First of two parts

“Since Senators Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada are hogging the headlines now,” wrote Dolly Anne Carvajal in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 30, “I thought of asking celebs how the beleaguered lawmakers’ arrest might impact other actors who would like to join politics.” That this was a natural question to occur to Carvajal and that the “actor-politician” is a normative category in the Philippines should give us pause.

Carvajal relates the story of her late mother Inday Badiday’s refusal to run for mayor of Quezon City, despite the urging of several groups. Carvajal declares: “I’m glad Ma stuck it out with show biz. Politics is a lot more complicated than the entertainment biz.” That the Philippines’ newspaper of record, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, would not only entertain but also publish such vapid, unthinking positions is reprehensible, at best. At worst, it implicates the paper in the naturalization of the phenomenon of the actor-politician in the Philippines. This is not to say that success in the entertainment industry makes one unfit for public service or politics; indeed, there are many entertainment professionals who have also had distinguished careers as public servants, such as incumbent US Senator for Minnesota Al Franken. It follows that those who are accustomed to the spotlight in entertainment would likely find themselves at an advantage in the political spotlight, being able to relate to wide audiences and being used to public performance and to public scrutiny. However, that the category of “actor-politician” is so deeply naturalized and normative in the Philippines may suggest something deeper about our system—its rewarding of personality over policy, the lack of political ideologies as guides for legislation and voter preference, the shallowness of our mainstream political party system, and the lack of fair competition and robust meritocratic process, which together make either fame or adequate “guns, goons, and gold” a requirement for obtaining a sufficient base of supporters.

It is needless to say that the difference between politics and entertainment is not their respective degrees of complication. However, Carvajal elaborates on their points of difference, as such: “Politics is a lot more complicated than the entertainment biz. The good name you’ve worked so hard to build can be easily ruined if you don’t play your cards right in that arena.” Here, Carvajal refers to the good names you worked so hard to build in entertainment being so easily ruined in politics. That this article’s premise is the arrest of “beleaguered lawmakers” Bong Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada would imply that the “easy ruin” in politics that she alludes to is the normative corruption, or rather, the accusation or unveiling of such corruption that easily occurs “if you don’t play your cards right.”

What exactly does Carvajal advocate here? Why are we so inured to corruption? Why at the accusation of massive plunder against two actors is the logical question that occurs to Carvajal: what is the next step for other actor-politicians who want to get into politics where the corruption is rampant and they may ruin their good show biz names if they don’t “play their cards right” (with her careless wording implying, hopefully accidentally, that “not playing one’s cards right” means falling under plausible accusation of corruption, not steering clear of such corruption in the first place)?

The Carvajal article’s unironic title “Next step for actor-politicians” registers no hint of critical thinking regarding the easy corridor between politics and entertainment, and what that may indicate regarding the health of our democracy. In fact, the glib statement that ends the editorial section of Carvajal’s June 30 column reads: “I will not pass judgment on Bong and Jinggoy. Regardless of all the negative news about them, I remain a friend to them and to their wives, Lani and Precy. May something good come out of this. There must be a purpose behind every trial.” Was Carvajal expecting there to be no purpose to this trial?

I understand that loyalty and friendship hold inherent value, and that supporting one’s friends through “negative news” and times of trial is laudable. Yet, I hope that if proven guilty of massive plunder, such a revelation would engender some form of character reassessment of the guilty, even on the part of their friends. This is not to say that personal reform isn’t possible or that there is no room in public life for forgiveness, but some critical distance and critical evaluation should be a mainstay in our political positions. Just as any public figure has a private life and a public life, we also can judge those in our lives on similarly separate bases, and Carvajal does not exclude that possibility. She maintains her friendship to the accused, but does not go so far as to say she unwaveringly supports their political careers.

[The second and concluding part of this article will appear tomorrow.]

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University

Op-Ed Editor’s note: This column will henceforth appear on the first Monday of every month.