewarded with a congressional seat and often branded with a seal of ironic hipness and fashionability. Where evil is often justified in hindsight or simply consigned to convenient oblivion. Where evil often comes in the form of shampoo commercials and reality talent search shows. Thomas Jefferson: "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
It's like asking why exceptionally talented theater actors ride pedicabs to get home while stupid teen stars drive European SUVs. Or "Why do ugly members of Congress have gorgeous wives?" Or why isn't Grace Padaca-like Robredo, a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Governance in 2008- governor of Isabela? Why do we vote plagiarists into public office?
"What lesson does God or the universe think we should learn?" asked DOTC Secretary Mar Roxas said in his eulogy. "Wala akong sagot." Coming from a man who once wore a garland of garlic bulbs during a Senate speech, that's saying a lot.
Billy Joel’s "Only the Good Die Young"
Billy Joel has a song called "Only the Good Die Young." There's another quote often attributed to Mae West: "I like a man who’s good, but not too good-for the good die young, and I hate a dead one." Which was true, once upon a time in our history.
The Philippine republic was shaped by young people. "Young" because they died early (Stem cell treatment was not yet available). Jacinto was just 24. Bonifacio was 34. Rizal was 35. That's because revolutions are usually kickstarted by restless young punks. Robredo was only 29 when he became mayor of Naga.
Aguinaldo was only 29 when he became president of the First Philippine Republic. But he went on to live to the ripe old age of 95. Then again, people will conclude he was a bad seed because he purportedly had Bonifacio killed-but let's not court the wrath of Caviteños. That he did not become a martyr in the mountains of Palanan in 1902 was his monumental mistake, say historians. Tsismis has it that he wilted into a pesky old man who was always bugging government officials about his pension during Independence Day celebrations (Another famous historian said-though not officially-the old man would often be caught by maids playing with himself in his room). Writes Gregorio Brillantes in "The Two Deaths of Emilio Aguinaldo" (Philippine Graphic, 1999): "A long life lived into senility, especially a placid and prosperous seniority, repels both mythmakers and creators of heroes to whom an early violent death-not their own-ensures election to Valhalla, or more properly, elevation as the elect of Bathala."
There are exceptions to the nagging issue of righteousness. How much humanity do we allow our great men? On Rev. Martin Luther King, Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great writes: "This does not in the least diminish his standing as a great preacher, any more than does the fact that he was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife. He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don't blame him. (These things, which of course disturb the faithful, are rather encouraging in that they show that a high moral character is a not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.)"
But King did not hold any government position. Still the bottomline: sometimes a strong moral character is the foundation for kickass public service. What happens when a government officer surrenders to his base desires? It starts with the little things. It begins with the flesh. He gets a mistress, and, since more often than not he won't be winning any Daniel Matsunaga lookalike competitions, the mistress will want a fancy condo and a nice car. She won't be eating any more one-piece Chickenjoys, either. Now, how can he afford these on a mayor's or a governor's salary? The feather-like fissures on the walls of his moral fortress become thick gigantic cracks until his principles and convictions crumble into dust. He then has no other choice but to engage in hanky panky. He gets into anomalous contracts and shady deals. He issues permits to illegal loggers and takes bribes, which may or may not graduate into extortion. Maybe he tells himself, "Just this once, just this once." But he doesn't realize he's now addicted to the corrosive narcota of pleasure of which he merely took a whiff. It then starts spreading to other parts of his consciousness. He savors a little taste of power and privilege, he develops a dependence on bodyguards, express lines through airport immigration, and similar conveniences. He begins to hallucinate that his time is more important than ours that's why he gets traffic escorts and back-up vehicles. Now you multiply that by the hundreds if not thousands and you have the cesspool that is the Philippine government. Now think of Robredo, who, even in the department of which he was the overlord, insisted on falling in line to the elevator.
Of course, I'm making an unfair generalization. Just substitute "mistress" for some other delectation- expensive cars, penchant for European cruises, gourmet food, vintage Swiss watches, jewelry, golf, soft hotel beds, in short, the high life.
What if said government official's moral armor has been righteously bullet-proofed against carnal temptations? Then the temptation and the cycle of corruption is stopped right before it has a chance to mutate.
Look, Robredo used a Timex. That says a lot about the man. A Timex isn't exactly a Rolex. A fondess for Rolexes, however, totally changes the equation (A brief digression: Timex is also the choice timepiece of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush, Bill Gates, and is said to be the standard issue of the U.S. Army; in the Philippines it is endorsed by that no-nonsense paragon of masculinity that is Piolo Pascual)
Then again, that's not necessarily true. Sometimes genuine rapacity hides under parsimonious masks. Marcos, too, was known for his frugality. It was said that he preferred using a pair of reading glasses so old it had to be tied with a string. As opposed to his wife who liked rich food (she had the avoirdupois of Middle Eastern and African dictators), Marcos was happy with fish and vegetables. Detailed in a 1968 profile for the Free Press, Marcos served his interviewer Greg Brillantes saluyot and hito. Conrado de Quiros in Dead Aim wrote: "Aides noticed that their boss wore an old watch, which apparently dated back to the war years, whose capacity to tell time they seriously doubted. Nearly all the cronies and the Malacanang supplicants promptly gifted him with ornate watches, but he refused to wear them. For some reason, he chose to hold on to the old one."
