Blackout politics

It seems to be a recurring trend: someone gets me agreeing with them for a moment, but then follows up by getting up my nose. Earlier, it was Whiny Asthma Guy, and now it’s Kathy over at Relapsed Catholic.

The posting in question, The Left’s Romance with the Blackout, first quotes a FrontPage magazine article. Please note that FrontPage’s politics are such that their editorial board would’ve called Darth Vader a “liberal pantywaist”:

“But to the collective voice that every time howls ‘Now Americans know what it’s like …,’ the favor should be returned with the suggestion that the Third World try finding out what life is like in the First World — by taking time out to build something, sustain it and learn a way of life in which everyday transactions don’t involve stealing from, bribing and killing one another …”

Which, in part is true. I myself am an escapee from the Third World and part-time returnee, and let me tell you: where lawlessness reigns, life is cheap.

Because this is Accordion City, my first instinct during the blackout was to go out and entertain the stranded, enjoy being able to see the stars and see what kind of fun you can have in the dark. In Manila, a lovely city I recommend visiting, that first instinct would be to retreat home (or actually, my aunt’s house, which is where I stay whenever I visit), which is in a lot surrounded by high walls with sharp shards of glass embedded into the top to foil anyone who wants to scale it. The house itself is in a gated community guarded by rent-a-cops with carbines which have likely been purchased from my great-uncle, P.B. Dionisio (There’s a better profile of the company here — scroll down to number 6). The guards have orders to shoot to kill anyone who’s not authorized to be inside the gates.

(Neal Stephenson is so very on the mark when he has one of his characters in Cryptonomicon say “Filipinos are a warm, gentle, caring, giving people, which is a good thing since so many of them carry concealed weapons.”)

What FrontPage conveniently ignores is that we here in the so-called “First World” — I believe the actual terminology is “Old World”, “New World” and “Third World”; perhaps someone assumed that if there’s a Third World, there must be a First and Second — are more sophisticated about the stealing (Enron and all those other recently-discovered accoutning “irregularities”) and bribing (corporations putting government in their back pockets) and killing. (We’ll have to debate the killing point in another post).

FrontPage also declines to mention why such acts would take place in the Third World during a blackout, aside from some vague hand-waving mention of American supremacy. The reason that they forgot to mention (or more likely, don’t know): is that the divide between the haves and the have-nots there is so much greater. In the Philippines, there is no middle class. You either have servants or you are one. Under blackout conditions, or hell, even after a hockey game, you’ll see the exact same behaviour right here in North America in cities like Los Angeles and Detroit (“not the Third World, but an incredible simulation!”)

Affulence, of course, is not an insurance policy against looting either. My friend Wil last night recounted to me the worst blackout looting stories I’d heard personally, including one where a kid nearly died because he’d accidentally cut his wrist while trying to pass through a stroefront window he’d smashed. Did this story take place in the so-called dangerous streets of Toronto, teeming with icky diversity and no-good dark-skinned (but oh so charming and good-looking) foreigners like yours truly? Nope. It took place in good old, safe old, tighty-whitey Streetsville, a sattelite town of Accordion City.

The next part is Kathy’s own take:

Exactly. If the recent blackout had happened in Pakistan or Nigeria, hundreds would have been killed and raped, and what little they have would have been looted. Here’s a plan for Third World relief: put down the hookah, lay off the jungle drugs, stop setting women on fire and cutting up their vaginas — and freakin’ INVENT something useful for a change. Then you get to have nice things. That’s how life works.

I’m with Kathy on the suttee and female circumcision points (Kath, how ’bout male circumcision, which is still a common practice with Jews and many Catholics?), but as far as “freakin’ INVENTING something”, let me fill you in on a little dirty secret:


Most corporations are banking on the fact that there’s a Third World to provide cheap labour with very little of those pesky things like minimum wage, OSHA regulations and health and disability plans. It keeps costs down, and those savings — supposedly — get passed to the consumer. Take a look at the labels of any of your clothes and see where they were made: most likely, they were made in Thailand, China, India or the Philippines. The work in factories is so bad that many Filipino workers instead choose to become OCWs — Overseas Contract Workers — and thus the Philippines became the biggest exporter of nannies, cooks and drivers to the world.

(Wired magazine, in its San Franciscan “I backpacked across the Third World, I understand it now” fuzzy-headedness, romanticized the OCW phenomenon and co-opted peer-to-peer terminology, calling the Philippines “the world’s first distributed economy”. Hey Wired: Putang ina mo.)

