The Myth of a Center

Lisandro (“Leloy”) Claudio is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph). He is also a PhD Candidate at the School of Historical Studies, University of Melbourne and a Lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila Department of History.  This piece was published in the May 17, 2010 (Election Day)  edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Let me share with you an easy way to make people think you’re reasonable: tell them you’re a centrist. Pose two extremes and say you stand in the middle. How can somebody be wrong if he/she is taking the so-called middle ground? Politicians, being the great wordsmiths, spin masters, and cowards that they are, love “reasonable” centrist rhetoric. And many times pundits follow suit.

Take the example of the debate on reproductive health that occurred during the campaign season. So-called centrist candidates like Manny Villar and, to some extent, Noynoy Aquino, advocated a middle ground between the anti-RH position of the Church hierarchy and the pro-RH stance of most Filipinos. The middle way apparently lies in teaching both perspectives. Never mind that the Church stance is based on lies about how condoms are harmful and how IUDs are abortifacient; it’s another side. Go ahead; lie to people because it represents the “other side of the coin.”

This reminds me of the way the American corporate media frame the debate on climate change. Outfits like Fox news conceive of the debate as one between those who believe in the reality of man-made climate change and those who don’t. It doesn’t matter that climate deniers are considered nutjobs by 90% of climate scientists; they represent another side of an argument. Give them equal airtime.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, a philosopher by the name of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel proposed the concept of the dialectic and he forever enshrined the center as the object of intellectual fetish. Hegel thought that the best positions were products of a synthesis between two opposing ideas (the thesis and the antithesis).

The objection against Hegel is intuitive. What if you can argue for the validity of a thesis as is? What if the thesis—like the reality of man-made climate change or the fact that condoms save lives—makes sense even without having to absorb elements of an anti-thesis?

Another objection might be that there is never just one middle ground. Take a hot issue like the labor disputes in Hacienda Luisita—an issue our new president should decisively address. The “middle ground” between a) not distributing the land and b) giving the farmers the land and letting them fend for themselves could be c) the broken Stock Distribution Option (SDO)—a policy which has caused massive misery in the plantation. But the middle ground could equally be genuine agrarian reform, whereby the government not only buys the land for the farmers but also provides them with logistical support and training.

The center is a flimsy concept and a rhetorical tool used to avoid genuine and fruitful arguments. In the Philippines, our warped sense of what is reasonable prevents us from taking a firm stance against the root of many of our country’s ills: the trapo (traditional politician) system. Let me explain. What explains the appeal of our new president? I’ve heard fellow Noy supporters (and I count myself as one, however critical I am of some of his statements) claim that he is a “centrist.” But centrist relative to what? The extreme right represented by Gloria Arroyo and the Marcoses on the one hand and the extreme Left represented by the Communists on the other? This was probably a fair critique during the campaign as it exposed the ideological instability of the Villar camp, which had cobbled together a loose coalition between the two “extremes.”

What is striking about this triangulation, however, is that “centrist” politicians like Aquino, and to some extent the middle-class darling Gilbert Teodoro, are only in the center if one conceives of the right as super-corrupt politicians who have lost the trust of the people. In contrast to this, I propose a radical (and what’s wrong with being a radical when the center is a house of cards?) reconception of the right. The right is the trapo system as a whole. The trapo system is a system built and sustained by politicians who are elected because their families are entrenched in politics or because they have money to run massive campaigns or because they are close to media magnates. To say that a good trapo is a “centrist” doesn’t hold water because a good trapo is still a trapo.

This entire system has failed us. Even the best trapos with the best intentions and the purest of hearts have not resolved the vast inequities in our country. Cory Aquino was, by far, our best president, but her entrenchment in the trapo system – her connection with trapos like Peping Cojuangco – prevented her from doing anything to fundamentally alter a political structure that concentrates power and wealth in a select few. President Noy may have been the best candidate, but he suffers from these associations.

Despite this, I will continue to support to support our president. I believe Aquino will significantly reduce corruption. I believe Aquino will do his best to send the Arroyos to jail. But I support Aquino with full knowledge that he will not be the president who turns this country around. The people who will do this are still in the margins, but it is from these margins where genuine changes will take root. Risa Hontiveros, though likely to lose to an action star, will not give up her peaceful fight for women’s rights, agrarian reform, and the interests of the poor. Ric Reyes, who ran a valiant campaign in Pasig, may have been defeated by the Eusebio machinery, but he will never stop working for a Pasig that is free of drugs, crime, corruption, and inequality. His dream of Pasig Libre will stay alive. Candidates like Hontiveros and Reyes may not be in the “center,” but since this fictive center has failed us so many times, we must look beyond it.

In an “extreme” political system—one where mass murderers like the Amputuans get re-elected and alternative candidates like Grace Padaca get cheated, there is no point in looking for a center; there is only the quest for change. After all, in the immortal words of Howard Zinn, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

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