More: "He had no particular craving for food, eating sparingly, preferring simple Ilocano fare to the rich one of the Tagalog lowlands. If he had any favorite, it was pinakbet, an Ilocano dish consisting of vegetables dippled in salty fish puree. He ate only fish and chicken, often saying he would not touch anything that didn't swim or fly. It was only later, during martial law, that he developed a taste for a wider variety of food. This, his aides theorized, probably being the influence of his wife. It was only then that he began to indulge in the "good life."
As to the results of his mutated appetite, well, you can always consult the Guiness Book of World Records.
But back to Robredo. You might argue: Robredo chose to take a private plane home. Private plane rentals aren't really, cheap, are they? But this wasn't about mindlessly blowing cash on some frivolous excuse to travel. For genuine family men like Robredo, getting home in time for an important milestone in your daughter's life is not frivolous. In the end, we are judged by our choice of personal luxuries.
Which is why DoE Secretary Rene Almendras' "Tsinelas" speech is pitch-perfect. The rubber slipper as metaphor for Robredo's brand of public service-humble, comfortable but functional. You can't get any more honest, unassuming and sincere than the tsinelas. Which is also good for slapping the faces of all politicos who will take advantage of the tsinelas iconography next year. Same goes for the congressmen who put up tarpaulins thanking Jesse Robredo with their ugly faces on the side. And those lawmakers who exerted all effort to block his appointment and are now singing an irritatingly different tune.
The tsunami of grief for Robredo should serve as motivation to all public servants: excel in your job, don't steal, don't do anything stupid, love your family and most important of all, the people. This is how they will remember you. Would you trade this kind of remembrance for stupid mansions and scores of mistresses? Would you trade this for a Swiss bank account and a Learjet? But these fuckers wouldn't say it out loud, "OF COURSE WE WOULD."
"Pare, ’pag tayo namatay at hindi ganito ang reaksyon... baka sabihin wala tayong ginawa. Sabi ko pa-cremate ka agad," Budget Sec. Butch Abad said in jest, recalling his conversation with Finance Sec. Cesar Purisima. But there's a tinge of seriousness to it. This kind of exit ups the bar for government officials in the arena of legacy. That's like saying every basketball player should be MVP of each conference. But what's wrong with striving?
You can't bullshit the public (unless you're a talentless hearthrob). You can't buy public sympathy. You can't manufacture it, and not even the best PR hacks can stir a nation to unite in grief. You don't plan these things. You can't. But wouldn't you want to leave the world this way? Forget about eternal salvation. If you don't believe in an afterlife, if you continue to be the arrogant dickhead that you are, then just think about your ego. Oh, you'll be dead by then. But you get the point. Your casket will definitely look good in an ocean of flowers, confetti, and tears genuinely streaming from a nation's heart.
It seems Philippine society needs constant reminders of such promises. The last time a nation saw such mourning was when Cory Aquino died. But that was because it was a stark contrast against the backdrop of the Arroyo administration. People saw how bad things were in comparison. The question is: what if Cory expired in 1991 when the widespread disillusionment with the promise of Edsa was still a fresh wound?
Which brings us back to stem cell treatments. I propose that government provide regulation: only those who are morally upright should be given access. Doctors should first demand a certificate of good moral standing. And maybe their SALNs, too. It also must be guaranteed that none of the constituents' money should be used as payment. Only those of proven impeccable morals and significant performance will be given a dose of renewed youthfulness and the right to extend their tenancy in mortal apartment.
In his eulogy, House Speaker Sonny Belmonte described Robredo as being on "right side of history." Question: how difficult is it to be "on the right side of history?" To live a life that leaves no moral gray areas, no questions, as in the case of Robredo. It sounds easy, but in Philippine politics, it's not. Purity in public service is a virtual impossibility. Public service is a complex M.C. Escher landscape but Robredo made it look simple and natural, the way Michael Jordan made basketball look like kindergarten choreography. Not all loyal husbands and devoted fathers are excellent public servants. Not all bemedalled government officials are fine family men. The worst, of course, is the philandering imbecile who is not only a bad dad but also an incompetent and corrupt, power-drunk public official. If hell did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it-for assholes like him. That's what the Molotov cocktail is for. We can turn the airconditioned cabins of their SUVs into a living inferno-as soon as we get past their bodyguards.
Art by Warren Espejo