The origins of the elite belief that the poor are not so much deprived as depraved are difficult to trace. Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake,” uttered when she was told that the poor had no bread, has been correctly interpreted as cynical and uncaring, and typical of the corrupt monarchical class that within months was overthrown, and its members fed to the guillotine. But it also echoed what must have been, in feudal Europe, a common belief that the poor had a choice.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone can choose to sleep under bridges, clothe one’s self in rags, go to bed hungry at night, and watch the slow death of one’s children. But even in industrial England, the inequality of which the poet William Blake and later, the novelist Charles Dickens railed against, the belief was current that the poor were in that state because they were lazy, and even stupid and immoral.

Though the specifics were different, the same assumptions lay beneath Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s admonition that the poor must forego luxuries if they’re hungry. The alleged president of the Philippines was reacting to the most recent Social Weather Stations survey which found that hunger, at least once in the last five months, has afflicted 19 percent of all Filipinos.

Nineteen percent translates to 3.4 million households, and, assuming the membership of the average Filipino family to be six, to some 20 million souls. Among this number, and based on the law of averages, there must indeed be not a few people who’re poor because they’re indolent, who would rather drink several bottles of gin at the nearest corner store all day, smoke several packs of cigarettes, and even load up cheap or stolen cell phones rather than buy a kilo of rice and a few camote (sweet potato) stalks.

To this depravity we can grant others. Some also beat their wives, send their children out to beg so they can be kept in gin and cigarettes, and even rape their daughters. But surely not all, or even a majority, or a sizeable number of the 20 million, are as degenerate?

And yet Mrs. Arroyo assumed that that many Filipinos have gone hungry at least once in the last five months because they spend for non-essentials: “I ask our people to spend on the basics first before the luxuries so our children will have enough to eat.”

Elaborating on Mrs. Arroyo’s less than inspired answer to the SWS survey, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye declared that those who go hungry have no one else to blame–certainly not the Arroyo regime–except themselves.

Clearly assuming that the hungry are also stupid, Bunye declared, “If you cannot give your children milk or proper food, then you should start cutting down on other expenses…cut down on cigarettes and alcoholic drinks…cut down on unnecessary expenditures including text messaging.”

Apparently “we have to educate our people on the proper way of utilizing meager resources,” including cutting down on text messaging via the cell phones poor folk don’t have. Unfortunately, no amount of belt-tightening and spending on only the basics can prevail over the fact that the legislated minimum wage of P350 per day in metro-Manila, where hunger increased by three percentage points from November 2006 to February 2007, is only half the daily cost of living for a family of six, said Ibon data bank.

“What’s more,’ Ibon continued, the government’s own Family Income and Expenditure Statistics states that “Filipinos spend only an average of 0.7 percent for alcohol and 1.1 percent for cigarettes, compared to 43 percent for food.” Ibon’s own survey found that 67 percent of households–or over 10 million families–have difficulty buying food, let alone cell phones and cell phone loads.

The regime can hardly care about statistics, however–not when the statistics paint a picture of reality as grim as the human rights situation. It in fact prefers to say the exact opposite of the reality on the ground, based on the assumption that you can fool all the people all of the time; you only need the right press release.

Mrs. Arroyo thus declared with a straight face, in a speech delivered in her home province of Pampanga, that her regime is not only “making democracy work,” but even “expanding democratic space.” At the Philippine Military Academy graduation rites, Mrs. Arroyo also described the graduates of that institution as providing the people “equal protection and freedom from fear.”

Strange words those from someone who has practically scuttled the equal protection clause of the Constitution by allowing the persecution and even assassination of activists, journalists and her political enemies, and who has let loose among both the rural and urban poor a reign of terror unprecedented since martial law.

Mrs. Arroyo in fact went on to say in the same PMA ceremonies that the two major components of human security are freedom from want and freedom from fear, and that assuring those freedoms is her “formula for enduring peace.”

At about the same time that she was speaking to the new officers of the Armed Forces, the old ones were busy leading military patrols in the rural areas, stopping, searching, threatening and harassing anyone they pleased, while their colleagues in the slum areas of Manila were taking up residence in barangay halls and health centers, and urging people not to vote for left-wing party list groups, or else. SWS announced the results of its hunger incidence survey the very next day after Mrs. Arroyo’s PMA speech. And they call the poor depraved.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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