The situation is no longer limited to manufacturing: IT jobs are being exported, and now that it’s hitting the white upper-middle class where they live (or more accurately, work), there’s now some gnashing of teeth.

The US Government itself was banking on the fact that the Philippines was not a democracy, but ruled by a dictator they had in their pocket. You might not be aware of this, but then-Vice President Bush (George Sr., that is) praised President Marcos during a 1981 visit with the line “We love your adherence to democratic principles.” This was said while the opposition were either in jail or exile. The reason the US supported Marcos? So that they could maintain Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval base in the Philippines, vital strategic points in the Cold War. Yes, defeating the commies was a good thing, but considering the price Filipinos paid, you’d think the US would be so kind and honourable as to cut us a nice cheque for services rendered and sacrifices made.

So yes, there’s a fair bit of romanticism about the Third World being bandied about by the Left, but let’s not forget that the Right are romanticizing their role in ensuring that the Third World stays in Third Place.

Kathy wrote in another posting:

“Right wing” is just what “normal” used to be.

Ah, but I counter with a Bruce Cockburn song — and keep in mind that most of Cockburn’s music annoys the hell out of me:

The trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.

7 replies on “Blackout politics”

Good points all around, Joey, however I wanted to contribute the following:

Though your description of gated and guarded subdivisions is accurate, your depiction kind of gave it too much of an apartheid South African flavour. Since everyone who isn’t a resident of the subdivision has to surrender some form of ID at the gate with the guards and has to report whose house they are visiting, I’m sure this “shoot to kill” policy only applies to individuals suspected of engaging in illegal activities, such as home invasion, robbery, etc. I’m pretty sure that’s what you were trying to convey but had to leave out for the sake of brevity.

Another thing to note is that another reason Marcos encouraged the OCW trade to flourish was to strengthen relations with other countries (the current Live-in Caregiver scheme run by Citizenship and Immigration Canada started out this way). It was still largely based on economics in the sense that Marcos was willing to supply countries seeking cheap labour with well, cheap labour. Since the exodus started in the early 70’s, job creation rates in the Philippines have remained pretty much the same despite the exponential population growth. Because of this, working abroad has become a way of life for the average Filipino family, not to mention the fact that now the economy relies greatly on the billions of dollars in annual remittance these overseas workers send home. It has gotten to the point where the Philippine economy cannot sustain itself and relies heavily on foreign investment and OCW remittance. Also, since the Philippine Peso is so weak, even if enough jobs were created I am sure many Filipinos would still choose to work abroad and be away from their families if it means earning their wage in a much or even slightly higher currency. I completely agree that romanticizing it is wrong. If it were to be made into a reality TV series, much as everything is nowadays, it would definitely not be fun to watch.

Lastly, Fil-American politics aside, Filipino scientists have always been hard at work inventing. Problem is, we don’t realize how important their contributions are because mostly they’re aimed at seemingly “third world” uses such as inventing new, more bountiful strains of rice and fruit and advancing technology in agriculture. The reality is that countries like the Phillppines are primarily agrarian in nature, and for some reason this is still viewed by the west as backward and stagnant. Because of Industrialization, progress in the West was viewed in terms of automation and mass-production, whereas in other parts of the world, it meant better use of the land, better distribution of resources, better infrastructure while striving not to upset the ecological balance, etc. While I will be the first to point out that I’ve made many generalizations in what I’ve just said, I’m hoping the main idea will at least still get across.

– Carla

A couple of points:

Third, Second and First World are designations from the Cold War. First World was NATO, Second World was Warsaw Pact (Soviet Union and client states) and Third World was everybody else.

For the Fourth World we had to turn to Jack “The King” Kirby.

As for Philipines, don’t forget the Spanish-American War which was the first USAian Imperial War, and the country was booty. And where pirates kept their treasure.

Which reminds me, I need a booty-call.

I’d better file a bug report about the lack of line breaks disappearing from comments…

Good points all, Carla.

I forgot to mention — OCW work comes in various flavours. It’s one thing to do OCW work in North America or Europe, but something else to do it in Singapore or the Middle East. I’ve met people people who’ve come back from both placed is a state I can only describe as “broken”, and we’ve all read the news articles where some were killed by their employers and never brought to justice.

And oh, for techinicality’s sake, I think currently the Philippines is classified as a newly industrialized country. The qualifying factors listed on the page in that link apply pretty much across the board save for the last point citing the development of large “projects” style apartment buildings to house people who flock in from the countryside. The majority of the Philippine’s urban poor live as squatters in makeshift shanty houses, not government-issued housing.

Damn. That was me, Carla. Guess I should sign up for an account just so I can comment, huh?

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